It was Nov. 13, 1947, and the New York Knicks’ first-round pick took to the basketball court at Madison Square Garden. It wasn’t his first time playing in the Garden — he had helped win two college basketball championships there in 1944 and 1947, turning in impressive defensive performances.
That night, though, he struggled.
Three weeks and three games later, he was cut. He never played pro basketball again.
Still, that man, Wataru “Wat” Misaka, has a place in the history books. Misaka was the first person of color to play professional basketball in what would become the NBA — breaking the color barrier the same year Jackie Robinson did in pro baseball. And Misaka did it in the aftermath of World War II, when the attack on Pearl Harbor and war with Japan prompted the U.S. government to imprison more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry in internment camps.
Now, 72 years later, with the Raptors’ Game 6 win Thursday night, Jeremy Lin has become the first Asian American to win an NBA championship. (Lin only played for a few minutes during Game 3 of the Finals, but he will still get a ring along with the rest of his team.)
Lin now joins Misaka in the history books.
Misaka — born in Ogden, Utah, to Japanese immigrants — faced relentless racism for much of his life. He was raised in the basement of his father’s barber shop, between a bar and pawnshop and surrounded by brothels, according to the University of Utah’s magazine, Continuum, which profiled him in 2010. He was banned from restaurants because of his Japanese ancestry, and neighbors would cross the street to avoid him.
“That’s just how it was,” he told Continuum.
He excelled in school, and his dad encouraged him to play sports.
“I was also captain of the football team, a shortstop, ran track,” in addition to basketball, he told the New York Times in 2005.
He spent two years at a junior college before transferring to the University of Utah, playing on both schools’ basketball teams. On away games, people would shout “dirty Jap” at him from the stands. Back then, the National Invitational Tournament was a bigger deal than the NCAA final, and winners of the NIT were considered the unofficial national champions. In 1944, Misaka played for Utah in the NCAA final; they won, earning them an invitation to the NIT.
When he got home from the tournaments, his mother was waiting at the train station with his draft notice, he told Continuum. He served in the military for two years, including a nine-month tour in Japan.
Because his family lived outside the West Coast resettlement zone, they weren’t sent to internment camps like other Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II.
After his service, he rejoined the Utah team and was a key player in their surprise win over Kentucky at the NIT in March 1947.
“Little Wat Misaka, American born of Japanese descent, was a 'cute' fellow intercepting passes and making the night miserable for Kentucky,” reported the Times after the game.
That fall, he was the New York Knicks’s first pick. His photo ran in the New York Times right before his debut, with no comment on how he was about to make history by breaking the color barrier. Instead, they noted how short he was for a basketball player — only 5 feet 7 inches.
His three pro games were tough, and he scored only seven points total. When he was cut, Knicks president Ned Irish told him he could keep the Converse high-tops they had just given him, the Times said.
In 1998, Misaka told The Washington Post he never experienced much racism, even at a time when Japanese Americans were targeted, “because most of the time I was with a sports team. … In general, I had a better acceptance from the crowd in New York than anywhere. It was surprising to me. I really appreciated that."
The Harlem Globetrotters offered him a spot on their team, but he declined. He took a train home to Utah, finished his degree, and worked for decades as an engineer before retiring.
As of 2018, he was 95 and still living in Utah. He could not be reached for comment.
In 2010, Misaka’s place in history was highlighted in the documentary “Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story.” The trailer shows rare footage of him playing.
Over the years, the NBA signed other players of Asian descent, including Yao Ming, but few were Asian American like Misaka until Jeremy Lin. After washing out of the Warriors, Lin was picked up by Misaka’s old team, the Knicks, where his breakout performances, and the rabid fandom that came with it, became known as “Linsanity.”
In December 2018, Misaka was a certain NBA team’s honored guest. He was taken on tour and introduced to a star player. Misaka said he “wished them success” as the season picked up.
The star player was Steph Curry. The team was the Warriors — who lost to Lin’s Raptors Thursday night.
correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Utah won both the NCAA and NIT finals in 1944. They only won the NCAA.
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