Basketball / NBA

Hoop pioneer Wat Misaka reflects on breaking barriers in an incredible life

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

Wataru “Wat” Misaka never demanded the spotlight nor shouted from the roof tops seeking attention.

But the reserved, humble man gained a measure of fame late in life when a documentary, “Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story,” was released in 2008. As a result, younger generations were introduced to his story, while older folks, many who never heard about him, were also thoroughly informed about Misaka’s place in history.

A successful college basketball player, Misaka’s pro career took place in the 1940s, the latter occurring before the NBA even existed.

A nisei (or second-generation Japanese immigrant), he became the first non-white player in the Basketball Association of America in 1947. The BAA was one of the NBA’s two forerunners along with the National Basketball League before the new league was established in ’49.

Misaka, selected by the New York Knicks in the 1947 draft, had a nondescript pro career (three games for the Knicks before he was cut) and essentially disappeared from the national spotlight. He lived his life, raised his family and worked as an electrical engineer.

Then the documentary was made. Misaka made numerous public appearances around that time, including to Madison Square Garden (home of the Knicks), and was introduced as an NBA legend at the 2009 All-Star Game. In recent years, his photo has been on display at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

And just last week, Misaka congregated with basketball royalty in Salt Lake City, near his home in Bountiful, Utah. On Dec. 20, a day before his 95th birthday, Misaka was a guest of the Golden State Warriors during their pre-game shootaround at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Misaka, with a twinkle in his eye, watched the two-time defending NBA champions prepare for their duel with the Utah Jazz. The Warriors posted a short video on Twitter that showed Misaka meeting Warriors coach Steve Kerr and star guard Stephen Curry, among others.

Misaka was a 170-cm guard in his younger days — “a notorious defensive pest with a knack for getting the ball up the court,” Doug Alden of The Associated Press wrote in 2008 — and recognized greatness when he watched Curry. “It looks like he knows what he’s doing and what he’s trying to do,” Misaka said on camera. “He’s confident that he can pull it off. It’s just great to watch him play.”

He added: “I just can’t imagine a guy with that much touch. He’s really something.”

The Japan Times recently caught up with Misaka, who was born in Ogden, Utah, for a wide-ranging interview about his modest upbringing, basketball playing days, service in the U.S. Army during and after World War II, life in 2018, etc.

An avid bowler (he rolled a 299 at age 80) and golfer throughout his adult life, Misaka now enjoys watching sports on TV.

“I have had some health issues in the last few years,” Misaka acknowledged, “but have mostly recovered from them and am doing OK.”

Japanese-American hero

Misaka is a revered figure in Japanese-American circles. In June, he was Terasaki Budokan’s guest of honor in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. In August, Liberty Park in his hometown was rechristened “Kilowatt Court,” a nod to his nickname as a speedy player at Ogden High School (state and regional titles), Weber College (Intermountain Collegiate Athletic Conference crowns in 1942 and ’43 ) and the University of Utah (1944 NCAA championship, 1947 NIT title).

In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke during a ceremony to mark the formation of the President’s Advisory Commission and White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders. Obama said, “Now, when we talk about America’s AAPI communities, we’re talking about the industry and entrepreneurship of people who’ve helped build this nation for centuries: from the early days, as laborers on our railroads and farmers tilling our land, to today, as leaders in every sector of American life, from business to science to academia, law and more. . . . And we’re talking about the competitive spirit of athletes like Wat Misaka.”

Because they resided in Utah, Misaka’s family was not sent to an interment camp during World War II. More than 110,000 people of Japanese heritage in California, Oregon and Washington were ordered to go, though, including to a camp in Utah (the Topaz War Relocation Center), which Misaka visited to see Utes teammate Masateru Tatsuno’s family; the Tatsunos were required to leave their home in San Francisco).

Misaka focused on school and athletics.

Decades later, he discussed his role as a basketball pioneer with modesty.

“It was just luck that I happened to be the first one, not because I was anything special,” said Misaka, whose father, Fusaichi, immigrated to the United States at age 19 in 1902 and eventually opened Western Barbershop on Ogden’s 25th Street in a seedy section of the city teeming with brothels. “I didn’t think about being the first non-white player. My motivation was a desire to be good, doing the things you enjoy doing, getting good at things your friends would like to be good at themselves. Always feeling of wanting to be not just a plain old Japanese immigrant son. I wanted something better than that.

“It was never about money. I was never that good to make more than anybody else. I wanted to be good, even if I was Japanese. It made you feel good if you’re good. I never had any idea that I wanted to be the first Japanese player to win an NIT trophy or anything like that.”

Misaka also expressed gratitude to filmmakers Bruce Alan Johnson and his wife Christine Toy Johnson for telling his story in their documentary.

“Chris and Bruce put so much work into making the film,” he pointed out. “Because I consider myself just lucky to have been there, it’s hard to think of myself as inspirational. But as a result of the movie, I have received comments and letters from people who say they were encouraged to play or would like an autograph.”

College success

On March 28, 1944, the Utes, seven-point underdogs, defeated Dartmouth 42-40 in overtime for the NCAA title at MSG, completing a 22-4 season. Misaka had four points in the title-winning game.

