Wat Misaka, who was drafted by the New York Knicks in 1947, was recently honored by the Knicks basketball franchise during a presentation at a game at Madison Square Garden. Misaka was the first non-white person to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA then known as the Basketball Association of America or BAA).
The League of Japanese American Citizens (JACL), the oldest and largest civil and human rights organization in the United States of Asian descent, congratulates Misaka for this well-deserved honor and recognition. Misaka and his wife Katie, who accompanied her husband to New York and to the Knicks game, are longtime JACL members and belong to the JACL Chapter of Salt Lake City.
American-Japanese Nisei (second generation born in the United States of immigrant parents from Japan), Misaka was born in Ogden, Utah on December 21, 1923. Apart from his stint with the Knicks and his military service, he lived in Utah for all his life.
After playing basketball in high school, he was a star on the Weber College basketball team in Ogden, Utah. He then credits the president of Weber College, Henry Aldous Dixon, for the kindness and support of Japanese Americans at a time when they found few friends. Misaka was then transferred to the University of Utah, where he continued to play basketball. Upon returning from the 1944 NCAA Tournament Championship won by the University of Utah, Misaka discovered that he had been drafted into the United States Army. He served for two years with the military in the occupation of Japan at the end of World War II, after which he returned to school and basketball.
Misaka was a point guard for the University of Utah basketball team that won the NIT Championship at Madison Square Garden in 1947. That year, the Knicks drafted Misaka in the first round. That was the year Jackie Robinson broke into major league baseball. Misaka’s professional basketball career came to an end quickly as he was dropped from the squad after three season games without being given an explanation or clear reason.
Although not long after the end of World War II, Misaka said he had little intolerance with the Knicks. He said he felt less prejudice against him in New York than anywhere else and that he had great admiration for New Yorkers.
After leaving the Knicks, he was offered a chance to play for the Harlem Globetrotters. Instead, he chose to return to the University of Utah to complete his education and earn an engineering degree. He was inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame in 1999.
In 2009, President Barack Obama learned of Misaka’s outstanding achievement and invited him to attend a ceremony at the White House. Misaka and her son Henry were in attendance as President Obama mentioned Wat Misaka in his speech. He spoke of Misaka’s achievement to be the NBA’s first player of color.
JACL National Executive Director Floyd Mori and personal friend of Misaka attended the White House and Knicks honor with Wat Misaka. He said, “Wat was my idol when I was a kid listening to University of Utah basketball games on the radio. Later I had the privilege of knowing Wat when we were there. became friends and we golfed with a group from Utah almost every week. He remains a gentleman with genuine humility despite his great accomplishments and his inspiration to others. “
As he left Madison Square Garden after the game, Misaka was arrested by many people who wanted to have their picture taken with him because his story had inspired them. An exceptional lifelong athlete, Misaka is a championship bowler and avid golfer.
The recent honor with the Knicks was due to the efforts of Bruce and Christine Johnson, who took an interest in Misaka’s story and made a documentary film about him called Transcending, The Wat Misaka Story. For more information visit: http://www.watmisaka.com.