Wat Misaka broke the color barrier years before Jackie Robinson|
We have a collective historical memory were we believe certain things to be absolute truths, like George Washington was our first president; the American Revolution started in 1776; and Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in sports. Unfortunately, these truths are often wrong and we only remember these things because of their historical significance. What if I told you that John Hanson was the first president in 1781 and Washington was only the first president following the ratification of the Constitution; or that the first battle of the American Revolution began in April 1775; or that black basketball players had been playing in the National Basketball League a decade before Jackie Robinson.
Misaka didn't break the color barrier, but he was the first non-Caucasian to ever play in the NBA, or as it was known at that time the BAA or Basketball Association of America. Watura Misaka, the second generation son of Japanese immigrants, grew up on Ogden's 25th street in the back of a barber shop and would often find him and his family the victim of rampant racial discrimination. Yet despite this Misaka was able to find a love of basketball and was allowed on the Ogden, Utah, High Schools basketball team, where in 1940 he lead them to the state title.
In 1942 he began attending college at Weber College, which is now Weber State University. This was a dangerous time to be Japanese-American as president Roosevelt had recently signed Executive Order 9066 which required that Japanese-American's in the western United State be placed into interment camps. It remains one of the darkest chapters in American history and one of, if not the most, egregious violation of Human and Civil Rights in the 20th century.
Misaka was allowed to get an exemption to continue his studies at Weber and play basketball. He only played two seasons at Weber College but would lead the Wildcats to the Junior College championship both season.
After two seasons at Weber Misaka began attending the University of Utah. While playing for the Utes he was a key member of two championship teams. The first was in 1944 when the Utes became the first and thus far only team to play in both the NCAA and NIT tournaments in the same year. Utah was able to compete in both tournaments because they had been eliminated at the more prestigious NIT tournament by the University of Kentucky and the University of Arkansas had been involved in a fatal bus accident on their way to their NCAA Tournament game in Kansas City. The Utes replaced them and would go on to defeat Dartmouth in overtime to win the championship.
Following the championship upon his return to Salt Lake City Misaka found out that he had been drafted by the US Army. While in the US Army Misaka was assigned to a language specialist unit destined to be part of the invasion of Japan, but the dropping of the atomic bomb would change that. Misaka was sent to the area around Hiroshima to act as an interpreter for the army. Misaka's family had originally been from the area around Hiroshima, the site of the first atomic bombing, and had planned to move back before his fathers death in 1939. He would spend the next two years as a sergeant in the Army before returning to the University of Utah and helping the Utes win the 1947 NIT championship.
The New York Knicks of the BAA would draft Misaka in the 7th round of the 1947 BAA draft. He would go on to play in 3 games and scoring 7 points in the 1947-48 season before being released by the Knicks. Misaka never credited his release to racism but rather than to the fact that the Kncks were loaded at the guard position. By playing in the 3 games in the 47-48 season Misaka became the first non-white player in NBA/BAA history and he predated the first African-American players in the NBA by 3 years.
The BAA would merge with the National Basketball League, which had previously allowed black players to play in the league, in 1949 to form the NBA. The three year history of the BAA would be kept over the 12 year history of the NBL, making it so that Misaka would be considered the first non-white player in NBA history.
Following his BAA career Misaka returned to Utah to finish his engineering degree and would eventually go on to be an engineer. He would go on to be inducted into the Utah sports hall-of-fame in 1999.