Wataru Misaka helped break pro basketball’s color barrier; you should know his name
He played for the New York Knicks after winning a national title while in college at University of Utah
“Alexa, who is the first player the New York Knicks ever drafted?”
“Sorry, I don’t know that one.”
Few do, Alexa. Fewer realize it’s the same answer to a more significant question: Who broke the color barrier for modern professional basketball? That would be Wataru “Wat” Misaka, a 5-foot-7 Japanese-American who in 1947 became the first non-white player in the Basketball Association of America, or BAA, the precursor to the NBA.* Overly simplified, Misaka broke an ethnic barrier in pro basketball just as Jackie Robinson did in baseball. Their breakthrough moments even occurred in the same year.
Misaka died last week at the age of 95. To say he’s underappreciated would be like saying Lamar Jackson should’ve been a wide receiver. It’s inaccurate, disrespectful and perhaps comes with subconscious racial undertones.
Why don’t more people know?
In the 2008 documentary Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story, co-director Bruce Alan Johnson asked Knicks historian Dennis D’Agostino: Why don’t more people know Misaka broke basketball’s color barrier?
“I never heard that theory before that Wat was the first person of color,” said D’Agostino in the documentary. “I think we tend to look more in terms of black/white, OK? When you say ‘person of color,’ Wat probably was not considered a person of color. Because [African Americans] [Chuck] Cooper, [Nat ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton] and Earl Lloyd, who came along like three, four years later, they’ve always been considered the three trailblazers. I think you might be getting into semantics here.”
“I think for some people back then, a person of color was a black person. If you were Asian, you were just a damn foreigner,” said Paul Osaki, the executive director of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California.
The oversight of Misaka’s contribution is a microcosm for how Asian Americans often feel marginalized or neglected in national conversations about race. Of course, race shouldn’t be the only factor in determining legacies; production and performance are also pivotal. Misaka played in only three games for the Knicks, averaging 2.3 points. How praiseworthy is that? That’s like saying Chris Dudley deserves more acclaim, Participation Trophy Generation Guy. Well, to quote Robert De Niro in the movie Heat, “There’s a flipside to that coin.”
Born in Ogden, Utah, Misaka helped lead the University of Utah to a national championship in 1944. To protect him and his team from anti-Japanese sentiment after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Misaka was often described as “Hawaiian-born,” said Johnson. Misaka always downplayed the racism he experienced, describing people walking to the opposite side of the street because of him, or getting served last at a restaurant as “just normal stuff.”
The day of his team’s victory parade, Misaka was drafted into the U.S. Army and worked as an interpreter in East Asia after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He told the Japan Times that his team’s job was to determine the effect the bombing had on local morale.
After his service, Misaka returned to Utah and promptly helped them win another championship in 1947. Misaka rarely filled out a stat sheet, but instead was a lockdown defender in the mold of Patrick Beverley or Tony Allen. His defense shut down Kentucky’s three-time All-American guard Ralph Beard in the final, thrilling the Madison Square Garden crowd so much that according to a Sports Illustrated report, they booed when Misaka wasn’t named MVP.
Observing all this was Knicks founder Ned Irish, who helped create the National Invitation Tournament (which determined the national champion then), and the Basketball Association of America, the forerunner of the NBA. Hoping to capitalize on Misaka’s popularity to promote his upstart pro hoops league, Irish made Masaka the team’s very first draft pick.
“To his credit, I really think it didn’t enter Ned Irish’s mind that Wat was Japanese-American,” Johnson told The Undefeated. “I think he just saw how he excited the crowd and wanted that in [Madison Square Garden]. It probably wasn’t until Providence when he realized, ‘Oh, I hired a Japanese-American guy.’ ”
new league couldn’t handle controversy
Providence. The Knicks’ third game of the season. Their first road game. Misaka’s first start. The team promoted Misaka’s appearance in local papers. And to a degree, it worked. The crowd showed. But instead of crowds chanting, “Go Wat!” it was more like, “Go home, Jap!” said Johnson. Misaka was used to that. Irish and the Knicks were not.
“With [integrating] Jackie Robinson in baseball, they had a plan,” said Johnson. “They knew what they were up against. But with the [BAA], they were just trying to get started and didn’t want a controversy right away. They were looking for people who were gonna put butts in the seats.”
Home teams would love Misaka, his hustle, his charisma, his intangibles. A tournament at MSG shielded the hate because generally all the teams were visitors and it was all about basketball. That’s what Irish saw. Outside of the MSG bubble, there was no shield from the anti-Japanese sentiment. After the Providence game, Misaka was released. Paid the entirety of his yearlong contract, “I think that’s a big sign [Irish] must’ve felt guilty,” said Johnson. Just like that, the first game Misaka started was the last game he ever played.
Most people would be rightfully upset about a professional sports career ending because of racism in a contentious political climate. It’s unfair, unjust, un-American. But Misaka didn’t fight the decision. To fully understand why, one must realize the Japanese concept of shikata ga nai, which translates to “it can’t be helped.” It’s a cultural philosophy and coping mechanism similar to a portion of the serenity prayer: “accept the things I cannot change,” so move on.
Misaka’s color wasn’t going to change. Racism wasn’t going to stop. If basketball wasn’t in his future, why dwell on it and be miserable? “He was a happy guy around all the garbage,” said Johnson, who became friends with Misaka through the filmmaking process.
After his pro basketball career ended, he turned down an offer to join the Harlem Globetrotters and returned to school and earned his engineering degree. While basketball turned out to be just a blip in the 95-year-old’s life, it was still historic.
“The son of Japanese immigrants, Wat showed that given a fair opportunity, he could reach the highest levels of his sport through hard work, unselfishness, and shrewd play,” wrote Ann Burroughs, the president of the Japanese American National Museum. “His last legacy will be as an American sports pioneer.”
Wat Misaka is an American sports trailblazer. His name should be known. It can’t be helped.
Shikata ga nai.
*This does not include the accomplishments of the Professional Basketball League, established in 1937, which merged with the BAA to form the NBA in 1949. The NBA recognizes BAA statistics in its history, but limited PBL, which featured African American players like Dolly King.