First-ever minority NBA player, a Utah native, says it wasn't 'a big thing' in the '40s

J. Sanchez, Sep. 10, 2008
The Salt Lake Tribune

Wataru "Wat" Misaka, the first non-Anglo player in what is now the NBA, is unknown to most Utahns and even some sports-trivia buffs.

A Utah native, Misaka in the 1940s helped lead the University of Utah men's basketball team to its only two national championships. In 1947, he was the first-round draft pick by the New York Knicks, but only played a few games before returning home. Misaka has not been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He's not even mentioned in the hall of fame's tribute to diversity in basketball. "It wasn't a big thing. I was a nobody, not good enough to make the team," Misaka said. "Maybe nobody knew that there was any history being made?"

But, a pair of filmmakers thought the latter when they learned of Misaka two years ago. "Transcending," a documentary about Misaka's mark in history, will premier today at the Salt Lake City Main Library before it goes on the road in northern California this weekend. Misaka, who is 84 and lives in Bountiful, is planning to attend the Salt Lake City event along with relatives and documentary co-directors, Christine Toy Johnson and her husband, Bruce Alan Johnson.A story to tell: The Johnsons first heard about Misaka when they asked about an old photo of him in a U. basketball uniform that hung in the offices of a Japanese organization in California. The couple, who live in New York, were surprised that they had never heard of Misaka -- a Japanese basketball player making sports history during World War II when other Japanese were being forced into U.S. internment camps.

"Sports transcend politics, but you can't deny the challenges one must overcome," said Christine Johnson, a Chinese-American. "There's no denying that that time period was very charged with racial overtones and complications for people who might have not been in the majority." The couple later applied for and received a grant from the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program to make the Misaka documentary. They interviewed some 20 people, from former team players to relatives to historians.

"We were really intrigued by his story," said Christine Johnson in a phone interview Monday. "There are so few Asian-American stories out there."A legend is born: Misaka's father moved to the United States in 1902 because he hated working on his family's farm. He later returned to Japan to marry Misaka's mother, and the couple, in 1922, moved to 25th Street -- the "toughest street on the west side" of Ogden.

Misaka's dad ran a barbershop out of the front of the family's home. On Sundays, he and other Japanese couldn't play on the local Anglo baseball teams, so they started a Japanese league. In junior high, Misaka started playing basketball, baseball and track. He doesn't remember his parents saying much about it. "As long as I did my chores and stayed out of trouble and did my homework, it was OK," Misaka said. "My parents insisted we get a good education."

Misaka's dad died in 1939. His mom then learned how to cut hair, run the shop and provide for her four young kids. Misaka, then 15 and the eldest, washed laundry, ironed, cooked and worked on a relative's farm to help his mother. "We didn't have a lot of luxuries, but we never missed a meal," he said.

After being a star Ogden High School basketball player, Misaka headed off to play two years at a local community college. He started at the University of Utah in fall 1943. Misaka, a 5 foot 7 inch point guard, was often the only person of color on the basketball court, but he said he "kinda didn't notice."

"I was the only one not white, but I couldn't see myself," he said. And when he heard racial slurs coming from the stands, Misaka said he took it as if they just didn't like him because he was on the opposing team. "I chose not to listen to it," he said.

Misaka helped lead the Utes to win the 1944 NCAA Tournament -- the university's first national championship title. When he returned from the championship game in New York City, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He served a two-year tour in Japan, interviewing Japanese civilians about the effects of the U.S. bombings.

Misaka returned to Utah, playing with the Utes to win a second national championship title, the 1947 National Invitation Tournament.Not a "big thing": After he was drafted by the Knicks in 1947, Misaka dropped out of the U. to move to New York City. He was the first ethnic minority player in the NBA, but there were no news conferences or interviews with journalists. "It wasn't a big thing," he said. "Nobody cared." He played in three of the season's first five games, scoring seven points, and was then cut from the team. "I was surprised," he said. "It was a disappointment." Back then, Misaka said, pro basketball players didn't make million-dollar salaries, so he wasn't missing out on much.

Misaka returned to Utah to complete his mechanical engineering degree. He married his wife, Katie, in 1952, and the couple have two grown children and three grandkids. After playing on a local Japanese basketball league in 1947 when he returned from New York, he traded in his love for basketball for bowling. He's been bowling at least twice a week since then. Misaka, who retired as an engineer in 1981, later picked up golf, too. "It's getting harder," he said of bowling. "That ball is getting heavier every time."

When asked about the documentary, Misaka said he was flattered about he idea but thinks the lives of Japanese-American war heroes should have been documented instead. "My story is puny," he said.