Before there was Linsanity, there was, for a brief moment, Misakamania.
OK, that might be an exaggeration. But Wataru "Wat" Misaka, the first non-Caucasian and first Asian-American to play in the NBA was perhaps an even more unlikely star than Jeremy Lin. If you happened to be listening to NPR during your morning commute Wednesday, you might have caught his interview with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep.
The 5-foot-7-inch Japanese-American was born in Ogden, Utah, in 1923. He played basketball for the Utes in the 1940s, a time when being Japanese in the U.S. was anywhere from uncomfortable to terrifying. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II, many Americans of Japanese descent were forced to live in remote internment camps, where the conditions could be quite difficult.
It was a complicated time for Misaka personally, who took two years from his college basketball career to serve in the U.S. Army during the occupation of Japan. After witnessing the occupation, playing basketball at home just felt bizarre.
"It was a real strange experience," Misaka, now 88, told NPR, "to be free -- not without prejudice, but free -- and playing the game I loved in my home state, while others were being treated like criminals."
Despite his height problem (and did we mention he weighed just 150 pounds?) Misaka caught the attention of the Basketball Association of America during a 1947 college championship against Kentucky.
A New York Times article from from March 25, 1947, describes him: "Little Wat Misaka, American born of Japanese descent, was a 'cute' fellow intercepting passes and making the night miserable for Kentucky."
He told the Times in 2005 it was the best game of his life.
In the 1947 BAA draft, Misaka was picked by none other than the New York Knicks, making him the first non-white player in the BAA. (A few years later, in 1950, Chuck Cooper became the first African-American drafted by the NBA.)
Unfortunately, Misaka's entire professional career was shorter than Jeremy Lin's six-game winning streak. After scoring seven points playing in just three games during the 1947-1948 season, Misaka was axed from the team. He never blamed it on racial discrimination, and returned to the engineering path he was on at the University of Utah. He still lives there, with two kids and three grandchildren nearby. A fan of college ball more so than the NBA, Misaka wasn't in the stands when when Lin scored 28 points against the Jazz on Feb. 6. But, as he told NPR, his brother called to get him to turn on the TV. And he couldn't stop watching.
"He is quite an amazing player," Misaka said. "Just like everyone else, I was really surprised at the skills that he had."
As basketball faded from his life, he didn't make much of his brief professional career. His daughter didn't even know he played ball until she was in college, and he said he doesn't think of himself as a pioneer.
Still, the sports world remembers him as something special. Misaka was inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame in 1999. A pair of his size 7 Knicks shoes are on display at a Japanese-American musuem on Los Angeles. A New York filmmaking husband and wife duo produced a documentary about Misaka. "Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story" premiered in 2008. Ever modest, Misaka told the Salt Lake City Tribune his own story was "puny," and filmmakers should spend their time documenting Japanese-American war heroes.
Misaka may not consider his own life to be the stuff of legends, but the path he forged made way for Linsanity, which years from now will surely be remembered as legendary.
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