The Subtle Heroism of Wataru Misaka

Misaka, who died last week, was far more than the first non-white player in NBA history

A few days ago, Adam sent me a photo of Wat Misaka, the first non-white person to play pro basketball. Somehow, when I was writing about the Lakers and Globetrotters and the breaking of the NBA color line a few weeks ago, I had missed the story of this remarkable man. Then, as I began to research his story, I quickly learned that Misaka died last week, at the age of 95. 

Wataru Misaka was born and raised in Ogden, Utah. Outside of his service in World War II, and his brief career with the New York Knicks, he lived in Utah his whole life. I don’t think I would have guessed that the first nonwhite player in pro hoops history would be a 5’7” Japanese-American point guard from Utah. But Wat Misaka had an unbelievable life. 

Misaka’s father was a barber. He died when Misaka was just fifteen years old. It was 1939, and Misaka’s mother nearly took the family back to Japan. But Misaka, the oldest child, refused to go. He worked on a farm to help support his family. He was a superstar athlete in high school. He was an American. He ran hurdles. He played baseball and football. He played point guard. He led his school to consecutive state basketball titles. Then he went to Weber Junior College (now Weber State University), and led the basketball team to a pair of national titles in 1942 and 1943. 

And obviously, none of this was happening in a vacuum. Even before Pearl Harbor, he felt the sting of prejudice. It was never violent -- for him -- and it was not usually overt, but it was omnipresent. Misaka was a freshman at Weber when the Pearl Harbor attacks occurred. It was a Sunday. 

“I tried to go to school Monday morning,” he recalled in an oral history interview in 2005. “I wasn’t the only Japanese American, but they sent all the Japanese Americans home. I don’t know if it was for two days or three days or what. But we didn’t go to school for those few days.”

Misaka faced racism throughout his early life, and throughout his sports career. He spoke about it in interviews, but generally in vague and fuzzy terms. He tended to downplay it. Perhaps because he knew that it could have been much worse.

During college, Misaka found himself in a somewhat surreal position. Japanese Americans in Utah were spared from the misery of internment, but as Misaka starred on the basketball court, thousands of families from the coast were relocated to camps only a couple hundred miles north in Minidoka, Idaho, and south in Topaz, Utah. One of his best friends had moved to Los Angeles after high school, and was sent to a camp in Arizona. 

“I just felt terribly depressed at the goings on,” he said in an interview. “That my parents’ country would wage war on my country.” 

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After two years at Weber, Misaka transferred to the University of Utah, where he kept winning. In 1944, Misaka led Utah to its only NCAA championship in basketball. The game was held in New York, where Misaka was amazed to play before huge, welcoming crowds at Madison Square Garden. Then on the day of the victory parade back in Salt Lake City, Misaka received a letter informing that he had been drafted. 

Misaka was assigned to the 442nd Infantry Unit -- itself an incredible story, comprised of almost entirely Japanese Americans -- and then, due to his ability to speak Japanese, to military intelligence. 

“We left San Diego in August, the day before Japan signed the surrender,” Misaka told the Japan Times in an interview. “It took three weeks to go to Manila. We went from Manila during a tropical storm and landed in Tokyo. I didn’t have anything to do until October.”

In October, Misaka was sent to Hiroshima, which was his family’s home city. His job there was to interview survivors of the atomic bomb that had been dropped three months earlier. Imagine that job. He went from person to person, family to family. He was not allowed to ask specifically about the atomic bomb: the questions weren’t tailored for this specific tragedy. They were just a general set of questions about strategic bombing during the war. But before the interviews, when he was trying to make people feel at ease, they would talk to him about it. He recalled one woman who came with her daughter, who was still badly injured -- not from radiation, but from the fire that burned the city. 

“I didn’t learn too much about other things," Misaka said in his oral history. “But I think I learned a lot about the nature of the people there.” 

After his service, Misaka returned to the United States. In 1947, he led the University of Utah to the NIT title -- which at the time, was more prestigious than the NCAA tournament. Once again, he was welcomed as a hero in New York. And this time, he caught the attention of a fledgling pro basketball team, the Knicks of the Basketball Association of America (which would soon become the NBA.)

The Knicks drafted Misaka before the 1947-48 season. He went to training camp with the team and played three unremarkable games before being cut. Misaka was happy to have the opportunity, but he didn’t think of it as historical like what Jackie Robinson was doing at the same time in Brooklyn.

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“The players weren’t that good because, well, the salaries weren’t exorbitant like they are now,” he said in his oral history.

After his brief pro basketball career, Misaka went back to Utah. He began a career as an electrical engineer. He was only 24 years old.

He had learned first-hand the randomness of history, and experienced the starkest ironies. He had played basketball as a free man, while other Japanese Americans were being treated like criminals in his home state. He had walked through the wreckage of his family’s ancestral home -- keenly aware that after his father died, his mother could have easily ignored his teenage pleas and brought them back there to perish.  

Wat Misaka raised a family. He became a champion bowler. He lived a quiet, normal life. He went to Jazz games. He was beloved in his community not for what he did as a young man, but for who he was in the years that followed. 

Related Reading

There are a bunch of obits of Wat Misaka out right now. But to me the more interesting stories are the ones that were written when he was alive, like the aforementioned oral history and Japan Times feature. 

I also think you get a good sense of the kind of man he was watching him on video. This little documentary put together by Weber State University gives a good impression, and includes clips of both Misaka playing basketball, and clips of him being honored by Barack Obama. 

Thanksgiving

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. This is a good time to think about the complicated legacy of America, and to reflect on the fact that what we think of as history is often just well-worn and soothing mythology. When you zoom in, even a little bit, the past can look a lot different.

This is also a good time to be thankful for people like Wat Misaka. Not just because of the barriers they break, or the fact that they give us heroic stories to tell (Misaka never actually told his kids about his basketball career; his daughter didn’t find out until she went to college), but because they remind us of the fact that for as complicated and tragic and fucked up as it gets, there have always been people who have risen to the occasion of those complications. 

Hopefully we can be among those people. Have a great weekend.


This has been Vol. 10 of Sports Stories by Eric Nusbaum (words) and Adam Villacin (art). If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please reply to this email or contact enusbaum@gmail.com. We’d love to hear from you. 

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