At a time of athlete shortages across the land due to the ongoing war, Utah had competed in the then-more prestigious postseason NIT, falling to Kentucky 46-38 in the first round on March 21 at the Garden.

But their season wasn’t done. The Utes accepted a chance to play in the eight-team NCAA Tournament as a replacement for Arkansas, which was on the road for a pre-tourney scrimmage and withdrew after faculty adviser Eugene Norris and two players were struck by another car while they repaired a flat tire. Norris was killed.

The Utes’ decision was finalized at 2:30 a.m., according to a March 2010 Sports Illustrated article (“Utah The First Cinderella,”) that detailed the friendship of teammates Arnie Ferrin and Misaka. At that unusual hour, Utes coach Vadal Peterson gathered his bleary-eyed players and presented them with two options: 1. Remain in the Big Apple to see the sights before returning to Utah; or 2. Take a train to Kansas City, Missouri, that same morning and attempt to win a journey back to NYC for the NCAA final.

Victories over Missouri (45-35; Misaka scored five points) and Iowa State (40-31; he had nine points) sent the Utes back to Gotham for their showdown with Dartmouth. A charity game against NIT champion St. John’s followed two days later, and Misaka’s squad triumphed 43-36. SI’s Alexander Wolff later reported that “the Utes had won over New Yorkers during the two previous weeks with their fluid, hustling. Misaka in particular, ‘was so well received in New York,’ Ferrin said, adding, ‘. . . people responded to how hard he played.”

Those Utes were affectionately known as “The Blitz Kids.”

And Misaka never forgot the Missouri game. He fouled out.

“My bitterest memory in 1944 was playing Missouri in Kansas City,” he stated. “The officials hated the Japanese. I got called for four fouls and I didn’t commit any of them.”

Overall, Misaka looked back on the Utes’ success in his two seasons on coach Vadal Peterson’s team, which were interrupted by military service, and pointed to discipline as essential to success.

“Vadal was all about conditioning,” said Misaka, a member of the Utah Sports Hall of Fame and Weber State Athletics Hall of Fame. “He wasn’t too strong on strategy, but he just ran the opposition into the ground. He didn’t often concentrate on any one player. He wanted to wear all 10 out. He nearly always played ‘pick up the closest opponent and cover him like a blanket.’ ”

In Utah’s 1947 NIT title-clinching, 49-45 victory the future engineer came off the bench and was instrumental in shutting down Kentucky’s Ralph Beard, a future three-time All-American guard. Beard finished with one point, and “the crowd booed when Misaka wasn’t named MVP,” Wolff wrote. (Beard went on to help the Adolph Rupp-coached Wildcats win NCAA titles in 1948 and ’49.)

Indeed, that feat pleased Misaka. Still does.

“Well, Ralph Beard was voted the outstanding player the last two years he played,” Misaka said recently. “I don’t really consider him a superstar since he only scored one point in the final game. We were not assigned a player to guard. We were just supposed to pick up the closest man. Ralph was the shortest guy (178 cm) on the other team, so it wasn’t as hard for me to compete against the height advantage that I always had to contend with.”

And who was Misaka’s most talented collegiate teammate?

“Without a doubt, it was Arnie from a lot of standpoints,” he said of Ferrin, now 93, who won a pair of titles with the Minneapolis Lakers. “He was the best shot, the smartest with the basketball, and had the most successful professional career of all of us.”

Military experience

Days after the Utes defeated Dartmouth, they returned home and a victory parade was held in Salt Lake City. On the same day as the parade, his mother, Tatsuyo, handed him a letter that informed him he’d become a U.S. Army draftee. He was assigned to the intelligence service division.

In June 1944, he was sent for processing at nearby Fort Douglas, then went to military language school in Minnesota and six weeks of infantry training at Fort McLellan in Alabama.

Misaka went to work as an interpreter in East Asia after the U.S. military dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“We left San Diego in August, the day before Japan signed the surrender,” Misaka recalled. “It took three weeks to go to Manila. We went from Manila during a tropical storm and landed in Tokyo. I didn’t have anything to do until October.

“I was assigned to the U.S. Bombing Survey, which covered all of Japan and was run by the Navy. We stayed in Hiroshima for a week to 10 days and then went to Yamaguchi, next to Hiroshima, for a week and then to Atami . . . for about a week.

“(In Yamaguchi), the city threw a party for us when the week was over. Part of the program was a musical presentation by the No. 3 koto player in Japan. She played some classical piece from Mozart. Most of the hakujin (white) truck drivers and support staff and really everyone was flabbergasted at the music that came out of that koto. It sounded like a symphony orchestra. She played two or three pieces. It was not like we’d heard before, ‘plink, plink.’ It was an eye opener for (us) the interpreters. I’d never heard anything like that from a koto before or since.”

Misaka, who traces his family roots to Hiroshima, has had mixed success tracking down his relatives.

“We’ve made some contact, but not much correspondence with my mother’s family,” he stated. “As far as we could find out, there wasn’t anyone traceable in my father’s family. He had an unfortunate boyhood. He lost his parents early in life. We never communicated with them. In more recent years, we have had some visits from relatives from my mother’s side of the family and found them to be pleasant and interesting people.”

