Herlad Tribune


Former Utah player broke basketball ethnic barrier
By DOUG ALDEN, AP Sports Writer
Sep 12, 3:14 am EDT

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Wat Misaka stood out for much more than being the shortest guy on the court when he played basketball for the University of Utah and briefly with the New York Knicks. The son of Japanese immigrants, Misaka played in an era when almost everybody else playing the game was white and America was at the height of the anti-Japanese sentiment of World War II. Misaka's career is the subject of a new documentary titled "Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story," which puts his playing career in context with the times and the tensions that anyone with Japanese ancestry faced in the 1940s.

Although he's always happy to talk about basketball and remember his playing days, the idea of being a racial pioneer in professional sports is a little much. "This was kind of a surprise-that they'd be interested in doing something on an old has-been," Misaka said with a modest laugh. The film premiered to a packed auditorium in Salt Lake City on Wednesday night. Misaka, 84, hardly has the look of a former basketball star. The black hair that was sharply slicked back in photos from his playing days turned white long ago. He moves slowly and deliberately with no hint of the quickness that made the 5-foot-7 guard a notorious defensive pest with a knack for getting the ball up the court.

No matter how much he smiles and shrugs off the notion, Misaka made history 61 years ago, when he broke an ethnic barrier in the Basketball Association of America. A precursor to the NBA, the league was all-white when the Knicks took Misaka in the first round of the 1947 draft and was still three years away from the debut of the first black players. As far as Misaka was concerned, he just looked a little different. Having grown up in Utah, he was quite used to that and said he never thought of it as a racial milestone. "It was not a big thing. They didn't make much of it," he said. It was the same year Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, which Misaka himself says was a larger event in history than the two weeks he spent with the Knicks.

Misaka played in three games for New York, scoring a total of seven points, before getting cut early in the 1947-48 season. Misaka is asked occasionally to recount his playing career, which he said was highlighted much more by Utah's NCAA championship in 1944 and NIT title three years later than his short time with the Knicks. But he was surprised when he was contacted two years ago by Christine Toy Johnson and her husband, Bruce, who said they wanted to do the documentary. "It's just not in his nature to really talk about it, but to a lot of people it's a barrier he broke and we really recognized the importance of that," Christine Toy Johnson said. "He's just a humble guy, so he does shy away from attention a lot, and yet I think he is also happy that people are recognizing his accomplishment."

Former college teammates in the film recounted how Misaka never got rattled by racial taunts and marveled at how he ignored the endless variations of "Jap" that he heard whenever the team hit the road. Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast were forced into internment camps, including one in Utah's western desert. Misaka said he felt fortunate to be from Utah and not sent to a camp, but also sympathized with the families who were kept there. Misaka served two years in the Army, getting his draft notice when he returned from the 1944 NCAA championship, and was sent to Japan after the war ended. He looked Japanese, but was an American. He sensed that fellow U.S. soldiers were wary of him because of his ethnicity and the Japanese wouldn't trust anyone in an American uniform. He returned to college, helping Utah upset Kentucky in the 1947 NIT championship when it was a bigger deal than the NCAA tournament. The game was played in Madison Square Garden, which would be Misaka's home during his short-lived career with the Knicks.

Misaka's fame quickly faded after he returned to Utah and started a career in engineering, but an old picture from his college days caught the Johnsons' attention. When the couple started researching his basketball career, they were surprised at how little had been noted about what Misaka did and the significance of when he did it. Two years later, their documentary is complete and will be shown next week in San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles. Bruce Johnson said they hope to get it on the film festival circuit and possibly get a cable network to pick it up. "That would be our ultimate dream - to get to a larger audience that could learn about this story," he said.