Before Jeremy Lin, before Yao Min, even before Earl Lloyd, who in 1950 was the first Black player in the National Basketball Association, there was Wat Misaka.
Wataru “Wat” Misaka, an Ogden native who was recognized as the first person of color to play in the NBA, died Wednesday in Salt Lake City, the Sports Department of the University of Utah announced.
Misaka was 95.
A graduate of Ogden High School, Misaka played for Weber Junior College in his hometown and then joined the Utah program. The 5-foot-7 guard contributed to Utah’s victory over Dartmouth in the 1944 NCAA championship game at Madison Square Garden in New York and to the team’s 1947 NIT title, alongside Arnie Ferrin, who remained a lifelong friend.
In 1947, he was drafted by the New York Knicks, making him not only the first Asian American but also the first player of color to play professionally 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.
“We achieved things that a lot of people never will,” Ferrin said Thursday. “He made us a better team and made me a better person. I can’t say I had anybody I enjoyed being around more than Wat.”
Only later did Misaka recognize how he had inspired other Japanese Americans during World War II, as they were “really searching for their identity and to be accepted,” he once said.
A 2008 documentary titled “Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story” enabled even his former Utah teammates to understand more about what he went through in college, hearing racial taunts from fans and having his family endure harsh experiences.
“I’m not sure if we were aware of some of the pressures he had to overcome,” Ferrin once said.
That’s why Wisaka is remembered as being “bigger than the game of basketball,” Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said in a statement.
He played in only three games for the Knicks before being released.
After turning down an opportunity to play for the Harlem Globetrotters, he returned to Utah and completed his degree in engineering.
He is survived by a son and a daughter.
AsAmNews has Asian America in its heart. We’re an all-volunteer effort of dedicated staff and interns. Check out our new Instagram account. Go to our Twitter feed and Facebook page for more content. Please consider interning, joining our staff or submitting a story.