Wat Misaka, who broke professional basketball’s color barrier, dies

Wataru “Wat” Misaka, the first person of color to play in professional basketball when he broke the color barrier in 1947, died Nov. 21 in Salt Lake City, Utah. He was 95.

Wataru “Wat” Misaka. file photo

A 5-foot-7-inch guard, Misaka was a legend on the basketball court. He led Weber Junior College to two ICAC junior college titles in 1942 and 1943, and was named the Most Valuable Player of the 1942 junior college postseason tournament, and was named the Weber Junior College athlete of the year in 1943.

He enrolled at the University of Utah where he led the team to an NCAA title in 1944. 

Misaka interrupted his college career to serve in the United States Army for two years in the Military Intelligence Service, before returning to school and again leading the University of Utah to the NIT tournament championship over the heavily favored University of Kentucky in 1947.

Misaka was drafted in the seventh round, the 61st pick overall, in 1947 by the New York Knicks in the Basketball Association of America, the predecessor of today’s National Basketball Association.

Misaka played in just three games and scored seven total points in the 1947-48 season before being cut by the team mid-season.

“Although he played in only three games for the Knicks, his place in history was set as the first person of color to play professional basketball, just months after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball,” said a statement by the Japanese American Citizens League.

He returned to Utah to earn an engineering degree, becoming an electrical engineer in Salt Lake City.

“Wat was a hero to me when I was a child and continued to be a hero to young JA people today,” said former JACL National President Floyd Mori, a close friend of Misaka, in a statement. “Young people were anxious to meet him at this year’s National JACL Convention where he received the President’s Award. He was humble and spoke of family love when I visited the day before his passing. He was very grateful for his friends as well. It was a great honor to be his friend. We’ve lost a true legend in many respects.”

Accolades for Misaka came later in life as well. Misaka’s story has been documented in the film “Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story,” released in 2008 by filmmakers Bruce Alan Johnson and Christine Toy Johnson.

According to Weber State University, Misaka was inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame in 1999 and was previously honored by the Knicks and the NBA.

He was inducted into the Japanese American National Bowling Hall of Fame in 1997.

In 2002, the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California inducted Misaka — as well as Japan Baseball Hall of Famer Wally Yonamine, Olympic Gold Medal weightlifter Tommy Kono, Olympic Gold Medal figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi and Wimbledon doubles champion Ann Kiyomura — into the Japanese American Sports Hall of Fame at the newly opened Pac Bell Park (now Oracle Park), then the newly-opened home of the San Francisco Giants.

“We are deeply saddened by his passing but proud to have honored him and to have brought new life to his forgotten and unknown story,” the JCCCNC stated on their Facebook page.

In 2011 he was inducted to the Weber State University Hall of Fame, and his short-lived career was once again brought to the forefront with the emergence of Taiwanese American guard Jeremy Lin’s NBA career in 2012 for the Knicks.

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