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Wat Misaka Documentary Screened in S.F.

by J.K. YAMAMOTO
Hokubei Mainichi
09 - 19 - 2008

San Francisco Screening From left: Local basketball players Eryn Kimura, Ryan Baba and Ross Baba; filmmakers Bruce Alan Johnson and Christine Toy Johnson; B.J. Baba, Ryan and Ross' mother.

"Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story," a documentary about the first Japanese American to play for the NBA, was screened Sept. 14 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema in San Francisco.

Wat Misaka, a basketball star with the University of Utah in the 1940s, was a first-round draft pick of the New York Knicks in 1947, the same year that Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. But Misaka's distinction of being the first person of color to play in the NBA is little known to the public or even to sports buffs. Born and raised in Utah, Misaka was not subject to the internment orders of 1942, which applied only to the West Coast. Thus he was able to make a name for himself in collegiate basketball while thousands of his fellow Nikkei were held in a Utah internment camp, Topaz. Misaka helped his team win the NCAA championship in 1944 and the NIT championship in 1947, with a stint in the Army in between. His career with the Knicks, however, lasted only two weeks. In later years, he became better known as a bowler than as a basketball player. He was recently inducted into the Utah Bowling Hall of Fame. Misaka did not attend the San Francisco screening, but he was the guest of honor at a Salt Lake City screening a few days earlier.

JA Sports Hall of Fame

New York-based filmmakers Christine Toy Johnson and Bruce Johnson first heard about Misaka from Paul Osaki, executive director of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, which had inducted Misaka into the Japanese American Sports Hall of Fame along with Wally Yonamine (football and baseball), Kristi Yamaguchi (figure skating), Ann Kiyomura (tennis) and Tommy Kono (weightlifting).

"We were really intrigued. We wanted to know more about him," said Christine Toy Johnson. " ... The more we asked questions and the more we did research, we realized that there was a really powerful story to tell." Bruce Johnson said that the original idea was to make a feature film, and that is still the ultimate goal. But after interviewing Misaka and his former teammates, he and his wife decided, "as long as we're here, let's put it all together and make a documentary." The filmmakers also did interviews in the Bay Area, including Osaki, kids who play basketball at the JCCCNC, former Topaz internee Daisy Satoda, and Marice Shiozaki, whose late father, Masateru "Tut" Tatsuno, played with Misaka at the University of Utah. The film recounts a crucial out-of-town game in which the managers decided not to take Tatsuno, even though they were a man short. The reasoning, the filmmakers speculate, was that two Japanese Americans on the team might have been too much for the public to accept.

Invitation From Globetrotters

The documentary notes that Misaka was asked to play for the Harlem Globetrotters after being dropped by the Knicks, but declined. "At that time, they were the best team in the world," Johnson said of the Globetrotters. "When they played against the Lakers, who had just won the world championship, they very handily beat the Minneapolis Lakers. To me that said a lot about the caliber of player that he was ... The Globetrotters immediately wanted him to play. It just made me question the reason why the Knicks actually let him go."

According to Johnson, Misaka's performance wasn't the problem, and he was quite popular at Madison Square Garden from his college championship days. "The Knicks actually marketed him a lot because he was such a big favorite in the Garden," Johnson said. "I think that was the main reason why they drafted him - he played so well in the Garden and he was such a crowd favorite." But when the team played outside of New York, the reception was less than friendly. This was also the case when Misaka played with the Utes - during away games, the anti-Japanese sentiment among the spectators was evident. Even favorable news reports referred to him as a "Jap." Johnson speculated that the Knicks management decided, "'This is going to be harder than we thought.' Out of town, it's a different game than playing with the home crowd."

Overdue Recognition

The filmmakers would like Misaka to get his due. Johnson said it was "crazy" that a section on diversity in the NBA at the Basketball Hall of Fame does not include Misaka. "That's one of our biggest goals with this film, to point out how much of an impact he had on basketball and diversity in basketball." Noting that even his own brother, "a highly educated guy," did not know about the internment, Johnson added that the film can be an educational tool. "It took him totally by surprise. I'm hoping that through this sports story ... the internment story gets out, too." "Transcending" will go on the film festival circuit, which the Johnsons hope will eventually lead to the film being broadcast on PBS, HBO or ESPN. "We want to get the story out to as many people as we can," said Christine Toy Johnson.

The film was also screened at Sacramento State University on Sept. 10 and University of San Francisco on Sept. 15. Future dates and locations will be posted at www.watmisaka.com.