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Wednesday, 10 September 2008

"Wat" an NBA pioneer

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An education on the history of basketball is a wonderful thing. The stars of the NBA today dazzle us with their athleticism and celebrity-power. However often we forget that these players live in an era where they are paid millions, thus providing them with the best technologies and allowing them to concentrate on basketball as their sole career option. Back in the day, many a career was forged on skill and dedication -- and if someone was a professional player, you knew that they loved the game.

Many of the players from yesteryear are lost from our memories, in the days before live streaming broadcasts of games and websites like this. On that note, it is fantastic when documentaries are released, highlighting the careers of these forefathers of this fine sport.

One such film is that focused on Wataru "Wat" Misaka, the first non-white player to enter the ranks of pro ball in the USA. Misaka played in the Basketball Association of America, which is now known as the NBA.

The film, titled "Transcending" is being shown today in Salt Lake City, to celebrate this Utah pioneer of ethnic minorities in American basketball. The 5'7" Japanese American point guard, was drafted in the first round by the New York Knicks in 1947. Prior to that, "Wat" had led the University of Utah to its only two national championships.

Misaka has not been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He's not even mentioned in the hall of fame's tribute to diversity in basketball.

"It wasn't a big thing. I was a nobody, not good enough to make the team," Misaka said. "Maybe nobody knew that there was any history being made."

Misaka only played a short while with the Knicks, scoring seven points in three games, before being cut "for reasons never made clear to him."

In the same year as he became the first ethnic minority to play pro basketball, Jackie Robinson did the same in baseball, to much greater fanfare. Wat's opinion on the matter seems to be that he simply wasn't good enough to be made a big deal over.

He was the first ethnic minority player in the NBA, but there were no news conferences or interviews with journalists.

"It wasn't a big thing," he said. "Nobody cared."

In 1947, Wat was not considered a Yao Ming or even a Wang Zhi Zhi. The NBA was not headed by David Stern and the insatiable thirst to conquest the East was not in place, thus Wat's short pro stint went unnoticed and largely unheralded.

On being cut from the Knicks squad, Wat said, "I was surprised. It was a disappointment."

Back then, Misaka said, pro basketball players didn't make million-dollar salaries, so he wasn't missing out on much. Misaka returned to Utah to complete his mechanical engineering degree.

Clearly this was a very different scenario to today's players who will continue to strive at getting a shot at the big pay-day.

Given the time in history that Misaka played his basketball, he did encounter his share of racism. However he ignored this largely.

"I was the only one not white, but I couldn't see myself," he said. And when he heard racial slurs coming from the stands, Misaka said he took it as if they just didn't like him because he was on the opposing team. "I chose not to listen to it," he said.

He did find New York very welcoming, despite the fact that World War II was only recent history.

"Whether real or not, I felt less prejudice against me in New York than I did anywhere else," said Misaka. "Playing for Utah (at Madison Square Garden), New Yorkers are great fans of underdogs and they really backed us up, even against St. John's. When I went back as a Knick, there were people who remembered me from playing for Utah and would say hello on the streets, sometimes."

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And One said...

Nice story - I learn something every time I visit.

rasheed walrus said...

that's a godam lie. the first non-white basketball player was black.

Anonymous said...

that is some mad hate..... how can you say that when you dont have any proof, not to say this is true, but you need to back it up with something!!!!

mookie said...

@ rasheed walrus:

Such a carefully crafted comment requires a response. If you look into the annals of history, you will find that the first black man to play in the NBA was Earl Floyd in 1950 for the Washington Capitols -- over three years after "Wat" played for the Knicks. Thanks for reading anyway!

@ anonymous:

Yep, there certainly are a lot of haters out there on the internet these days, aren't there?

@ and one:

I'm only trying to live up to your standards of writing!! Thanks for stopping by as always.