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Utah Man Remembered As First Pro-Basketball Player Of Color

Photo of Wataru "Wat" Misaka from the film, "Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story"
From film "Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story"
Wataru "Wat" Misaka, became the first person of color to play professional basketball in 1947 when he joined the New York Knicks. Misaka, an Ogden native, died Wednesday at 95 years old.

Wataru “Wat” Misaka, who died Wednesday, became the first person of color to play professional basketball in 1947.

But before he rose to be an accomplished 5-foot-7-inch point guard, Misaka was a Utah kid from Ogden. His Japanese immigrant parents ran a barber shop there, said Bruce Johnson, a New York-based filmmaker who made a movie about Misaka’s life. 

Johnson said it was very heartbreaking to get the news this morning of Misaka’s death.

“I’ll miss him very much,” Johnson said. “He was a very important person in my life.”

RISING STAR

As a student at Ogden High School in the early 1940s, Misaka got his first taste of victory when his team won both state and regional championships.

He later went on to play for Weber Junior College — which eventually became Weber State University, — where he and his team emerged victorious in two championships in 1942 and 1943.

Before he was drafted in 1947 by the New York Knicks, he’s also credited with leading the University of Utah team to victory in the 1944 NCAA Championship and then again in the 1947 National Invitation Tournament.

What makes Misaka’s story even more remarkable, Johnson said, is how much Misaka was able to accomplish during this time period. During World War II, the U.S. forced Japanese Americans into internment camps across the country, including one camp in Utah

Photo of Wat Misaka in the military.
Credit From film "Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story"
Wat Misaka was drafted into the military in the middle of his college basketball career. He was stationed in Hiroshima after the 1945 bombing.

Misaka wasn’t among those sent to the camps, but he was drafted by the military in the middle of his college basketball career and sent to Hiroshima, Johnson said.

With the anti-Japanese sentiment at the time, the young basketball player faced adversity on and off the court because of his heritage. Johnson said some basketball fans would yell racial slurs at Misaka or tell him to go home.

“It was hard for Wat because like he said he was already home,” Johnson said. “He was just a kid, so he didn’t even know how to even take that.”

But within the internment camps, Misaka became a symbol of hope, said Chris Komai with the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

“Most Japanese Americans — because there (wasn’t) a lot of good news going on during the war — were aware that he and his team had won the NCAA tournament,” Komai said. “This is a huge boost because our community has always been one that really prides the high achievers and shares in their achievements.” 

MISAKA'S LEGACY
Photo of Arnie Ferrin and Wat Misaka.
Credit Mae Miya / Utah Sports Hall of Fame
/
Utah Sports Hall of Fame
Running Utes alum Arnie Ferrin, left, and Wat Misaka, appeared at a book signing event at the Utah Sports Hall of Fame in July 2019. Their team won a 1944 NCAA tournament game and are known as the NCAA's "original Cinderella Story."

Misaka went on to join the Utah Hall of Fame, the Weber State Athletics Hall of Fame and was also part of a sports exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum. 

For the Japanese American community, Komai said Misaka represents many of the qualities they admire: someone who’s humble, hardworking, tries their best and is a selfless teammate. Komai said that will be Misaka’s legacy, 

“He showed everyone in the worst times, in the 1940s, that it was still possible for an individual like him, who looked like every other nisei [second generation Japanese American] — he could succeed at the highest level.”

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