When Wataru “Wat” Misaka passed away on Nov. 20, he left an indelible legacy on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. He showed what was possible for someone who looked like he did on the basketball court. And to his eternal credit, he reached the highest level.
Misaka was a hero and a role model to generations of basketball players, many of whom had never heard of him until he was in his 80s (more on that below).
And so, this much is certain: Wherever and whenever a Japanese or Japanese-American plays basketball, it’s a fitting tribute to Misaka, a humble man from Ogden, Utah, who made history on the court.
Misaka helped blaze a trail for them as a young man. A determined, speedy guard, he competed at a high level in college, helping the University of Utah win a pair of national titles during and after World War II (the NCAA crown in 1944 and the NIT title ’47).
Furthermore, in the 1947-48 season, the 170-cm Misaka appeared in three games for the New York Knicks, a franchise in the Basketball Association of America before it merged with the National Basketball League to create the renamed NBA in 1949. (BAA’s stats dating back to 1946 are considered a part of the NBA record books.)
To this day, Misaka is officially recognized as the first non-Caucasian player in NBA history, and many media accounts refer to him as the first in pro basketball. Historical references don’t often mention that the NBL’s Chicago Studebakers and Toledo Jim White Chevrolets signed several black players in 1942, and that the New York Rens, a team comprised mostly of black players, competed in the NBL as the Dayton Rens during the final season before the merger.
At any rate, Misaka never needed to lecture anyone about his place in history. He was a hero to countless Asians and Asian-Americans. Nobody can erase the facts. All you have to do is look it up. He was there in the NBA’s infancy and proved that he had the ability to compete, by getting a shot with the Knicks.
Misaka, who died at age 95 in Utah, earned admiration for his humility and kindness — and don’t forget his courage.
In March, Misaka met Washington Wizards rookie Rui Hachimura, the first Japanese selected in the first round of the NBA Draft, while he was still at Gonzaga University. Months later, Misaka noted that Hachimura and second-year pro Yuta Watanabe of the Memphis Grizzlies and their NBA G League affiliate (Memphis Hustle) are setting a new standard for Japanese players.
Japan Basketball Association technical director Tomoya “Coach Crusher” Higashino believes that Misaka’s heroism still resonates.
“Mr. Misaka created respect among the basketball community for his accomplishments,” Higashino told Hoop Scoop on Tuesday. “He was a pioneer and created an opportunity for future Japanese basketball players. We currently have players, who were born in Japan, playing in the high school and collegiate level (in the United States) and two players playing in the NBA. Mr. Misaka’s character, ambition and hard work helped pave the way for the players today.
“I would say that he gave us a lot of courage and confidence to whoever comes to the (United) States. He was a huge influence for our Japan basketball to have a big dream. We all thank him and are so disappointed about his loss. We keep continuing to put our efforts to strive (toward) our Japan basketball’s bright future.”
Meeting a hero
Retired point guard Darin Satoshi Maki, who played in the now-defunct bj-league from 2005 to 2012, recognizes Misaka’s story as a touchstone in his own life.
“As a Japanese-American kid growing up, basketball careers basically ended when you graduated from high school,” Maki said in an interview. “When I first learned about him, my whole mindset flipped and I thought that I too could play professionally. He was that glimmer of hope for all of us that anything is possible.
“I have the utmost respect for what he went through and had to overcome during a real dark time for Japanese-Americans. He never caved in, never complained, just outworked everybody.”
In the summer of 2018, Maki met Misaka at an event in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, which he described as a “surreal experience.”
“I was star-struck and felt so honored to shake his hand and have a few words,” Maki says now. “He said he wanted to represent his people and set a good example and told me to do the same. I’m always going to remember that and pass it on to the next generation of Japanese-American hoopers.”
Last year, Misaka’s modesty was on display when he was asked to reflect on being a pro basketball pioneer.
“It was just luck that I happened to be the first one, not because I was anything special,” Misaka told Hoop Scoop. “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.”
In 2009, decades after Misaka’s stint with the Knicks appeared as a footnote in hoop history, after he become an electrical engineer, raised a family and retired, his story was resurrected. The award-winning documentary “Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story,” made by a married couple, Bruce Alan Johnson and Christine Toy Johnson, told Misaka’s story, looking back on his formative years in Ogden, as a collegiate player, U.S. Army sergeant and interpreter who spent time in Hiroshima after the atomic bombs were dropped, NBA pioneer and hero to Japanese-Americans.
“In making this documentary about Wat and his incredible story, we have seen lives impacted and dreams affirmed,” the Johnsons wrote in a statement posted on the film’s website. “People across the country, from ages nine to 90, have moved us with their tales of inspiration from hearing how Wat Misaka triumphed over adversity. At a time when racism against Japanese-Americans was at its all time high, Wat became not only the first draft pick ever for the New York Knicks, but the first collegiate draft pick in professional basketball history.”
Held in high esteem
Christine Toy Johnson wrote a moving tribute to Misaka after he died.
“We’re heartbroken to report that our friend & hero Wat Misaka passed away last night,” she wrote on Twitter. “Our lives have been changed by this tenacious, barrier-breaking, forever modest & wonderful man.”
