Former Utah player broke basketball ethnic barrier
By DOUG ALDEN, AP Sports Writer Sep 12, 3:14 am EDT
SALT LAKE CITY (AP)—Wat Misaka stood out for much more than being the shortest guy on the court when he played basketball for the University of Utah and briefly with the New York Knicks.
The son of Japanese immigrants, Misaka played in an era when almost everybody else playing the game was white and America was at the height of the anti-Japanese sentiment of World War II.
Misaka’s career is the subject of a new documentary titled “Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story,” which puts his playing career in context with the times and the tensions that anyone with Japanese ancestry faced in the 1940s.
Although he’s always happy to talk about basketball and remember his playing days, the idea of being a racial pioneer in professional sports is a little much.
“This was kind of a surprise—that they’d be interested in doing something on an old has-been,” Misaka said with a modest laugh.
The film premiered to a packed auditorium in Salt Lake City on Wednesday night.
Misaka, 84, hardly has the look of a former basketball star. The black hair that was sharply slicked back in photos from his playing days turned white long ago. He moves slowly and deliberately with no hint of the quickness that made the 5-foot-7 guard a notorious defensive pest with a knack for getting the ball up the court.
No matter how much he smiles and shrugs off the notion, Misaka made history 61 years ago, when he broke an ethnic barrier in the Basketball Association of America. A precursor to the NBA, the league was all-white when the Knicks took Misaka in the first round of the 1947 draft and was still three years away from the debut of the first black players.
As far as Misaka was concerned, he just looked a little different. Having grown up in Utah, he was quite used to that and said he never thought of it as a racial milestone.
“It was not a big thing. They didn’t make much of it,” he said.
It was the same year Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, which Misaka himself says was a larger event in history than the two weeks he spent with the Knicks.
Misaka played in three games for New York, scoring a total of seven points, before getting cut early in the 1947-48 season.
Misaka is asked occasionally to recount his playing career, which he said was highlighted much more by Utah’s NCAA championship in 1944 and NIT title three years later than his short time with the Knicks.
But he was surprised when he was contacted two years ago by Christine Toy Johnson and her husband, Bruce, who said they wanted to do the documentary.
“It’s just not in his nature to really talk about it, but to a lot of people it’s a barrier he broke and we really recognized the importance of that,” Christine Toy Johnson said. “He’s just a humble guy, so he does shy away from attention a lot, and yet I think he is also happy that people are recognizing his accomplishment.”
Former college teammates in the film recounted how Misaka never got rattled by racial taunts and marveled at how he ignored the endless variations of “Jap” that he heard whenever the team hit the road.
Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast were forced into internment camps, including one in Utah’s western desert. Misaka said he felt fortunate to be from Utah and not sent to a camp, but also sympathized with the families who were kept there.
Misaka served two years in the Army, getting his draft notice when he returned from the 1944 NCAA championship, and was sent to Japan after the war ended. He looked Japanese, but was an American. He sensed that fellow U.S. soldiers were wary of him because of his ethnicity and the Japanese wouldn’t trust anyone in an American uniform.
He returned to college, helping Utah upset Kentucky in the 1947 NIT championship when it was a bigger deal than the NCAA tournament. The game was played in Madison Square Garden, which would be Misaka’s home during his short-lived career with the Knicks.
Misaka’s fame quickly faded after he returned to Utah and started a career in engineering, but an old picture from his college days caught the Johnsons’ attention. When the couple started researching his basketball career, they were surprised at how little had been noted about what Misaka did and the significance of when he did it.
Two years later, their documentary is complete and will be shown next week in San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles. Bruce Johnson said they hope to get it on the film festival circuit and possibly get a cable network to pick it up.
“That would be our ultimate dream—to get to a larger audience that could learn about this story,” he said.
Updated Sep 12, 3:14 am EDT
Re: Nice story on 1st player to break NBA color barrier
a bit more:
It was 1947 and both were pioneers in integrating professional sports. While Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, Misaka did the same in basketball with much less fanfare. More than half a century before the Dallas Mavericks drafted China's Wang Zhizhi in 1999, the New York Knicks drafted Misaka, the first NBA player of Asian descent, in the first round.
Misaka, a 5-7 guard, appeared in three games and scored seven points for the 1947-48 Knicks before he was cut for reasons never made clear to him. But he recalls his brief stint in the NBA as a pleasant one.
Despite his stint with the New York Knicks, "Wat" Misaka is a die hard Utah Jazz fan today.
Jorge Ribeiro/HOOP Japan
"We had training camp in Bear Mountain and Carl Braun was my roommate," said Misaka, 77. "Even after we returned to New York we remained very friendly and he had me out to his place out on Long Island a couple of times."
A Japanese-American, Misaka was born in Ogden, Utah, and, except for his time with the Knicks and a stint in the military, has lived in the area his whole life. After playing for Weber Junior College (now Weber State University) in Ogden, he helped guide the University of Utah to the 1944 NCAA and 1947 NIT championships and was inducted into the Utah Sports hall of Fame in 1999. Two years before, he was inducted into the Japanese-American National Bowling Hall of Fame.
Despite the specter of World War II still fresh when he broke into the NBA, Misaka experienced little intolerance while with the Knicks.
"Whether real or not, I felt less prejudice against me in New York than I did anywhere else," said Misaka. "Playing for Utah (at Madison Square Garden), New Yorkers are great fans of underdogs and they really backed us up, even against St. John's. When I went back as a Knick, there were people who remembered me from playing for Utah and would say hello on the streets, sometimes."
A Utah Jazz (who else?) fan, Misaka has followed Wang's progress with great interest. And while Misaka is rooting for the 7-1 center to be a forerunner of an influx of Asian basketball talent, Misaka is unsure whether he will feel any kinship other than one of basketball when he finally sees Wang play.
"It's kind of strange," said Misaka, who turned down an offer to play for the Harlem Globetrotters so that he could return to school to earn a degree in engineering. "My parents were Japanese. But in my entire career, I played with whites, so I just feel like I'm just like the rest. The way it was and the way they treated me, I was just another basketball player.