Breaking the Basketball Color Line, 70 Seasons Ago

Breaking the Basketball Color Line, 70 Seasons Ago

Japanese-American basketball player Wat Misaka of the New York Knickerbockers.


Why you should care

Because even a brief breakthrough can lead to lasting change.

A crowd of 14,861 at Madison Square Garden in November 1947 saw the New York Knicks begin their second season with a convincing win against their division rival, the Red Auerbach–coached Washington Capitols. Led by team captain Bud Palmer’s 21 points, the speedy Knicks ran past Washington for an 80-65 victory that The New York Times reported left “the Capitols gasping for breath.”

What the Times did not report was that a 5-foot-7 Knick guard slipped into the game late to contribute two points and two fouls. The stats are modest, but of far greater significance is that brief appearance by Wataru “Wat” Misaka quietly broke the league’s color line just eight months after Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball.

As a pioneer of the game, [Misaka] blazed a trail for integration and inclusion in the early days of the NBA.

Dennis D’Agostino, New York Knicks historian

The son of a barber, Misaka grew up in Ogden in northern Utah and took up basketball in junior high school after watching barnstorming Harlem Globetrotter teams. Without much money in the family to buy sports equipment, he built his own track hurdle in the alley outside his father’s shop to practice jumping. Championships at Ogden High School and nearby Weber Junior College earned him a spot on the University of Utah squad in 1943–44. Given the outbreak of World War II and the loss of players to the military draft, the team consisted mostly of speedy freshmen nicknamed the “Blitz Kids” and the “Live Five with the Jive Drive.”

At that time, the U.S. government issued a wartime order and rounded up more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans who were living in designated coastal “exclusion zones” and transferred them to desolate, rudimentary camps. Since Utah was outside the zones, Misaka’s family escaped internment, but the family of teammate Masateru Tatsuno did not. That season both players pushed past anti-Japanese hostility, propaganda and racial taunting during road trips — all games were road games since the U.S. Army had requisitioned the campus gym — to help Utah win the NCAA championship. After the season, Misaka and Tatsuno traveled to the Topaz War Relocation Center, near Delta, Utah, to give Tatsuno’s family one of the championship blankets awarded to players as keepsakes.

Then Misaka received a draft notice. After language training, he shipped off to Japan in August 1945. There, he was assigned to interview civilians about morale following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which was the Misaka family’s ancestral home. After nine months, he returned to college, eager to finish his degree. He gave basketball one last shot in a season that serendipitously put his degree ambitions on hold.

In another successful run, Utah advanced to the 1947 National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden, which at the time was more prestigious than the NCAA Tournament. In the final, Utah beat the favored University of Kentucky Wildcats, with Misaka holding Player of the Year Ralph Beard to a single point.

Misaka’s scrappy play earned cheers from the Garden crowd — and the notice of New York Knicks president Ned Irish, who offered Misaka a guaranteed contract of $4,000 for the 1947–48 season. That autumn, Misaka joined the team, but he faced long odds. The Knicks coach, Joe Lapchick, hadn’t been a part of the decision to add him to the squad, and the team’s three guards had little incentive to welcome him. In Misaka’s lone road game, against the Providence Steamrollers, he received bad advice from teammates on how to cover an opponent, leading to several easy early points for Providence.

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Bear Mountain, New York: New York Knickerbockers Joe Lapchich (Left), Wat Misaka (Center), and Lee Knorek (Right).

Source Getty

Misaka later said he did not take the misdirection personally or attribute it or his subsequent release with a total of seven pro points to prejudice. “I was a naive kid, and they already had three guards,” the 94-year-old tells OZY by phone from his home near Salt Lake City. “But this little experience gave me great joy just to be part of the new professional game. It was a really big break to go from a rural town to a big city.”

He returned to Utah to finish his degree in mechanical engineering, which he notes was more of a passion than basketball. In this modern era of athletes advocating for social justice, Misaka deflects any suggestion that his own experience contributed to the cause of racial equality. “I was just a little guy,” Misaka says. “I didn’t make much difference at all.”

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, includes only brief information on Misaka. A search for him on the Hall’s website yields no results, although a spokesman says his photo is in an exhibition about African-American players.

Even so, the Knicks, the NBA and others have celebrated Misaka’s role in recent years — years in which the league has fielded Yao Ming, Jeremy Lin and Yuta Tabuse. Misaka was honored at the 2009 All-Star Game as an NBA legend, and the Knicks feted him in 2012 at a Pioneers Night, which also included Lapchick, John Rucker and Sweetwater Clifton (one of the first four African-Americans in the NBA, in 1950).

“Wat holds a unique and treasured place in the history of the Knicks, as not only a member of the first NBA draft class in franchise history in 1947 but also as the first non-Caucasian player in team history,” Dennis D’Agostino, a Knicks historian, says. “As a pioneer of the game, he blazed a trail for integration and inclusion in the early days of the NBA and is very close to our hearts as the oldest living Knick and as a storied figure in his native Utah.”

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