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Wat Misaka (1923 – 2019), first person of color to play in the NBA

Getty Images / NY Daily News / George Torrie

Misaka signed with the New York Knicks in 1947, just months after Jackie Robinson began his MLB career

Wataru “Wat” Misaka was a Japanese-American basketball player who joined the New York Knicks in 1947, becoming the first nonwhite player in modern professional basketball. Prior to his professional career, Misaka played for the University of Utah, where his team won two national championships, in 1944 and 1947. He then signed with the Knicks as a guard, officially joining the Basketball Association of America, the NBA’s forerunner whose stats are counted as part of NBA history. Misaka only played three games with the Knicks before being released by the team. He declined an offer to play for the Harlem Globetrotters and returned to his native Utah, where he worked as a mechanical engineer.

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Died: November 20, 2019 (Who else died on November 20?)

Details of death: Died in Salt Lake City at the age of 95.


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The U.S. in 1947: When Misaka joined the Knicks, not much more than a year had passed since the last Japanese Americans who had been imprisoned in internment camps by the U.S. government during World War II were released. Misaka’s family hadn’t been held; living in Utah, they were removed from the West Coast epicenter of internment. In 1947, anti-Japanese sentiment still lingered in some Americans, and Misaka found mixed reactions in New York, where some accepted him and some hurled racial slurs. And when the Knicks’ president, Vadal Peterson, came to Salt Lake City for contract talks with Misaka, the young player knew he couldn’t stay overnight at the hotel where he met with Peterson – only whites could register there.

But tides were beginning to change in the U.S., for Japanese Americans and for other people of color. Jackie Robinson had joined the Brooklyn Dodgers just a few months before Misaka’s Knicks debut. In 1948, Larry Kwong became the first player of Asian descent in the NHL, and two years later, Earl Lloyd joined the Washington Capitols to become the NBA’s first black player.

Notable quote: “It’s kind of strange. My parents were Japanese. But in my entire career I played with whites, so I just feel like I’m just like the rest. The way it was and the way they treated me, I was just another basketball player.” —from an interview with NBA.com

What people said about him: “We achieved things that a lot of people never will. He made us a better team and made me a better person. I can’t say I had anyone I enjoyed being around more than Wat.” —University of Utah teammate Arnie Ferrin

“The passing of Wat Misaka is a significant loss for the nation, and particularly for our Japanese American community. In his accomplishments, he was historic; in his community, he was larger than life. On a very personal level, he was a hero and a friend. From the time I started my career, he took time out to talk to me, was kind, generous, and inspirational.”  —Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes

“I wrote one of my very first articles for ESPN Magazine on Wat Misaka and I feel privileged to have been able to hear his stories first hand. A sweet, generous human being that I’m proud to know got the shine he deserved in his golden years.” —journalist Ursula Liang

Full obituary: The Salt Lake Tribune

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