Utah’s Wat Misaka, Asian-American pioneer in both college and pro basketball, dies at 95

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) Wat Misaka, the first ethnic minority drafted into the NBA in the 1940s, stands at his business in Salt Lake, Sept. 5, 2008.

Wataru “Wat” Misaka, an Ogden native who was recognized as the first person of color to play in the NBA, died Wednesday in Salt Lake City, the University of Utah announced.

Misaka was 95.

A graduate of Ogden High School, Misaka played for Weber Junior College in his hometown and then joined the Utah program. The 5-foot-7 guard contributed to Utah’s victory over Dartmouth in the 1944 NCAA championship game at Madison Square Garden in New York and to the team’s 1947 NIT title, alongside Arnie Ferrin, who remained a lifelong friend.

“We achieved things that a lot of people never will,” Ferrin said Thursday. “He made us a better team and made me a better person. I can’t say I had anybody I enjoyed being around more than Wat."

Only later did Misaka recognize how he had inspired other Japanese Americans during World War II, as they were “really searching for their identity and to be accepted,” he once said.

A 2008 documentary titled “Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story” enabled even his former Utah teammates to understand more about what he went through in college, hearing racial taunts from fans and having his family endure harsh experiences.

“I’m not sure if we were aware of some of the pressures he had to overcome,” Ferrin once said.

That’s why Wisaka is remembered as being “bigger than the game of basketball,” Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said in a statement.

In his nine years on the job, Ute basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak became acquainted with Misaka, who regularly joined Ferrin at special events. Krystkowiak tweeted that Misaka “embodied such an amazing Ute spirit” and “remained close to the program during my time here, and will be deeply missed.”

The Utah High School Activities Association praised Misaka, whose “legacy helped promote inclusion through sports for underserved populations.”

(Tribune file photo) Wat Misaka

Some accounts described Misaka as “Hawaiian,” as part of an apparent effort to protect him as he played in road games, but he thrived in New York in both the 1944 NCAA Tournament and 1947 NIT.

Having spent two years in the U.S. Army, including an assignment to Hiroshima after the bombing of the city, Misaka rejoined Utah’s basketball program for his senior year.

The Utes beat Kentucky for the NIT championship, with Misaka holding Wildcat star Ralph Beard to one point. Partly based on that performance, the New York Knicks of the league then called the Basketball Association of America signed Misaka (the BAA's final three years are considered part of the NBA's official history).

He played in only three games for the Knicks before being released. Having turned down an offer to join the Harlem Globetrotters, he returned to Utah and completed his degree in engineering.

Thanks largely to the documentary, Misaka’s role in NBA history as the first person of color came into focus in his mid-80s. In a promotional trip, he returned to New York for the first time since his brief Knicks tenure and visited the new Madison Square Garden.

Misaka received further attention in 2012 when Asian American guard Jeremy Lin made a sensational debut with the Knicks. And, in March 2019, when Gonzaga played in Salt Lake City in the NCAA Tournament, Bulldog star Rui Hachimura appreciated the opportunity to meet Misaka as a legendary Japanese American basketball player.

In his hometown, Ogden administrators renamed “Kilowatt Court” at Liberty Park in a 2018 ceremony, citing Misaka’s nickname. On Thursday, the City Council tweeted, “An Ogden legend, he served our country with courage, broke barriers through basketball and will be remembered for the example he set us all.”

Misaka is survived by a daughter a son. His wife, Katie, died in 2017.

(Tribune file photo) A team photograph of the 1944 Utah men's college basketball team, which won the 1944 national championship. Wat Misaka (21) is on the second row in the center.