Japanese American broke
the NBA color line in 1947
Wat Misaka lovingly cradled the basketball like an old friend before
he arched it through the twine like he's done thousands of times before.
Misaka arrived in Sacramento on Thursday to see old friends and
share the story of how he broke the color line in the NBA in 1947,
three years before the first black player.
The modest, good-natured Misaka, 85, is the subject of the documentary "Transcending:
The Wat Misaka Story," which will be screened at the Sacramento
Asian Sports Foundation tonight.
Wat Misaka, 85, is in the area to visit
friends and tell his story about being the first nonwhite
player to be drafted into what would become the National
Basketball Association. The Japanese American's story was
an inspiration to those who were in internment camps during
World War II.
Misaka, who grew up the son of Japanese
immigrants in Ogden, Utah, played quarterback, shortstop and point-forward
in junior high and high school.
While 120,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast were locked
up in internment camps during World War II, Misaka played his way
onto the University of Utah basketball team.
At 5-foot-7, he could pass, shoot, rebound, run the floor and play
His Utah team won the 1947 National Invitation Tournament and 1944
National Collegiate Athletic Association tournaments at Madison Square
Garden, where the hustling Misaka quickly won over New York fans
In 1947, the same year Jackie Robinson broke the color line in major
league baseball, Misaka was drafted No. 1 by the New York Knicks
in the first-ever draft.
Misaka once said "it was no big deal," but to thousands
of Japanese Americans who spent the war imprisoned in grim internment
camps, he became a legend and a beacon of hope.
"Imagine what a hero he was to the people who were inside," said
Marielle Tsukamoto, president of the Florin Japanese American Citizens
"That's why it's such an emotional meeting for the older generation
who remember him," said Tsukamoto, who at age 6 was interned
at Jerome, Ark., with her family from Florin.
"Half of us in the camps were
18 and under - can you imagine what he meant to those teenage kids," said
Tsukamoto, who like Misaka and half of those interned was American-born. "It
was heroism, inspiration, and maybe hope that even though we on the
West Coast were treated as second-class citizens, that elsewhere
in the United States we were not treated as the enemy."
Misaka faced little discrimination in Ogden, where Japanese restaurants,
laundries, fish markets and his dad's barber shop lined 25th Street
along with brothels, beer halls and drug dealers.
"The Japanese businesses added
legitimacy to a rowdy neighborhood," Misaka
said. About 3,000 Japanese Americans lived in northern Utah.
on the road he'd hear racial slurs and some businesses served white
players first, but "wherever I was in high school,
junior college or the university, my teammates would always be looking
out for me, and I would get my drink in order," he said.
His father died when he was 15, and his mother considered taking
the family back to Japan, but Misaka announced he was staying.
In 1943, Misaka was drafted. He served in Army intelligence and
spent several months in Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped.
"It showed me what a terrible thing war was
and how it affected all people - 90 percent or more of the victims
were civilians," he
He returned to help lead his college team to the
NIT title as well as the 1944 NCAA tournament championship, where
they upset Kentucky - considered one of the greatest college teams
of all time.
The New York Times reported, "Little Wat Misaka, American born
of Japanese descent, was a 'cute' fellow intercepting passes and
making the night miserable for Kentucky."
A Japanese American teammate from San Francisco didn't make the
traveling squad and wound up in the Topaz, Utah, internment camp "because
they were afraid of any kind of backlash," Misaka said. But
the coach asked Misaka to bring his banished teammate a championship
watch and blanket.
Misaka made history when he was drafted by the Knicks. He played
three regular season games, scored seven points and then was cut.
Heartbroken, Misaka turned down a chance to play
with the Harlem Globetrotters - whom he'd played exhibitions against
- and returned to Utah to become an engineer and marry Katie, his
She never saw him play, and his kids didn't even know he played
basketball until a junior high teacher told them, said his wife of
57 years. "He was surprised that so many young people were touched
by his story and kept telling him him he was a role model."
"During the outbreak of the war, the Nisei
(American-born Japanese) were really looking for an identity - they
wanted to not be enemy aliens, they wanted to be known as Americans," Misaka
was really popular with them and some told me later, 'What you were
able to be a part of gave us something to be proud of, something
to strive for.'
"That gives me the greatest satisfaction."