In recent days, numerous tributes to Misaka have appeared on social media and in heartfelt comments from readers at the end of Misaka’s obituary on various websites.
Ann Burroughs, the president of the Japanese American National Museum, issued a thoughtful statement after Misaka’s passing.
“The son of Japanese immigrants, Wat showed that given a fair opportunity, he could reach the highest levels of his sport through hard work, unselfishness, and shrewd play,” Burroughs said.
“Yet he was always modest and self-effacing. Today with thousands of Japanese Americans playing organized community basketball, he is a role model for the greater Nikkei community. JANM recognized Wat Misaka at our annual Gala Dinner in 2014. His lasting legacy will be as an American sports pioneer, a legacy that we at the Japanese American National Museum will maintain and share.”
As part of his legacy, the basketball court at Liberty Park in Ogden was renamed “Kilowatt Court” in honor of Misaka in August 2018, celebrating his nickname from his playing days.
What’s more, The Salt Lake Tribune published a commentary piece in its opinion section last week advocating for the University of Utah to retire Misaka’s No. 21 basketball jersey.
Others came to know the larger story about Misaka as it connected to his upbringing in Ogden, his athletic achievements in high school and as a basketball player at Weber College and the University of Utah from an in-depth article, “Utah The First Cinderella” written by longtime Sports Illustrated staff writer Alexander Wolff and contributor Michael Atchison. The feature, which was more than 5,000 words, appeared in the magazine’s March 22, 2010, issue.
Atchison came across details of the 1943-44 Utah team, which had two Japanese-American players (Masateru Tatsuno was the other) while doing research for a 2006 book on the history of the University of Missouri basketball team’s first 100 seasons. This included details on Missouri’s game against Utah in the 1944 NCAA Tournament. He pitched a story idea to SI, and got the green light to work with Wolff on it.
“When I first became interested in his story more than 10 years ago, I encountered no one outside the Utah basketball community who knew about him, and that was reinforced this week in response to my posts on Twitter,” Atchison, who wrote “True Sons: A Century of Missouri Tigers Basketball,” told Hoop Scoop a few days after Misaka died.
“Whenever people learn his story, they find it fascinating, but almost no one knows it. I’d be surprised if more than one-tenth of one percent of current NBA fans know his name. Even among those who do, what’s hard to fully fathom is the context in which he broke the color barrier. He didn’t just have to deal with racism; he was also subjected to an ugly, twisted nationalism. Wat was born a citizen. He was as American as any person has ever been. But people like him were locked in (internment) camps up and down the West Coast just a couple of years earlier because of who their ancestors were. It’s hard to fathom the burden he carried. He downplayed it during his life, but it must have been terrifying.
“Wat represents many things to me. First off, he is the embodiment of the mythic notion of the American dream. His parents were immigrants, and he became wildly successful thanks to a combination of talent and dedication. There were obstacles, for sure, but he overcame them.
“I have always been moved by his kindness, his humility and his thoughtfulness. But more than anything, I think I was impressed by the power of his forgiveness. There were times that he was treated terribly by opposing fans on the basketball court, and he and fellow Japanese-Americans faced grotesque indignities at the hands of the U.S. government. But Wat, seemingly at least, never harbored bitterness. He forgave those transgressions. And it allowed him to live a happier, more fulfilled life.
“If we truly judge a man by ‘the content of his character’ as Dr. (Martin Luther) King (Jr.) advocated, Wat Misaka would stand at the very top.”
Wolff and Atchison collaborated on the project for several weeks, and in the end they crafted a memorable article on friendship between Ogden natives Misaka and Arnie Ferrin Jr., his Utah teammate and lifelong friend, and World War II era life.
“We achieved things that a lot of people never will,” Ferrin was quoted as saying by The Salt Lake Tribune in Misaka’s obituary. “He made us a better team and made me a better person. I can’t say I had anybody I enjoyed being around more than Wat.”
In an interview with Hoop Scoop, Wolff admitted that “getting to tell his story was one of the great privileges during my time at the magazine.”
Wolff continued: “He was quiet and modest, a man very much still with his wits about him. And well aware of the pioneering path he had walked. I remember vividly when he recalled for me his time with the Knicks, who let him go after only a brief stretch. He didn’t want to play the role of victim, but the pain of being cut clearly remained — and he never got a satisfactory explanation from management, which left him still feeling that prejudice had played a role.
“. . .I thought I knew my basketball history, yet almost everything about Wat’s story was a revelation to me.”
Wolff went on: “That he lived a long life, and there was a chance for a documentary film to be made late in that life, surely helped spread awareness of the trail he blazed. Even so, I’ll bet very few people today would recognize his name.
“From working on that story with Michael Atchison, I’ll remember more than anything the astonishing ways Wat’s own path intersected with Japanese-American history.”
In honor of Wat Misaka’s life and legacy, I offer the following suggestions to the JBA and relevant stakeholders: Organize an annual Wat Misaka Memorial Tournament in Japan, with proceeds going to cover expenses for Japanese students to participate in summer basketball camps in the United States.
It would be a fitting tribute that can carry on his legacy for generations to come.