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The Inside Track | SUNDAY SCENE / DIANE PUCIN

This Exhibit Tells a Story Few Americans Have Heard

March 05, 2000|DIANE PUCIN

Wat Mikasa played basketball for University of Utah teams that won the NCAA and NIT tournaments. Mikasa then became the first non-white to play for the New York Knicks.

Mikasa, a Japanese American, was cut after three games with the Knicks, so he went home to Salt Lake City and went to work as an engineer. And he took up bowling. Non-whites were not welcomed at American Bowling Congress tournaments, so a Japanese American Bowling League was formed. For 52 years Mikasa has bowled in the Japanese American Bowl. Next week he'll make it 53.

Yet not many people know Mikasa's story. Too many young Japanese American boys and girls don't know about Mikasa, says Brian Niiya. Niiya is 38 years old and he didn't know about Mikasa. Or about Wally Yonamine, who played football for the San Francisco 49ers and introduced American-style baseball to Japan; or Tommy Kono, one of the world's best weightlifters in the mid-1950s or professional surfers Wayne Miyata and Dan Kadowaki and California Bowling Hall of Famers Judy Kikuta and Dusty Mizunoue.

You can learn about these athletes now.

Niiya is the curator of "More Than a Game: Sport in the Japanese American Community." The exhibit opened Saturday at the Japanese American National Museum on 1st Street in Little Tokyo.

For 10 years Niiya--who grew up in Los Angeles and says, "I wasn't much of an athlete but I was, and am, a great sports fan"--has researched the history of Japanese American athletes. Niiya may be a sports trivia expert, but when it came to knowing about Wat Mikasa and others like him, Niiya says, "I knew very little."

The exhibit is exhilarating and thought-provoking.

There are displays and photos of Japanese Americans proudly wearing baseball uniforms in downtown Los Angeles and then, 20 years later, wearing baseball uniforms in the internment camps that California's Japanese Americans were sent to during World War II.

"I found out," Niiya says, "that even in the camps sports teams were formed and the Japanese would order their uniforms from the Sears-Roebuck catalog and then the uniforms would be delivered by the Sears truck to the camp."

Irene Hirano, executive director and president of the museum, says that while the story may not be well known, sports always has been a great force in the Japanese American community throughout the 20th century. "When you tell the story of the Japanese experience in America, sport provided very important links to both Japan and to the United States."

Mikasa, 76, and his wife, Katie, sat in wide-eyed wonder as they watched old film of Mikasa playing for Utah. The Utes played twice at Madison Square Garden, when they won the 1944 NCAA tournament and the 1947 NIT. "I was the first Asian American to ever play at Madison Square Garden," Wat says to Katie. Mikasa laughs when he sees how short his basketball pants were. He jumps from his seat when the film shows him running onto the floor at Madison Square Garden.

"They put all these spotlights on you," Mikasa tells Katie, "and you're supposed to dribble the ball out. The lights are so bright and you can't see and all I was hoping was that I didn't trip and fall."

Niiya, who went attended Harbor City Narbonne High, says this exhibit is as much for youngsters as it is for the men in the photos and films like Mikasa.

"I know people my age all know who Kristi Yamaguchi is," Niiya says. Yamaguchi's aqua dress, the one she wore for her short program performance at the 1992 Winter Olympics when she won a figure skating gold medal, is on display. The dress is tiny. "But Kristi's impact has been huge," Niiya says. "And there were so many important athletes before her. We need to know them too."

As Mikasa wanders through exhibits of Japanese American sumo wrestlers and tennis players, wrestlers and golfers, he talks about growing up in Ogden, Utah. "My parents came to Utah because they had friends who had come to be farmers," Mikasa says. "I grew up playing sports. I was a quarterback on the football team, a shortstop on the baseball team and a guard on the basketball team.

"I played at Weber State. Basketball. Weber State was a junior college and then I went to Salt Lake City, to Utah. We played in the NCAA tournament in 1944 and I was the only Japanese player on any team I came across. But I was never treated with anything but respect. For me, sports was a way to be like all the other kids."

The exhibit also examines Japanese American history. There are pictures of baseball teams formed among early Japanese settlers in Hawaii and of bowling teams formed all over the country. There is a locker room where kids and adults can touch bats and see the intricate uniforms sumo wrestlers wore.

George Takei, chairman of the board of the museum and better known for his "Star Trek" acting career, says this exhibit provides "a sweaty sports day." He also says, more seriously, that "these sports moments tell the diverse story of Japanese Americans. Sports is that element that keeps a community together because sports is about spirit and teamwork."

It is a story we can all appreciate.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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