New York Times

Friday May 8, 2009                  

Japanese American broke
the NBA color line in 1947

By Stephen Magagnini
smagagnini@sacbee.com


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 in Sacramento

PAUL KITAGAKI JR./pkitagaki@sacbee.com

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 swarming defense.

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 and media.

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 League.

"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.

Sometimes 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 said.

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 college sweetheart.

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 said. "Basketball 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."