Wat Misaka, Basketball Pioneer
Wat Misaka 三阪 亙
Serious Japanese fans of American basketball will know of Yuta Tabuse of famed Noshiro Technical High School in Akita Prefecture, who played three games for the Phoenix Suns in the NBA in 2004.
Tabuse, who led Noshiro to three straight national high school titles in Japan (losing only one game in three years), is, as of late 2017, still playing professionally for the Link Tochigi Brex of the B.League.
Standing at just 175 centimeters (5'9"), Tabuse was the second Japanese to play in the NBA. The first to play, Wataru "Wat" Misaka, preceded him by more than half a century.
Born in Ogden, Utah, in 1923 to Japanese parents who had immigrated in 1903, Misaka was the first Japanese and first non-white to both be drafted by and play in the NBA. He played for the New York Knicks in 1947.
Misaka was given a guaranteed contract, quite rare in those days, but still was cut after only three games. He scored seven points in those three games. He was later offered a contract with the Harlem Globetrotters, but turned that down. In the history of the NBA, only three players have been shorter than the 170 centimeter (5'7") Misaka.
The reasons for Misaka being dropped are not clear, but he has said that he did not feel any discrimination during his time with New York, and that the Knicks had too many guards at the time. Other people claim it was purely discrimination that led to his being dropped.
After his brief pro career, Misaka returned to Utah and got his engineering degree. He was an engineer for many years before retiring.
In Misaka's youth, his father was a barber in what was then called the toughest neighborhood in Utah. The elder Misaka died when Wat was 15, and Wat's mother talked of moving the family back to Japan to live with her brother. Wat talked her out of it, and later led his high school team to a state championships in 1940 and a regional championship in 1941. He was named his team's Most Valuable Player.
After graduation he enrolled at Weber College, then a two-year college, where he led his team to a pair of championships. At Weber, he worked part time, played basketball and took as many as 20 units a semester. An average full-time load is usually 12-15 units.
Then it was on to the University of Utah where he led his 1943-44 team, whose members averaged less than 19 years old, to an 18-3 record and the NCAA championship. They won the final over Dartmouth, 42-40, in overtime.
After a two-year stint in the military where he rose to staff sergeant, he returned to Utah and led the Utes to the 1947 National Invitational Tournament (NIT) championship, which was then more prestigious than the NCAA tournament. In the NIT championship game, Misaka held the NCAA's national Player of the Year, Ralph Beard, to one point. Utah beat Kentucky in that game, 49-45.
There is actually some debate as to whether Misaka was drafted. Some sources claim he was, but other sources cast doubt on that idea. Several sources claim that Misaka was the New York Knicks' first-ever draft choice. That is clearly not true as Dick Holub was their first-ever draft pick in 1947 in what was then called the Basketball Association of America, the forerunner to today's NBA.
As of November, 2016, Misaka was 92 years old and still living in Utah. He and his wife, Kate, have two sons.
You can find more information on Misaka by going to Youtube or by watching the documentary entitled, "Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story."
Note: There was at least one other Japanese player drafted by the NBA. In the seventh round (some sources say eighth round) of the1981 draft the Golden State Warriors drafted 7-foot-8 inch (234 cm) Yasutake Okayama from Kumamoto, Japan. His nickname was, of course, "Chibi," meaning "little." He was a second degree black belt in judo, but had not started playing basketball until he was an 18-year-old at Osaka University of Commerce.