Wataru Misaka, who broke pro basketball's color barrier, dies at 95

Waturu Misaka, right, seen with Lee Knorek as a member of the New York Knicks. (George Torrie/NY Daily News via Getty Images)
Wataru Misaka, right, seen with Lee Knorek as a member of the New York Knicks. (George Torrie/NY Daily News via Getty Images)

The man credited with breaking professional basketball’s color barrier has died.

The University of Utah announced on Thursday that Wataru "Wat" Misaka died at 95 years old in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.

Misaka played for Utah on their 1944 NCAA championship team and 1947 NIT championship team that defeated Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats before being selected by the New York Knicks with the 61st pick of the Basketball Association of America draft. The BAA would go on to merge with the NBA in 1949.

"We are saddened to learn of the passing of Wat Misaka," Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said in a statement. "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.”

Wasaka played just three games and scored seven points for the Knicks. But those three games marked the first played by a non-white player at pro basketball’s highest level.

Wasaka served in WWII in Hiroshima

Wasaka, a 5-7 guard of Japanese descent, spent his time between his two seasons at Utah with the U.S. Army after being drafted to serve in World War II. He rose to the rank of staff sergeant and served in Hiroshima after the U.S. dropped a nuclear bomb on the Japanese city, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

He returned after the war to play for the ‘47 Utes, where his performance holding Kentucky’s Ralph Beard to one point in the NIT championship played a role in his being drafted by the Knicks, according to the Tribune.

Listed as ‘Hawaiian’ while at Utah

The Tribune reports that Misaka was sometimes listed as “Hawaiian” during his time at Utah to protect him from taunts from opposing fans as animosity against Japan was prevalent during World War II.

“Wat was a person who was an achiever in all he did," Misaka’s lifelong friend and Utah teammate Arnie Ferrin said in a statement. “His contribution to winning a National Championship may not be remembered, but his play won the championship for Utah in the 1947 Tournament.

“He did so many great things such as representing the Japanese as an American citizen during the War. He was one of my best friends, in fact we all should have a friend like him. I will miss him dearly.”

Turned down Globetrotters

After his short stint with the Knicks, Misaka turned down an invitation to play for the Harlem Globetrotters to complete his engineering degree at Utah.

He is survived by a daughter and a son, according to the Tribune.

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