Forging a Path to the Court: Former Ute Misaka Wataru, First Player of Color in the NBA

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Forging a Path to the Court: Former Ute Misaka Wataru, First Player of Color in the NBA

(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

By Casey Overfield

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The history of minorities in professional sports goes back many years. The struggles that athletes of color have endured over the years was tough, yet the legacy that these players have left are what have truly shaped the world of professional sports.

When you think of athletes of color throughout history, names such as Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Yao Ming and Bo Jackson might come to mind.

In the world of professional basketball, the league today is pretty diverse. There are athletes playing professionally that come from all sorts of backgrounds. Like many things in the world, however, it hasn’t always been this way.  

The athlete that paved the way for minorities in the National Basketball Association (NBA) is named Wataru “Wat” Misaka. A Utah alum, he was the first non-white athlete to play in the NBA beginning with the 1947 season.  

Misaka was born in 1923 in Ogden, Utah, which is about 40 miles north of Salt Lake City. Growing up during World War II, Misaka’s Japanese ethnicity caused him to be attacked by bullies who would tear him down on the basis of discrimination.

Growing up during a time of harsh racial discrimination made everyday life tough for Misaka, but he made his mark on the sports world and this helped him to make a name for himself and to overcome the everyday struggles that he faced in low-diversity Utah.

Sports were a place that Misaka could overcome these social injustices and he did it well. During his younger years, he helped the Ogden High School basketball team to both a state and regional championship title.

After high school, Misaka attended Weber State College for two years, which was a junior college at the time. He was also a member of the basketball team there and won two championships.

Once he was finished at Weber, Misaka moved on to a bigger education at the U. He played on the basketball team for one year, taking the team to the NCAA championship game against Dartmouth College in 1944.

He stayed at Utah for only one year before he was drafted into the army where he served for two years, eventually being promoted to Staff Sergeant. This break from school to serve in the war effort was not uncommon and Misaka went overseas with many other young college-aged men. After his time in the war, Misaka came back to Utah where he rejoined the team for the remainder of his time in college.

During his time as a Ute, the basketball team won another championship and competed in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) in New York where they won against Kentucky. Misaka was on the court for the whole game.

Right out of college, Misaka was a part of the 1947 NBA draft where he was selected by the New York Knicks as the first non-Caucasian basketball player. Later that same year, Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play professional baseball in the United States.

During his professional career, Misaka, a 5’ 7” guard, played in only three games and contributed seven points. He lasted only one season in the big leagues before being cut for reasons relating to athlete numbers and not due to race.

The first black athlete was not drafted into the NBA until three years after Misaka made his debut in New York.

After this, Misaka returned to Utah to complete his engineering degree at the U before settling down. He got married, had two children and remains in Salt Lake City today.

Although his time in the NBA was short, the now 95-year-old Misaka carried a big legacy. His name is in the Utah Sports Hall of Fame and he has been featured in a number of exhibits and short documentaries about his life as the first player of color in professional basketball.

“It really didn’t matter too much, you know, at that time. It meant more later on,” Misaka said in a 2018 interview with ABC News. “Later on is when I started realizing just exactly what that sort of thing meant. I felt proud that I was a little guy but I was out there doing my best to represent my people.”

Misaka is a trailblazer for all minority athletes, and although his name is not well-known, he is one of the most important people in basketball history, and his legacy will be long lasting in the world of sports.

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@CaseyOverfield