Post written by Erin Sato, Assistant Archivist at Go For Broke National Education Center
While cataloging records for the interviewees from the Hanashi Oral History Project, I came across a very interesting individual by the name of Wataru Misaka. He is not only known for being a Military Intelligence Service veteran who participated in the occupation of Japan, but also for being the first Japanese American to be drafted into the NBA (National Basketball Association).
Wataru “Wat” Misaka was born in Ogden, Utah to two Issei parents from Hiroshima Prefecture in Japan. At a young age, Wat took an interest in sports, playing on various sports teams starting in junior high school, and continuing into high school and college. Luckily, he and his family were not forcibly removed into an incarceration camp after the implementation of Executive Order 9066, so he was able to continue his education at Weber Junior College (now Weber State University) and later at the University of Utah.
While attending his first year at the University of Utah in 1944, he helped the basketball team win the NCAA and NIT (National Invitational Tournament) Championship. As soon as he returned home from New York, Wat received his draft notice and reported to Fort Douglas, Utah for his induction into the US Army. He completed his basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, and was reassigned to military language training at Camp Savage, and later, Fort Snelling, Minnesota. After completing language training, Wat was shipped to the Philippines, then to Tokyo where he was assigned as an interviewer for the United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) team.
Wat returned to the United States after receiving his discharge in 1946, where he continued his studies and re-joined the basketball team at the University of Utah. A year later, he helped his team win the NIT (National Invitation Tournament) Championship in New York. Back then, the National Invitation Tournament was the top college basketball tournament that a college team could qualify to compete in (equivalent to the NCAA college tournament today).
In that same year, Wat was drafted by the New York Knicks, becoming the first Japanese American to play in the NBA. This was a huge milestone, considering this was a time when people of color had little presence within the professional sports world. “The thing that makes it special to me,” Wat said in his Hanashi oral history interview, “is that I was the first, and maybe the only, Japanese American to ever play on a national basketball championship team. And I was the first non-white to get drafted into, what is now, the NBA. Jackie Robinson […] played for the Yankees in 1947 and he was the first black that year, but that was something really tremendous because blacks were forbidden to play up until then. There was no such restrictions on Japanese Americans, but still I was the first, and up to now, the only one, I guess.” When asked in his interview if he was treated like a celebrity, he responds: “No. It was not that big of a deal, you know. It’s still not that big a deal, but it’s something that I am proud of.”