Today, the NBA is 76% Black, 3% Latino, and 1% Asian. It’s not exactly diverse, but numbers like those make it easy to forget that at one point in history professional basketball was 100% White. Anyone who cares anything about sports in this country, and plenty of people who don’t, know the name Jackie Robinson, the man who broke baseball’s color barrier when he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Of course basketball, too, had its own Jackie Robinson, a man who paved the way for the 80% of minority players in the NBA today. Though his may not be a household name, his story is every bit as fascinating. If you haven’t heard of him before, now’s the time to learn about basketball’s Jackie Robinson, Mr. Wataru “Wat” Misaka.
It may come as a surprise to basketball fans used to an NBA that’s more than three-quarters Black and just one percent Asian, but the first person of color in the Basketball Association of America (an organization that would soon become today’s National Basketball Association) was a Japanese America. Sixty-five years before Linsanity, and in the same year that the Dodgers signed Robinson, Wat Misaka was playing for the New York Knicks — the same team that would one day play host to another Asian American basketball phenomenon.
Even a casual student of history might guess that playing basketball as a Japanese American in the 1940s and ‘50s came with a set of challenges very different from those facing Jeremy Lin. Misaka was born and raised in Ogden, Utah, the son of a Japanese –born barber whose shop and home occupied Ogden’s then-notorious 25th Street, home of numerous opium dens and brothels. Despite growing up in a tough neighborhood, Misaka excelled at sports in high school, and was accepted onto the team at the University of Utah. There he became part of a squad of engineers, pre-meds, and those deemed medically unfit for service in World War II, that would go on to beat a Navy team composed of stars literally drafted from around the country to win a National Championship.
“It was a real strange experience, to be free — not without prejudice, but free — and playing the game I loved in my home state, while others were being treated like criminals.”
Naturally, the specter of racism hung over the entirety of Misaka’s athletic career. He played for Utah during the Second World War, traveling to games all over the country at a time when the vast majority of the Japanese American population had been imprisoned in internment camps. He was spared only by his father’s decision to settle in Ogden, and his acceptance at Utah. Only Japanese family on the West Coast were imprisoned. Utah’s coach, Vadal Peterson, refused to start him, likely in the hope that the decision would minimize the racist reaction wartime crowds might have to a Japanese player. When the Utes traveled to New York City to play for the national title, their tenth man, Japanese American Tut Tatsuno, himself on release from a camp, was left behind. It just wasn’t a good idea to travel across the country with two Japanese, and the team needed Misaka if they were going to win.
“A personal no-man’s land. No matter where I looked, I was a traitor in someone’s eyes.”
After the first national championship, a true Cinderella story if there ever was one, including a first-round loss, a last-minute substitution for a team devastated by an auto accident, and play in two tournaments, both the NAACP and the then-more-prestigious NIT, Misaka’s career was interrupted by the war. He was drafted by the US Army and served for two years, including nine months in US-occupied Hiroshima, where he met his mother’s brother for the first time and faced discrimination from both his fellow soldiers and the Japanese citizens they interacted with.
“For some reason, the crowd was really rooting for me. New Yorkers are known to root for underdogs. I think that was the reason. Here was an underdog team, from out in the sticks in Utah.”
When he got out, Misaka returned to the Univeristy of Utah for an encore with his old teammates, going back to New York City to win yet another national championship. He faced discrimination at home, where students called him a “dirty Jap,” but enjoyed the support of the same New York crowds that had cheered him on during the war. Perhaps it was that support that convinced Knicks owner Ned Irish to draft him in the first round the following season, offering him a $4,000 contract in the same year that Jackie Robinson was drafted by the Dodgers.
“I really didn’t play many minutes. I never did think of myself as a pioneer.”
He only played three games before being cut and taking the train back to Utah. Graciously, Misaka refuses to believe that racial prejudice had anything to do with the decision, and, humbly, he refuses to see himself as a “pioneer,” despite his status as the first non-White player in the BAA. After turning down an offer to break yet another color barrier by playing for the all-Black Harlem Globetrotters, Misaka began what was to be a successful, and apparently fulfilling, career as an engineer back in Utah, where he lives today.
“The salary for a rookie and the salary for starting engineer weren’t much different. So I was fine. History has a way of smoothing things out.”
Photo from NPR.