Wataru ‘Wat’ Misaka, the first non-white person to play in the Basketball Association of America (the predecessor to the National Basketball Association), died in Salt Lake City on November 20 at the age of 95.
Misaka, a 5’7” point guard, played three games for the New York Knicks in 1947, the same year that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. The NBA didn’t have an African American player until 1950. But Misaka said his presence on the court was not a big deal at the time. “Nobody cared,” the Utah native was quoted as saying in The Salt Lake Tribune..
An illustrious college career at the University of Utah paved the way to the pros for Misaka. He led the team to two national titles in 1944 and 1947, taking two years off in between to serve in the armed forces. Misaka was known as a tenacious defender on the court.
In 1944, Misaka led the Utes to the NCAA title after they lost in the more prestigious National Invitational Tournament. (Today, the prestige of those two tourneys is reversed.) In 1947, back from the military, he led the Utes to the NIT championship, winning it all at Madison Square Garden, where Misaka held the star of Dartmouth College, Ralph Beard, scoreless.
“Imagine playing in Madison Square Garden, the Mecca of college basketball, guarding the best player in the game and shutting him out,” Ute teammate and former University of Utah Athletic Director Arnie Ferrin was quoted as saying after hearing that Wat had passed. “That may be the best defensive performance in the history of the tournament.”
Misaka is survived by his two children and his grandchildren.