When filmmakers Bruce Johnson and Christine Toy Johnson first embarked on their journey to document the life of Wataru (Wat) Misaka in their 2009 documentary, “Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story,” one of their first stops was the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Wat was nowhere to be found in the hall and they were particularly surprised to see Wat absent from the NBA Diversity display. They asked to meet with the director who declined by saying, “Wat is really no more than an interesting trivia question.”
It was in New York where Wat helped lead the University of Utah to their only two national championships. It is now widely known that Wat, a Japanese American, was the first person of color to play in the Basketball Association of America, better known today as the National Basketball Association, and lesser known that he is the first collegiate player ever drafted into professional basketball.
I have always wondered why the university never retired Wat’s number, considering his historical significance on and off the court. Utah state Sen. Jani Iwamoto was once told that Wat’s basketball resume, “doesn’t make it through the required hoops.”
The “required hoops” are criteria drawn up several decades ago which include playing for one’s country in an international tournament; being a first team all-American and a two-time all-conference player or conference player of the year and playing four years.
Indeed, Wat does not meet any of these criteria. But context is everything.
Wat played at the University of Utah during and after World War II, winning the NCAA and NIT Championships in 1944 and 1947, respectively. While the 1944 Olympics were cancelled due to the war, it is difficult to imagine a non-white, let alone an American of Japanese descent, being named to a national team when the war in the Pacific was at its height and Japanese Americans all along the West Coast were being interned in camps including at Topaz in Delta, Utah.
Upon returning from his army service in 1946, he had to try out for the team again, even though his 1944 championship teammates, Arnie Ferrin and Dick Smuin, automatically got their roster spots back. To add Great Salt Lake salt to the wound, Coach Vadal Peterson had already re-assigned Wat’s jersey number, 21.
Wat told me that he faced relentless racial taunts at opposing gyms. Peterson ended up not starting Wat to help avoid the anti-Japanese sentiment but when he did sub Wat in, Wat would stay in for the rest of the game. If Wat wasn’t even a starter on his own team, how could he ever have been considered for first team all-American, all-conference or conference player of the year?
An Ogden native and a barber’s son, Wat, attended Weber College to save on housing and work to help pay for tuition. He ended up playing for Weber for two years, where he won MVP at a regional tournament before transferring to Utah.
The only player whose number retired by the University of Utah but did not meet all criteria is Andrew Bogut, who did not play all four years but received an exemption as for being named National Player of the Year.
Wat did hold National Player of the Year, Ralph Beard, to just one point in Utah’s 49-45 victory over the Goliath Kentucky Wildcats in the 1948 NIT Championship Game. Cal Lundquist of the United Press wrote:
“It was hard to pick the hero of the victory that they fought hardest of all to grab, but in the final analysis, little old Wat Misaka, an American-born Japanese who served with U.S. intelligence units during the war, stood out like a handful of very sore thumbs.”
Wat “Kilowatt” Misaka was more than a spark off the bench, more than a NCAA and NIT championship player and most definitely more than “an interesting answer to a trivia question.”
Wat remains a beacon for Utah basketball’s glorious and unduplicated championship seasons. He was a beacon of hope and pride for Japanese Americans, many who were unjustly incarcerated by their own government. Wat is also overwhelmingly deserving of an exception. May his beacon No. 21 permanently hang in the rafters of the University of Utah’s Huntsman Center.
Max Chang is a Salt Lake native and a leader in the Asian American community in Utah. Special thanks to Bruce Johnson, co-director of “Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story.”