Salt Lake Tribune
Kragthorpe: '44 Utes just now hearing Misaka's story

The Salt Lake Tribune
Posted: 03/31/2009 06:19:01 PM MDT

To his University of Utah basketball teammates, 5-foot-7 guard Wat Misaka's only unusual distinction was his height.

Only now, 65 years after the Utes won the 1944 NCAA championship, are they beginning to understand what life was like for Misaka as a Japanese-American during World War II.

Thanks to a new documentary, another layer is being added to a legendary chapter in the state's sports history. This part of the story has been retold for generations: After losing in the NIT, the Utes were invited to the NCAA Tournament as a replacement team when some Arkansas players were injured in an auto accident. Utah won the title at Madison Square Garden in New York by defeating Dartmouth in overtime and freshman Arnie Ferrin was named the Most Outstanding Player.

Yet it took the recent production of "Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story," to remind even his teammates of everything Misaka was dealing with that season, and how he represented a culture of people caught in the middle of the war.

Misaka himself is struck by the film's message and the responses to screenings in Utah, California and Hawaii. "The thing I'm proudest of is my effect on the Japanese-American kids," he said. "Japanese-Americans were really looking for an identity."

He was one of them, although Misaka tended to think of himself as just a basketball player from Ogden, and so did his teammates. "I'm not sure if we were aware of the some of the pressures he had to overcome," Ferrin says during the film.

If the Utes' welcoming of their teammate reflected an enlightened attitude, it also may have caused them to overlook social issues. In an era when thousands of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast were housed in the Topaz Internment Camp near Delta -- where he would deliver a "U" blanket after winning the NCAA title -- Misaka heard racial taunts from fans and his own family experienced trials. "I guess that's just naive on my part to think that didn't happen," Ferrin said in a subsequent interview.

While a younger brother says in the film that "racial prejudice was very strong in Utah," Misaka believes he was mostly insulated in an environment where college students were more understanding. Opposing players also treated him well, even if some fans were harsh.

Nowhere was the reception to Misaka more welcoming than in New York, where the '44 Utes lost to Kentucky in the NIT, then returned after going to Kansas City to begin the NCAA Tournament. It may have helped that some accounts described Misaka as "Hawaiian," but Ferrin believes the New Yorkers who filled the Garden "just didn't seem to recognize him as being other than a basketball player."

When the Utes arrived home, Misaka's mother was waiting for him at the train station with his draft notice. After two years in the U.S. Army, assigned to Hiroshima after the bombing, he rejoined Ferrin and the Utes and made a triumphant return to New York in 1947 as the Utes beat Kentucky for the NIT title.

That summer, Misaka was drafted by the New York Knicks of the league then known as the Basketball Association of America. He played only three games before being released, then went on to complete his engineering degree at Utah. A Bountiful resident, Misaka is now being recognized as the NBA's first player of color, and was interviewed for historical purposes during last month's All-Star Weekend in Phoenix.

His legacy will be extended this summer when the filmmakers sponsor "The Misaka Knicks," an Asian-American youth team in New York. And the '44 Utes live on. Another mini-reunion was staged last Saturday, the 65th anniversary of the championship game, as teammate Herb Wilkinson joined Misaka and Ferrin to share more stories, including some they're only now beginning to hear.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com