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Pro Basketball's First Asian-American Player Looks At Lin, And Applauds

Feb 14, 2012
Originally published on February 15, 2012 12:31 pm

Linsanity is buzzing through the sports world, as New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin has come off the bench to emerge as a star. The unlikely story of an NBA player of Taiwanese descent who attended Harvard — and who, at 6 feet 3 inches, outscored Kobe Bryant to beat the Lakers — has won him many admirers.

There aren't many players like Lin. But in Utah, there's a man who knows something about what he's experiencing. Like Lin, Wat (for Wataru) Misaka is an Asian-American who became an unlikely star and played basketball for the Knicks. But he did it in the 1940s.

That was after two trips to national title games, including one played in Madison Square Garden — also the Knicks' home court.

"For some reason, the crowd was really rooting for me," Misaka, 88, tells Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep of that tournament. "New Yorkers are known to root for underdogs. I think that was the reason. Here was an underdog team, from out in the sticks in Utah."

"They liked the team, and they cheered for me, which was refreshing," he says. "Because it was right after the war. And there didn't seem to be people holding that against my ancestors."

But World War II had already had an effect on Misaka's teenage years. That was the era of internment camps, when many people of Japanese descent were forced to live in confined areas, some of them in desolate and remote parts of the western United States.

"That was the real strange part of it," Misaka says. "At the time that they were being taken from their homes, and being put into these camps in early 1942, I was playing basketball at Weber State, which is in my home town of Ogden."

Then he moved on to play for Utah.

"It was a real strange experience," he says, "to be free — not without prejudice, but free — and playing the game I loved in my home state, while others were being treated like criminals."

Misaka had interrupted his college career to serve two years in the U.S. Army's intelligence services division during the occupation of Japan. Then he returned to Utah and made a name for himself. The Knicks drafted the 5-foot-7-inch guard/forward, but his pro career lasted only a few games.

When the Knicks cut him from the team, Misaka went back to Utah to work as an engineer; he's lived there ever since. And that's where he watched on TV as Lin lit it up against the Utah Jazz, when he made his first start. In that game on Feb. 6, Lin had 28 points and 8 assists.

"In fact, my brother called me when the game was in progress," Misaka says. So he watched it — and then watched it again.

"He is quite an amazing player," Misaka says. "Just like everyone else, I was really surprised at the skills that he had."

As for Lin's game, Misaka says the guard "is fairly tall — 6'3 is a good size for a point guard. But he has the speed to make that pick and roll work, and work well. It seems like he has the skill, and the know-how, to really take advantage of any lapses on the defense."

Misaka says he eventually got in touch with Lin, to offer his encouragement to the young player.

"From now on, I can sit back as one of his thousands of fans," he says, "and see what happens next."

If you hadn't heard of Misaka before now, don't feel too bad about it. He says he's never been one to trumpet his early success on the court — even to his son and daughter, who live near him in Utah.

"I never did talk much about sports to the kids. I had this notion that I didn't want them to be saddled with any kind of pressure, and so on," he says. "In fact, my daughter was in college, I think, when she found out that I had played basketball in my collegiate days."

To be exact, Misaka did more than play. He won an NIT title by beating one of Adolph Rupp's Kentucky teams, in 1947. And it's important to recall that in those days, it was the NIT, not the NCAA tournament, that was the gold standard.

Misaka's path to stardom was strikingly similar to Lin's. As a 2010 article in Sports Illustrated noted, Misaka "was thrust into the lineup when the Utes' center—their captain, best athlete and leading scorer—went down with a sprained ankle on the eve of the postseason."

But unlike Lin, Misaka never got a chance to start for the Knicks.

"I really didn't play many minutes," he says. He later added, "I never did think of myself as a pioneer."

