University of Utah honors Wat Misaka with jersey ceremony


University of Utah basketball’s Wat Misaka (#20). courtesy of University of Utah Marriott Library

University of Utah basketball’s Wat Misaka (#20). courtesy of University of Utah Marriott Library

The University of Utah recognized their late alum, Wataru “Wat” Misaka, in an honored jersey ceremony Jan. 22.

Misaka helped Utah bring a National Collegiate Athletic Association championship to Salt Lake City in 1944, and in 1947, he helped Utah capture the National Invitation Tournament championship. Later in 1947, he was drafted by the New York Knicks, becoming the first player of color to be drafted into the Basketball Association of America.

“Thank you to the Utah community for supporting Wat and our family for nearly a hundred years. That’s amazing,” Nancy (Misaka) Umemura, Misaka’s daughter, said at the ceremony.

“When they played the video, seeing that footage again, I was just really touched,” Umemura said in a phone interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Misaka passed away at the age of 95 in November 2019.

State Sen. Jani Iwamoto, who co-sponsored a concurrent resolution in March 2020 to honor Misaka, said in a phone interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly, “it was really emotional to be on the floor, to see the video, to see the jersey.”

Misaka’s framed jersey.
courtesy of Utah Athletics

Misaka’s reaction to the university having a jersey ceremony would have been “the ideal situation because dad didn’t toot his own horn and he downplayed those accomplishments,” his son, Hank Misaka, told the Nichi Bei Weekly in a phone interview.

Umemura thinks her father “would’ve been very proud but also very humble” about the honor. Iwamoto noted Misaka never tried to be “in the limelight or anything.”

Iwamoto, who grew up attending the same Japanese Church of Christ in Salt Lake City as Misaka, spoke about her late friend’s character, as a “gentle, kind human being.” She added that he was “beloved in the community.”

Umemura was inspired by “how his teammates treated him and how good they were to him, how much they supported him.” One such teammate and friend was Arnie Ferrin, whose banner hangs in the rafters next to Misaka’s. The university unveiled Misaka’s banner during the ceremony.

Hank Misaka said his father did not remember the racism he experienced and “the part of the story that’s inspiring is he didn’t pay it much mind. He didn’t use it as fuel.” The younger Misaka added that his father was “focused on the game and his friends.”

Umemura said people recall his father’s tenacity as a basketball player. Her father told her about the time he played a game sick with the flu, losing weight from the exertion of playing, but “he just gave everything to make the team better,” she said.

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