Seven months after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in professional baseball, Wat Misaka came off the bench in Madison Square Garden, scoring two points for the New York Knicks in an 80-65 win over the Washington Capitols.
The son of Japanese immigrants, Misaka had become a fan favorite in college after helping lead the University of Utah to two unexpected titles at the Garden. And while his Nov. 13, 1947, debut with the Knicks made few headlines outside New York, it nonetheless marked another barrier-breaking moment in sports, as Misaka became the first nonwhite player in the modern history of professional basketball.
Standing just 5-foot-7, Misaka was a foot shorter than his team’s tallest player, center Lee Knorek, but had distinguished himself in college with his defensive prowess, up-tempo style and high-arcing hook shot, which quieted some of the racist taunts from crowds. Drafted by the Knicks, he was cut after three games but paved the way for the success of other nonwhite players, even as he played down his achievements and turned from basketball to engineering.
“I don’t think anyone, especially me, even compared [my being drafted] with what Robinson had done,” Misaka told NPR in 2012. “I never did think of myself as being a pioneer of any sort.”
Misaka was 95 when he died Nov. 21 at an assisted-living center in Salt Lake City. His son, Hank Misaka, confirmed the death but did not give a precise cause, saying his father died in his sleep.
For years, Misaka received scant recognition, despite making his professional debut three years before Earl Lloyd, the NBA’s first African American player. His achievement drew increasing attention after the rise of players such as Yao Ming, the Chinese center drafted first overall by the Houston Rockets in 2002; Jeremy Lin, the Taiwanese American point guard who generated “Linsanity” for the Knicks in 2012; and Rui Hachimura, who became the first Japanese first-round draft pick when the Washington Wizards selected him in June.
Misaka scored 7 points in his career with the Knicks, who were then part of the Basketball Association of America – a precursor to the NBA, which claims the BAA’s history as its own. But while his on-the-court contributions were limited as a pro, he played a key role in helping the Utah Redskins, as the Utes were then known, win the NCAA tournament in 1944.
Also known as the Whiz Kids, the Blitz Kids and the Live Five With the Jive Drive, that team became college basketball’s “first Cinderella,” Sports Illustrated later wrote, and beat Dartmouth in overtime, 42-40, to pull off “one of the biggest upsets in tournament history.”
Misaka and his teammates went on to defeat St. John’s, the champions of the (then more prestigious) National Invitation Tournament, in a charity game for the Red Cross. And after Misaka’s college career was put on hold for Army service during World War II, he returned to help Utah win the 1947 NIT championship over coach Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky squad, holding leading scorer Ralph Beard to 1 point.
“Little Wat Misaka, American-born of Japanese descent, was a ‘cute’ fellow intercepting passes and making the night miserable for Kentucky,” The New York Times reported after the game. Utah all-American Arnie Ferrin later praised Misaka for delivering perhaps “the best defensive performance in the history of the tournament.”
Both title games were held in New York City, where Misaka found himself in an unusual position, at the receiving end of applause and encouraging chants instead of jeers and racial epithets. He had been attending junior college when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and continued playing while about 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps during World War II.
“It was a real strange experience,” he later told NPR, “to be free – not without prejudice, but free – and playing the game I loved in my home state, while others were being treated like criminals.”
Raised in Ogden, Utah, 30 miles north of Salt Lake City, Misaka said he saw few signs of prejudice from opposing players and referees, aside from excessive foul calls in an NCAA tournament game. News reports sometimes described him as Hawaiian, which Misaka speculated was misinformation relayed by his head coach, Vadal Peterson, “to soften the blow” of his Japanese heritage. He also believed Peterson may have asked him to come off the bench for most games to avoid inflaming the crowd.
“In my entire career I played with whites, so I just feel like I’m just like the rest,” Misaka once said. “The way it was and the way they treated me – I was just another basketball player.”
Wataru Misaka was born Dec. 21, 1923, in Ogden, where his family lived outside the restricted military zone that would have forced it into an internment camp. His father was an orphaned farmer who left Japan in 1902, then briefly returned to marry Misaka’s mother; together, they ran a barbershop on “Two-Bit Street,” better known for its gambling halls and brothels, including one that operated just above their shop.
Misaka was 15 when his father died, leading him to work on a relative’s farm to help support the family. In addition to high school basketball, he played football and baseball and ran track, attending Weber College (now Weber State University) in his hometown before transferring to Utah for the 1943-44 basketball season.
His team lost to Kentucky in the first round of the NIT before making the NCAA tournament by chance, after the University of Arkansas’s team was involved in a car crash and officials went searching for a replacement squad.
Misaka’s championship celebration that year was brief. Returning from New York by train, he and his teammates were served wartime delicacies of steak and strawberries; his mother met him at the station platform, draft notice in hand. He sailed off toward Japan, where he served in Army intelligence and tracked down an uncle’s home, which had apparently been shielded from the blast by a hill.
“I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over the devastation,” Misaka later told The Times.
Misaka was drafted by the Knicks in 1947, the year after the team was founded, and recalled that he was allowed to take his size 7 Converse high-tops home after being cut by owner Ned Irish, presumably because no one else could wear them. He turned down an offer to play for the Harlem Globetrotters to become an engineer and, after receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1948, spent his career in Salt Lake City, working for the Sperry Corp. and retiring in 1981.
His wife, the former Katie Inoway, a teacher and fellow Utah graduate, died in 2017. Survivors include two children, Hank Misaka and Nancy Umemura; and three grandchildren.
Misaka was the subject of a 2010 documentary, “Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story,” and in 1997 was inducted into the Japanese American National Bowling Hall of Fame. The sport had replaced basketball for him and become an enduring passion: At age 80, he scored a near-perfect 299.
Still, aging took its toll. “It’s getting harder,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2008. “That ball is getting heavier every time.”