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The Life


Basketball's Jackie Robinson
ESPN The Magazine

The first player of color in the Basketball Association of America, the precusor to the NBA? Wataru "Kilo Wat" Misaka, the University of Utah's 5-foot-7 star forward, was the New York Knicks' No. 1 pick in the 1947 draft.

Back then, the draft was not a big deal. Unfortunately, Misaka, now 78 years old, recalls that being Japanese-American was.


* * * * *

I read it in the newspaper. That's how I found out I'd been drafted by the Knicks in June 1947. I was surprised-I didn't know they were having a draft.

Wat Misaka
Wat Misaka (center) was the Knicks' first ever draft pick, but played just three games under coach Joe Lapchick (left).
There was no hype about pro basketball. My college coach (Vadal Peterson) called me, and we met Knicks president Ned Irish at the Hotel Utah in Salt Lake City, a hotel I'd never think of registering at -- they didn't let nonwhites stay there. I signed for a $3,000 season.

In October, I went to New York for training camp, which lasted about three weeks.

I was as good as the next player, and one of the first to be recruited out of state. The rest were local boys like rookie Carl Braun, my friend and roommate, who later became a star and coach. I spent weekends at his place on Long Island to escape from the Belvedere Hotel next to the Garden. But I didn't get close to anyone besides Carl.

One great thing about playing at the Garden: They let us in to see the other events. I got to see Joe Louis fight one Friday night. I was a little country boy in a big city, and he was one of my heroes. That was the same year Jackie Robinson became the first black player in the majors. I pulled for him. You always root for your own kind, and we belonged to the same outcast group: nonwhite. We lived with discrimination every day.

I learned to avoid confrontation. I wouldn't go into a nice restaurant without my teammates. I wouldn't go out much at all. It was just basketball, eat, sleep. Actually, the New York fans were probably better than the fans back home. But I still heard a few yell, 'Jap go home.' And they weren't talking about Utah.

Wat Misaka
Just eight months after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, Wat Misaka became the first player of color in professional basketball.
I won't say I was the victim of discrimination with the Knicks, but I was let go under strange circumstances. We had played a full preseason and three league games, and the team already had been cut to 12 when Ned Irish called me into his office. He said he was sorry, he didn't agree, but it was Coach Lapchick's decision to let me go. I didn't question it. They let me keep my $3,000. I packed my bag and went home to Utah. I could've played for the Globetrotters, but I decided to finish school and become an engineer.

I never felt like a pioneer then. Pro basketball just wasn't a big deal. The biggest moment of my life then was winning the 1947 NIT (which was bigger than the NCAA tournament back then) against Kentucky and holding their All-America, Ralph Beard, to one point.

The NBA has players from all over the world now. People tell me I was a trailblazer. That's a wonderful feeling.

It's nice to be remembered -- even if it was for only three games.

This article appears in the June 24 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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