Misaka revealed that he would like to travel to Japan again. He hasn’t been back since 1946.

“It’s too bad that my wife’s ancestral home has been remodeled,” he said. “I would have liked to see it in its original form with the thick thatched roof, enclosed walkway all the way around the house and the old gate. We just have pictures.”

Asked if the military experience changed him in a profound way, Misaka gave a thoughtful response. “Yes, of course it changed my outlook,” he offered. “Things happened that I didn’t think would ever happen.

“Politically, I was quite disappointed in the way the government handled the situation with civilians. I think it broadened my knowledge and political opinions, which in the end was good for me to learn without hurting my relationships with others.”

KUED, Utah’s PBS station, produced a documentary series called “Utah World War II Stories.” Misaka was among the interviewees for the oral history project.

In one segment, he explained his work in Japan: “The objective for my team was to find out what the effect of the strategic bombing had on the morale of the people, and I think that there were two or three other objectives that the Navy had as far as the bombing was concerned, but that’s all I knew about it. My team had, I think, half a dozen interrogators, and a number of Jeep and truck drivers and other personnel to take care of our lodging and our food and all that while we were on this. It was about a three-week trip for us to take our team and interrogate the people on the strategic bombing effects.”

Time with the Knicks

Though his stint with the Knicks was a short time in his long life, Misaka still recalls precise details of being on coach Joe Lapchick’s squad. He doesn’t come across as bitter, either. He simply revisits the stories that he experienced.

“The Knicks had three starting guards already when I joined the team, so there was a certain amount of animosity as players were competing for their positions,” Misaka said. “I had been signed by Ned Irish, the Madison Square Garden VP, unbeknownst to the team manager. One time we had a practice game and my opposing player was left-handed. I asked my teammates what they could tell me to help guard this forward.

“They said I would have to watch, that his favorite move was to fake left and go right that he was a fast forward, a high scorer and that I would need to overplay him on the right. I was a greenhorn from the sticks. Later in the game I remember thinking, ‘I’m gonna stop this guy.’

“I came with a reputation of being a quick guard and good at guarding fast forwards. I was overplaying on the right. He faked right, went left and scored easily. I didn’t realize what had happened. I didn’t think they would double cross me. It looked like I was standing still with my shoelaces tied together and only saw his back end. The coach didn’t know and just thought I was incapable of stopping him.”

He continued: “During my time with the Knicks, I roomed with a teammate, Carl Braun. I remember staying with his family out on Long Island. He played for the Knicks and became team captain. He shot overheads with his thumbs crossed. He was really a nice guy. One time he came with Wilt Chamberlain to the (NBA) All-Star Game in (Utah) and I introduced my wife, Katie, to him. I talked to Wilt, but Katie was more interested in meeting Carl.”

After being cut by the Knicks, Misaka was offered a job with the Harlem Globetrotters but declined. Instead, he went back to the University of Utah and graduated with an engineering degree. “The salary for a rookie and the salary for starting engineer weren’t much different,” Misaka once said.

Additional viewpoints

In this era of global basketball, Misaka believes rookie Yuta Watanabe, who’s splitting his time between the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies and NBA G. League’s Memphis Hustle, and Gonzaga University star Rui Hachimura are inspiring their compatriots as positive role models.

“Those players have a positive effect on how they influence up-and-coming Japanese players,” Misaka noted. “Since they seem to be growing taller, more players are coming over to the U.S. They seem to enjoy the experience. The effect of size is the single most important characteristic and I don’t think it is going to change much.”

Misaka said he enjoyed watching the 2018 NBA Finals and commending the Warriors for their style of play.

“Yes, they play more like I think pro basketball should be,” he declared. “The pro game was getting too rough and resulting in a lot of serious injuries. I quit watching the pros for a long time. Just in the last year, the game has changed to be more like basketball instead of football.”

He’s also thoroughly impressed with LeBron James’ all-around game. He considers LeBron the greatest player he’s ever seen.

Why?

“Because he has demonstrated greater versatility in his skills and scoring,” Misaka commented. “As I mentioned before, this past year was the first time I’ve watched a whole NBA game for a long time because I couldn’t stand the roughness and injuries. It seems like this year the number of players who have had season or career-ending injuries is much less. I can’t even think of any. LeBron is plenty smart. He knocked some players down to teach them not to do that.”

Reflecting on the interment of people with Japanese heritage during World War II and monitoring the news surrounding the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border and housing children separately, Misaka sees some similarities and doesn’t consider what the Trump administration has done to be moral.

“From a humanitarian angle, it’s not right,” Misaka said of the Trump policy.

“Historically, I don’t know how to draw the comparison. Socially, I don’t know what it means. Japanese farmers had large families, which kept their labor costs low and the neighboring farmers couldn’t compete.

“I heard that there was a letter sent to President (Franklin D.) Roosevelt asking him to get the Japanese off the land. Eleanor (Roosevelt) read the letter and was against the internment, especially for citizens who didn’t have a record of doing anything illegal.”