Rafu Shimpo
Thursday, April 02, 2009

'Transcending' the Game

Friday, February 20, 2009

Wat Misaka's attendance at the screening of a documentary about his basketball days makes for a priceless event.

Wat Misaka at mic
Photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo
Wat Misaka shares a laugh with an audience member Sunday, after a screening of "Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story." The documentary of his basketball career was shown at the Japan America Theatre in Little Tokyo.

Dave Yanai, a man who knows a thing or two about basketball, was well aware of the value of Sunday's event at the Japan America Theatre. "To have younger people see this story told and to have Mr. Misaka still alive and be able to answer questions, it's a wonderful thing," said Yanai. The legendary retired coach of Cal State Dominguez Hills was among a nearly full house at the JAT for a screening of "Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story," which chronicles the groundbreaking rise of a player to national prominence, and to becoming the first Asian American player in the National Basketball Association.

Christine Toy Johnson, who along with her husband, Bruce, produced and directed the film, which tells Misaka's story within the context of Japanese internment and a post-war anti-Japanese sentiment that was rampant throughout the country. "Unfortunately, I think that a large majority of Asian American stories take too long to come to the general public, and I'm not sure why," Toy Johnson said after Sunday's screening. "We feel very excited about having the opportunity to tell Wat's story and after all, better late than never." The film provides an intimate look, complete with a wealth of film footage from the 1947 National Invitational Tournament, which at the time was a bigger and more prestigious event than the NCAA championship. Misaka was a short but tenacious guard for the University of Utah, who shocked the heavily favored Kentucky team.

Misaka, now 84, took the stage to field questions from the large audience after the showing. Much had been made about his success in containing Kentucky's sensational All-American guard, Ralph Beard, to a single point in the championship game. Misaka gave the credit to his team. "If you look at the films, you can see that I wasn't on him a hundred percent of the time," Misaka said in a soft voice, his platinum hair gleaming under the stage lights. "And those times he was able to get by me, I had teammates that could cover for me. That's something I hadn't talked about much, but it was good team defense that made us good."

The Johnson's film makes life-giving use of photos, clips and news stories, some of which are read with an inflection meant to mirror the parlance of the period. In one report on the championship, a sports writer stated, "That little fellow's terrific." More potently, the film makes strong note of how in 1947 - the year Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play major league baseball - color barriers also fell in football and basketball. While Misaka followed up his college career with a brief NBA stint with the New York Knicks, Wally Yonamine made history by playing football for the San Francisco 49ers. Misaka was also invited to join the famed Harlem Globe Trotters after being cut by the Knicks.

Misaka said that he hopes to see more Japanese Americans excel in the college game, and to be more represented in the NBA. "I've been waiting 65 years for something like that to happen," Misaka said. "I think the game is so much different, especially the professional game, which has turned more toward entertainment than sport, whether that's good or bad.

"When I played, the United States was the king; there was hardly any basketball played anywhere else. I like to think that when we won our national championship, that we were not only national champions, but world champions. There just wasn't any basketball played elsewhere that could come close to what we played in the U.S. But the game is going international now, and maybe that will make it easier for Japanese Americans to break into the American teams as well."

Christine Odanaka, a varsity player at Walnut High School, said that a story like Misaka's is where the confidence to compete against anyone begins. "I think this shows how Japanese people can play basketball and not always be somewhat of a minority," she said.
"Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story" has upcoming screenings in Utah, Hawaii, Northern California and New York. More information can be found at www.WatMisaka.com