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Legendary Utah basketball player Wat Misaka passes away at 95

We lost a titan in the Utah athletics community, and the community at large with the passing of Wat Misaka on Thursday. The 95 year old former Utah basketball player, and member of the 1944 and 47 National Championship teams was really pivotal in so much more than basketball. He was the first non-Caucasian player drafted into what would eventually be in the NBA. I have the full press release below from the Utah SID, that breaks down not only his career on the court, but also his military career. Let us not forget that the ‘40s were not a great time period for Asian people in the United States, and Misaka was in the middle of all of it.

The New York Times did a cool write up on him today, that you should go check out. The Times points out that Misaka suited up for the Knicks shortly after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball.

I look forward to seeing how the athletic department honors Misaka at coming events, and I hope everyone can take a moment and reflect on what he meant to the U, the state, and more.

The official release:

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The University of Utah Athletics Department mourns the passing of Wataru “Wat” Misaka, who passed away at the age of 95 on Nov. 20 in Salt Lake City. Misaka, who helped lead the Utah basketball program to national championships in 1944 and ‘47, broke barriers when he became the first non-Caucasian player in the Basketball Association of America (predecessor to the NBA) in 1947. ”We are saddened to learn of the passing of Wat Misaka,” said Director of Athletics Mark Harlan. “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.”

Known as the Jackie Robinson of basketball, Misaka was inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame in 1999 and the University of Utah’s Crimson Club Hall of Fame in 2011. Misaka was the point guard for Utah’s 1944 NCAA tournament championship team and the 1947 NIT championship team. In between his two seasons playing for Utah he was drafted into the military and rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant. In his first season with the Utes, the tenacious defender helped guide Utah to the 1944 National Championship and a 22-4 overall record. After losing in the more prestigious National Invitational Tournament to Kentucky, the Utes were asked to take the place of Arkansas in the eight-team NCAA Tournament. After taking down Missouri 45-35 and Iowa State 40-31, where Misaka scored five points and nine points, respectively, Utah returned to New York City. The 5-7 guard had won over New Yorkers in the previous week during the NIT with his style of play, and in the NCAA Championship game he scored four points as Utah defeated Dartmouth 42-40 in overtime at Madison Square Garden. After returning from his service during WWII, Misaka helped lead the Utes to the 1947 NIT title with a 49-45 victory over Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats. That team wound up 19-5 overall at season’s end and finished second in the Skyline Conference with a 10-2 mark. Following his playing career at Utah, Misaka was drafted by the New York Knicks in 1947. The first player of Japanese descent to play in the NBA, known then as the Basketball Association of America, Misaka took part in three games during the 1947-48 season and scored seven points.

In August of 2018, his hometown of Ogden, Utah, honored Misaka with the “Kilowatt Court” at Liberty Park. He also was the Terasaki Budokan’s guest of honor in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo two months earlier. In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama mentioned Misaka when he spoke at the opening ceremony to mark the formation of the President’s Advisory Commission and White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders. In 2008, Bruce Johnson and Christine Johnson directed, “Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story.”