World War II was still fresh in American minds when Japanese American Wataru Misaka became the first player of Asian descent to play in the NBA (then known as the Basketball Association of America). Standing at a mere 5’7”, the Nisei point-guard was the first-round pick of the New York Knicks.
Wataru “Wat” Misaka was born December 21, 1923 in Ogden, Utah. He recalls being physically active throughout his life: “I was interested in all kinds of sports and basketball was one of them,” Misaka told The New York Times. “My father was an avid baseball fan and encouraged me to do whatever I wanted. In school, I was also captain of the football team, a shortstop, [and] ran track.” Misaka played for Weber Junior College in Ogden and then led the University of Utah to the 1944 NCAA championships. Shortly thereafter, he enlisted in the army and spent nine months in Japan during the American occupation. In 1947, Misaka returned to the University of Utah and led the team to the NIT championships, earning a place in the Utah Sports hall of Fame in 1999.
After a memorable defensive performance in the 1947 NIT championships, which Misaka recalled to The New York Times as “the best game I played over all,” he was drafted by the New York Knicks. Misaka suffered from his height and struggled with shooting. After only three games and seven points, Misaka was cut from the team without an explanation. He left without question: “I guess at the time I felt like it didn’t have to be a reason. Being a minority, we learned to live with that sort of thing without complaining,” Misaka recalls. He does not think, however, that he was cut for racial reasons.
Misaka packed his things, turned down an invitation to play for the Harlem Globetrotters and returned home to Utah where he finished earning his degree in mechanical engineering. He worked for the Sperry Corporation as an engineer and currently holds season tickets for University of Utah basketball games. “I’m not a real fan of the NBA,” Misaka remarked. “I prefer the college game.” But it isn’t because Misaka holds grudges. He says he says nothing but pleasant memories of his brief stint with the Knicks.
In 2000, Misaka was featured in a sports pioneers exhibit at the Japanese-American National Museum in Los Angeles. His Knicks sneakers were displayed alongside his Utah jersey and shorts.