This article appears in the Dec. 29, 2018, edition of The Japan Times.
By Ed Odeven
Wataru “Wat” Misaka never demanded the spotlight nor shouted from the roof tops seeking attention.
But the reserved, humble man gained a measure of fame late in life when a documentary, “Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story,” was released in 2008. As a result, younger generations were introduced to his story, while older folks, many who never heard about him, were also thoroughly informed about Misaka’s place in history.
A successful college basketball player, Misaka’s pro career took place in the 1940s, the latter occurring before the NBA even existed.
A nisei (or second-generation Japanese immigrant), he became the first non-white player in the Basketball Association of America in 1947. The BAA was one of the NBA’s two forerunners along with the National Basketball League before the new league was established in ’49.
Misaka, selected by the New York Knicks in the 1947 draft, had a nondescript pro career (three games for the Knicks before he was cut) and essentially disappeared from the national spotlight. He lived his life, raised his family and worked as an electrical engineer.
Then the documentary was made. Misaka made numerous public appearances around that time, including to Madison Square Garden (home of the Knicks), and was introduced as an NBA legend at the 2009 All-Star Game. In recent years, his photo has been on display at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
And just last week, Misaka congregated with basketball royalty in Salt Lake City, near his home in Bountiful, Utah. On Dec. 20, a day before his 95th birthday, Misaka was a guest of the Golden State Warriors during their pre-game shootaround at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Misaka, with a twinkle in his eye, watched the two-time defending NBA champions prepare for their duel with the Utah Jazz. The Warriors posted a short video on Twitter that showed Misaka meeting Warriors coach Steve Kerr and star guard Stephen Curry, among others.
Misaka was a 170-cm guard in his younger days — “a notorious defensive pest with a knack for getting the ball up the court,” Doug Alden of The Associated Press wrote in 2008 — and recognized greatness when he watched Curry. “It looks like he knows what he’s doing and what he’s trying to do,” Misaka said on camera. “He’s confident that he can pull it off. It’s just great to watch him play.”
He added: “I just can’t imagine a guy with that much touch. He’s really something.”