Sports ‘Jap, go home’: Wat Misaka, dead at 95, the first to break colour barrier in pro basketball
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Wataru “Wat” Misaka, who is known to be the first person of colour to play professional modern basketball, has passed away at the age of 95.
Misaka, was born in Ogden, Utah in 1923 to parents who immigrated from Japan. The University of Utah, where Misaka played on two national championships, that Misaka died on Wednesday.
“We are saddened to learn of the passing of Wat Misaka,” Utah director of athletics Mark Harlan said in a statement. “He was a part of the Utah teams that won national championships in the 1940s, but Wat was bigger than the game of basketball, blazing trails into places nobody of his descent had gone before. He was such a kind and thoughtful man and will be missed by so many. Our thoughts are with his family, friends and Utah fans, who all mourn his passing.”
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The five-foot-seven point guard was drafted in 1947 by the New York Knicks, becoming the first non-white player in the Basketball Association of America’s history. The BAA eventually merged with another basketball league to form the National Basketball Association. The NBA counts the BAA’s statistics among its history.
Because of his short height, Misaka’s professional basketball career only lasted three games. But his impact was felt more so off the court.
He joined professional basketball as its first non-white player just months after Jackie Robinson broke the colour-barrier by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers as a professional baseball player. Three years later, Early Lloyd joined the NBA as its first black player.
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Misaka was drafted by the Knicks after helping lead the University of Utah to a pair of championships, first in the NCAA championship game in 1944, then in 1947 on the way to an NIT title. Between those title runs, he served in the U.S. Army,
Both championship games were played in Madison Square Garden, which helped him garner the attention of New Yorkers and Knicks scouts.
Ahead of their 1947 season opener, the Knicks described him as “sensational defensive player.”
Misaka said that during his time with the Knicks, there was no ethnic animosity from his teammates or opposing players. It was, instead, off the court where he never felt like he belonged.
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“I’d never think of registering at (the hotel)”, . “They didn’t let nonwhites stay there.”
“I wouldn’t go into a nice restaurant without my teammates,” he said. “I wouldn’t go out much at all. It was just basketball, eat, sleep.… The New York fans were probably better than the fans back home. But I still heard a few yell, ‘Jap, go home.’ And they weren’t talking about Utah.”
After his short career in New York, where he said he felt less prejudice against him than anywhere else, he turned down an offer to join the Harlem Globetrotters and instead returned to Utah to complete an engineering degree. Misaka’s legacy has been celebrated. In 2000, he was recognized in an exhibit of sports pioneers at Los Angeles’ Japanese-American National Museum. In 2009, a documentary “ Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story,” was released, while he was also invited by former president Barack Obama to an advisory commission on issues that involved Asian-Americans.
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Throughout the years, he also offered his advice to players of Asian descent. In 2019, when Gonzaga played in Utah in the NCAA Tournament, he took the time to meet with Bulldogs’ star , who is from Japan . Before that, he offered his advice to Jeremy Lin, an Asian-American who set the NBA by storm for a brief stint (“Linsanity”) while playing for the Knicks in 2012.
“Jeremy Lin seemed like a good kid in a dark and gloomy time,” . “I wrote him a note of encouragement and just told him to hang in there.”
His role in history continues to be felt today, something that Misaka didn’t expect when he was first drafted in 1947.
“I never felt like a pioneer then. Pro basketball just wasn’t a big deal,”. “The NBA has players from all over the world now. People tell me I was a trailblazer. That’s a wonderful feeling.”
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