Wat Misaka: an Asian basketball pioneer: with big men such as Wang Zhizhi and Yao Ming looming as potential NBA superstars, it was a much shorter player who broke the barrier – Brief Article

Douglas Stark

MUCH WAS WRITTEN last season about Wang Zhizhi, a seven-footer who in April 2001 became the first Chinese basketball player to play in the NBA when he joined the Dallas Mavericks. More than a half century ago, however, Wataru “Wat” Misaka, a 5’7″ Japanese-American guard, made history by becoming the first Asian to play professional basketball.

Although the National Basketball League, one of two forerunners to the NBA, had integrated with African-American players in 1942, Misaka’s arrival in 1947 marked the first time that a person of color had played in the Basketball Association of America. In 1949-50, the NBL and the BAA merged to form the NBA. Misaka’s arrival predated the NBA’s integration in 1950-51 and occurred mere months after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s longstanding color barrier.

“I was one of the first few persons of color in pro ball,” Misaka says. “There were few blacks and no Asians at the university level. It was a white man’s game.”

Being the first Asian player in professional basketball isn’t what Misaka is most proud of in looking back on his career, however. “I never really felt like a pioneer. I did not make too big a thing of it. I was more proud of being small and short and being able to play the game with the big boys.”

In 1947, Misaka was drafted by the New York Knicks, who were then in the BAA. Misaka played in only three games with the Knicks and scored a total of seven points.

“Ned Irish, the president of the Knicks, called me into his office and told me that he had to let me go,” Misaka recalls. “He said that it would not be the way he would do it, but in those days, coaches had final say regarding contracts.

“[Knicks coach] Joe Lapchick never spoke with me. I don’t recall talking to him. I didn’t have any idea that there would be any more cuts. In those days, college players were as good as the pros, and I did not feel like I was trying for a spot on the team.”

Today it’s easy to think that Misaka’s release was racially motivated, but Misaka himself harbors no such thoughts. “I have no reason to believe it. Nothing happened to make me believe that.”

After being released by the Knicks, Misaka returned home to Utah. On his way through Chicago, however, he was offered a job with the Harlem Globetrotters, but declined.

Misaka had played against the Globetrotters in a three-game exhibition in Hawaii several years earlier. “[Globetrotters owner] Abe Saperstein told me `Anytime you come through Chicago, look me up,'” Misaka says. “So on my way back, I looked him up and he offered me a job, but I wasn’t interested in doing things like that.” Instead, Misaka returned to Utah, finished his degree, and pursued a career in engineering.

Misaka’s rise to professional basketball began at the University of Utah. Utah finished the 1943-44 season with an 184 record and was invited to play in both the National Invitational Tournament and NCAA Tournament. At the time, the NIT was more prestigious than the NCAA Tournament and Utah accepted the NIT invite. The Utes lost in the first round to a more experienced Kentucky team coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp.

In those days, it was not uncommon for teams to play in both the NIT and the NCAA Tournament. In fact, in 1950 the City College of New York became the only team to win the NCAA Tournament and the NIT in the same year when it defeated Bradley University in both championship games.

After its first-round NIT defeat, Utah accepted an invitation to fill in for Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament after the Arkansas team was involved in a car accident, forcing them to withdraw from the tournament. On their way back to Utah, the Utes stopped in Kansas City, swept through the NCAA West Regional, and soon found themselves returning to New York City.

In New York, Utah won the NCAA championship over a tough, scrappy Dartmouth team, 4240, in overtime. During the championship game, the hustle of Misaka made him a favorite of the 15,000 spectators at Madison Square Garden. He scored four points in the title tilt.

After serving a few years in the military, Misaka rejoined the Utah basketball team. The Utes finished the 1946-47 season with a 16-5 record and were invited to play in the NIT. This time, Utah won the tournament, defeating Kentucky 49-45 for the championship. Utah became the first school in college basketball history to win both the NIT and NCAA Tournament

“The highlight of my career was winning the NCAA and NIT championships. Back in those days, college basketball was the pinnacle of one’s basketball experience. Pro ball was in its infancy,” Misaka says.

Although one might think that Misaka would regret not playing longer, he entertains no such thoughts. “I do not have a lot of regrets. I had my day, as short as it was.”

Wat Misaka’s Career Statistics


1947-48 New York

Knicks 3 3 13 .231 1 3 .333 0 7 7

Season Team APG PPG

1947-48 New York 0.0 2.3


1944 NCAA Tournament Final

March 28, 1944 at Madison Square Garden, New York City

Utah 42, Dartmouth 49 (OT)


Dick Smuin 0 0 0 2 0

Arnie Ferrin 8 6 7 0 22

Fred Sheffield 1 0 0 1 2

Wat Misaka 2 0 0 1 4

Herb Wilkinson 3 1 4 0 7

Bob Lewis 2 3 3 2 7

Totals 16 10 14 6 42

Dartmouth (40)

Harry Leggat 4 0 0 1 8

Robert Gale 5 0 2 1 10

Everett Nordstrom 0 0 0 0 0

Audley Brindley 5 1 1 3 11

Franklin Murphy 0 0 0 0 0

Joseph Vancisin 2 0 0 3 4

Vincent Goering 0 0 0 0 0

Walter Mercer 0 1 1 3 1

Richard McGuire 3 0 1 3 6

Totals 19 2 5 14 40

Halftime: Dartmouth 18, Utah 17. End of regulation: Tied at 36.

Officials: Paul Menton, James Osborne. Attendance: 15,000

COPYRIGHT 2002 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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