wataru misaka black and white picture
KSL Sports/Deseret News
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The first person of color to play in the NBA, Wataru “Wat” Misaka has died at the age of 95

Sad news as Japanese American pioneer Wataru “Wat” Misaka has passed away. He was the first person of color to play in the Basketball Association of America, later called the NBA, when he signed with the New York Knicks in 1947. Misaka passed away at his Salt Lake City, Utah home on November 20th, reports the University of Utah Athletics Department. He was 95 years old.

“We are saddened to learn of the passing of Wat Misaka,” Mark Harlan, the Director of Athletics at the University of Utah said. “He was a part of the Utah teams that won national championships in the 1940s, but Wat was bigger than the game of basketball, blazing trails into places nobody of his descent had gone before. He was such a kind and thoughtful man and will be missed by so many. Our thoughts are with his family, friends, and Utah fans, who all mourn his passing.”

Wataru Misaka was born in Ogden, Utah on December 21, 1923. Growing up in America was not easy for Misaka because of the racial discrimination he experienced. But he loved sports and wanted to be more “than just a plain old Japanese immigrant son,” he told the Japan Times.

In Utah, he attended Ogden High where he thrived in basketball. He led the team to several championships during his time there. He then went to Weber Junior College where he led the team to two championships. After, he transferred to the University of Utah to play for the Utes basketball team. There he helped the team win an NIT Tournament championship.

1947 University of Utah NIT team
University of Utah/Japan Times

However, his time at the University of Utah was interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. military during World War II.

Wataru "Wat" Misaka holding a basketball
University of Utah/Japan Times

Once he finished his duty with the military, he returned to the University of Utah where he helped them win another national basketball championship.

Soon he was drafted by the New York Knicks and he became the first non-Caucasian player to play professional basketball. But his professional career didn’t last long as he was waived after three games.

He had a chance to play with the Harlem Globetrotters but he chose to go back to school to become an electrical engineer.

While he was playing he didn’t realize he was making history and going to be a hero to the Asian American community. He just wanted to be “good.”

“It was just luck that I happened to be the first one, not because I was anything special,” he told the Japan Times. “I didn’t think about being the first non-white player. My motivation was a desire to be good, doing the things you enjoy doing, getting good at things your friends would like to be good at themselves.”

In 1999, Misaka was inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame and in 2011 he was inducted into the University of Utah’s Crimson Hall of Fame.

In 2008, a documentary was made about Misaka’s life called the Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story.”

Wataru Misaka is survived by his son and daughter. His wife Katie passed away in 2017.

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