A column about an important figure in basketball history.
By Ed Odeven
When Wataru “Wat” Misaka passed away on Nov. 20, he left an indelible legacy on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. He showed what was possible for someone who looked like he did on the basketball court. And to his eternal credit, he reached the highest level.
Misaka was a hero and a role model to generations of basketball players, many of whom had never heard of him until he was in his 80s (more on that below).
And so, this much is certain: Wherever and whenever a Japanese or Japanese-American plays basketball, it’s a fitting tribute to Misaka, a humble man from Ogden, Utah, who made history on the court.
Misaka helped blaze a trail for them as a young man. A determined, speedy guard, he competed at a high level in college, helping the University of Utah win a pair of national titles during and after World War II (the NCAA crown in 1944 and the NIT title ’47).
Furthermore, in the 1947-48 season, the 170-cm Misaka appeared in three games for the New York Knicks, a franchise in the Basketball Association of America before it merged with the National Basketball League to create the renamed NBA in 1949. (BAA’s stats dating back to 1946 are considered a part of the NBA record books.)
To this day, Misaka is officially recognized as the first non-Caucasian player in NBA history, and many media accounts refer to him as the first in pro basketball. Historical references don’t often mention that the NBL’s Chicago Studebakers and Toledo Jim White Chevrolets signed several black players in 1942, and that the New York Rens, a team comprised mostly of black players, competed in the NBL as the Dayton Rens during the final season before the merger.
At any rate, Misaka never needed to lecture anyone about his place in history. He was a hero to countless Asians and Asian-Americans. Nobody can erase the facts. All you have to do is look it up. He was there in the NBA’s infancy and proved that he had the ability to compete, by getting a shot with the Knicks.
Misaka, who died at age 95 in Utah, earned admiration for his humility and kindness — and don’t forget his courage.
In March, Misaka met Washington Wizards rookie Rui Hachimura, the first Japanese selected in the first round of the NBA Draft, while he was still at Gonzaga University. Months later, Misaka noted that Hachimura and second-year pro Yuta Watanabe of the Memphis Grizzlies and their NBA G League affiliate (Memphis Hustle) are setting a new standard for Japanese players.
Japan Basketball Association technical director Tomoya “Coach Crusher” Higashino believes that Misaka’s heroism still resonates.
“Mr. Misaka created respect among the basketball community for his accomplishments,” Higashino told Hoop Scoop on Tuesday. “He was a pioneer and created an opportunity for future Japanese basketball players. We currently have players, who were born in Japan, playing in the high school and collegiate level (in the United States) and two players playing in the NBA. Mr. Misaka’s character, ambition and hard work helped pave the way for the players today.
“I would say that he gave us a lot of courage and confidence to whoever comes to the (United) States. He was a huge influence for our Japan basketball to have a big dream. We