Wat Misaka From Utah Was The First Non-White Player In The NBA

S. F. Mori

He was a hero and a friend

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DVD Cover of Wat Misaka's Story(Image is author's)

Wataru (Wat) Misaka was born on December 21, 1923, and raised in Ogden, Utah. His parents were immigrants from Japan. His father had a barber shop, and the family lived in the basement of the building under the business. Wat had two younger brothers. After his father died, his mother learned to be a barber and raised the three boys by continuing to run the barber shop in Ogden.

Little known has been the fact that this Japanese American was the first ever non-white player in professional basketball. In what is now the National Basketball Association (NBA) and was then the Basketball Association of America (BBA), Wat was drafted by the New York Knicks in1947.

That was the same year that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by becoming a Major League Baseball player with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Although Wat's career in the BBA only lasted for a short time, he has the distinction of being the first non-white player in what is now the NBA. It was soon after the end of World War II when sentiment was still strong against people of Japanese heritage.

Wat attended Ogden High School where he was a star on their basketball team. They won the state championship title in 1940 and a regional championship title in 1941. He then went on to play for Weber College and later for the University of Utah Utes basketball team. They won the 1944 NCAA championship. When Wat returned home from the trip to New York, he found that he had been drafted into the U.S. Army. So his college days were interrupted as he served in the occupation of Japan.

After finishing his Army service, he returned to the University of Utah and played basketball once again on the team. They won the 1947 NIT championship. Wat was then drafted to play with the New York Knicks. He played in the pre-season and then played a few games in the regular season before being cut from the team.

Wat had some association with the Harlem Globetrotters professional basketball team, and they asked him to join them. He decided instead to return to finish his engineering degree at the University of Utah.

My family intently listened to the University of Utah basketball games when Wat was playing. As a young boy, I thought of him as a hero. He was a role model for Japanese American young people. Years later, I was able to become friends with Wat as we regularly golfed together.

Wat had been known somewhat in the Japanese American community, and the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Los Angeles had a display about him. His story was not widely known by the general public. After the short stint with the New York Knicks, he had become an engineer, married, and raised a family in Bountiful, Utah. He was a great bowler and golfer.

When Christine Toy Johnson (a New York City actor, singer, and author) visited her friend Paul Osaki at his office of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC) in San Francisco, she asked about a photo he had of Wat. She became intrigued with Wat's story and thought it should be told. She and her husband, Bruce Johnson who is a filmmaker and actor, embarked on the idea of doing a documentary about Wat's life and story. They became very close friends with Wat's family in the process. The produced the documentary called, Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story.

Wat then received some recognition and awards for his past endeavors and achievements. He was invited to a game of the New York Knicks to receive an award. My wife and I were able to accompany Wat and Katie Misaka and Bruce and Christine Toy Johnson to that event.

Wat was subsequently mentioned as the first non-white player in the NBA when Jeremy Lin began to play basketball as an NBA player.

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Wat Misaka in his later years(Image is author's)

Wat's wife Katie passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2017. Wat lived two more years beyond that time and passed away in November 2019 at the age of 95.

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Wat enjoying some fresh air on the golf course(Image is author's)

Wat was a hero and a friend. He became well known as a trailblazer, but he was humble. He enjoyed life up to the last minute. He is greatly missed by his family and friends.

[Source: Personal interviews and experience, Transcending DVD, Wikipedia]

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I am a retired President/CEO of civil rights organizations. I have been a Mayor and California State Assemblyman as well as a College Instructor of Economics. I have also been an entrepreneur and international business consultant. I will be sharing articles mostly about life, politics, racism, travel, health, and relationships.

Salt Lake City, UT
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