JACL to Honor Basketball Great Wat Misaka

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Wat Misaka was a star basketball player for the University of Utah in the 1940s.

WASHINGTON — The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) will be holding its JACL Gala (A Salute to Champions) in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 29.

Wataru “Wat” Misaka is among the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who will be recognized for their outstanding contributions to the field of athletics.

As a trailblazing athlete, Misaka became the first person of color drafted to play in the NBA, then known as the Basketball Association of America. A Nisei born in Ogden, Utah, he began his basketball career at Weber Junior College and continued to play at the University of Utah. During his college basketball years, he led his school to the 1944 National College Athletic Association Championship.

Although he was not interned, Misaka’s life was interrupted by World War II. When he returned home from the 1944 championship, his mother met him at the train station with a draft notice in hand. He took two years off from college basketball to serve in the U.S. Army. When he resumed playing basketball with the University of Utah, he helped lead them to the 1947 National Invitation Tournament Championship.

Five-foot-seven in stature, Misaka made history by being the first draft pick by the New York Knickerbockers in 1947, the same year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in professional baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Wat Misaka still lives in Utah today.

Following his time in New York and after passing on an informal invitation to play with the Harlem Globetrotters, he hurried home to Utah and completed his degree in mechanical engineering.

The documentary film “Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story” by Bruce Alan Johnson and 2010 JACL Awards Gala honoree Christine Toy Johnson shares Misaka’s amazing story.  To learn more, visit www.watmisaka.com.

Misaka’s career with the University of Utah led to his induction into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame in 1999, two years after his induction into the Japanese American National Bowling Hall of Fame. In 2002, he was inducted into the Japanese American Sports Hall of Fame. (Also inducted were Ann Kiyomura Hayashi for tennis, Kristi Yamaguchi for figure skating, Wally Yonamine for football and baseball, and Tommy Kono for weighlifting.) Misaka remains a role model and personal hero to many. He currently resides in Utah with his wife, Katie.

JACL National Executive Director Floyd Mori remarked, “Wat Misaka has been my personal hero since I listened on the radio as a young boy to his leadership on the basketball court playing for the University of Utah.  There is nobody more humble yet deserving of national recognition for his role in breaking the color barrier in the NBA. Wat has become a close personal friend and golfing partner over the past twenty-five years after I returned to Utah, and he remains the man of high character and great athleticism that I’ve admired for many years.”

The JACL Gala will be honoring several other outstanding individuals who made a name in sports and athletics. For more information, visit www.jacl.org.

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