Misaka returned to New York to visit Madison Square Garden in 2009, after a documentary about his playing days, and his status as the nation's first non-Caucasian player in the pros, came out. The film was titled Transcending.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In this country, the focus of pro basketball fans centers on a single player right now: Jeremy Lin, the Asian-American point guard for the New York Knicks. Until a few weeks ago, Lin was mainly known for riding the bench. Now he has led his team on a six-game winning streak. Last night, the Knicks were tied with the Toronto Raptors with seconds on the clock.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Lin with the ball in his hands. Fans on their feet. Five, four, Lin for the win. Got it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

INSKEEP: Lin made a three-point shot with half a second to go, giving the Knicks a 90-87 win. What's amazing when you watch that video is how casual Lin seems about it all. He's got the ball. The clock is running down. He's dribbling slowly. Then suddenly, he takes the shot from around 25 feet, and it's perfect.

Lin is one of the few Asian-Americans to make a mark in the NBA. And today, we're going to meet the first such person: Wat Misaka, who joined the New York Knicks in 1947. In Salt Lake, the 88-year-old has been watching Jeremy Lin.

I know that he's played the Utah, Jazz. And, of course, you can find games on television. Have you had a chance to see him play?

WAT MISAKA: Yes. I watched that game. In fact, my brother called me when the game was in progress, and so I finished watching the game and then I stayed on and watched the replay of that. It's the first time that I'd seen him play a whole game.

INSKEEP: Give us your professional eye. What's he got? Because he's not a very big guy.

MISAKA: Oh, yeah. That's what they say. But they said: He's kind of like you. He's not very big. But I said well, there's quite a bit of difference between 5'7" and 6'3". That's a good size for a point guard.

INSKEEP: Now, we should mention in that game that you were watching that Lin scored 28 points, eight assists, as well, helping other people score baskets, which is awfully good.

You also mentioned that you're 5'7", which does raise the question: How'd you end up on the New York Knicks in the 1940s?

MISAKA: Well, I was on the University of Utah team that won the NIT that year.

INSKEEP: Oh, and the NIT, which was a huge tournament back then, even considerably bigger than today, it was held at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

MISAKA: That's correct. And for some reason, the crowd was really rooting for me. I think New Yorkers are known to root for underdogs and I - as an underdog team, from out in the sticks in Utah, and they liked the team, and they cheered for me, and which was refreshing, because it was right after the war. And there didn't seem to be too many people that were holding that against my ancestors.

INSKEEP: Of course, a lot of Japanese-Americans were interned, put into camps during the war, particularly on the West Coast. Was your family affected in any way?

MISAKA: No. At that time that I was playing basketball at State, it was a real strange experience to be, you know, free - not without prejudice, but free - and playing the game I loved in my home state, while others were being treated like criminals.

INSKEEP: So you ended up in the NIT at Madison Square Garden as a Japanese-American, being cheered by thousands of people.

MISAKA: That's right.

INSKEEP: And then the Knicks placed a phone call to you.

MISAKA: Yes. Well, actually, Ned Irish, president of the Garden, got in touch with my coach.

INSKEEP: Do you remember how many games you played?

MISAKA: I played just in three, I think it was. I didn't score very much.

INSKEEP: Let me ask you this: You joined the New York Knicks in 1947, which, of course, was the same year that also New York City, in Brooklyn, Jackie Robinson was breaking the color barrier as an African-American with the Dodgers in baseball. Were you conscious of actually breaking a barrier, or was it just something you did and people cheered on?

MISAKA: Well, it was such an insignificant event, that I don't think anyone - especially me - even compared that with the, what Robinson had done. I never did think of myself as being a pioneer of any sort - a failure at that, so I never, you know, think of it that way.

INSKEEP: Mr. Wat Misaka, thanks very much for taking the time to speak with us.

MISAKA: Well, it's been my pleasure.

INSKEEP: He was the first Asian-American player in the NBA.

You can see Jeremy Lin's game-winning shot through a link on Twitter @MORNINGEDITION and @nprinskeep. It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.