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Misaka is NBA's Forgotten Minority

May 07, 2000|LOUINN LOTA | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Jackie Robinson wasn't the only man who broke a sports color barrier in 1947. With considerably less notice, Wat Misaka became the NBA's first minority player.

Misaka, a Japanese-American who was a college basketball standout at Utah, was chosen by the New York Knickerbockers with their first draft pick ever. He played for them briefly the same year the Brooklyn Dodgers' Robinson became the first black player in the major leagues.

The 5-foot-7 Misaka is listed in the Knicks' record book as appearing in three games, and he made just three of 13 shots before being released.

But his achievement still stands. No other player of full Japanese descent has played in the NBA.

"I didn't feel any discrimination," the 76-year-old Misaka of Bountiful, Utah told The Associated Press. "But I didn't rub elbows with everyone.

"Guard Carl Braun was my rookie roommate for a while. He invited me to his home in Long Island and his family was always warm and friendly."

Misaka was a forward on Utah's 1944 NCAA championship team, but was drafted into the U.S. Army. He served two years, then returned to Utah and his two late free throws helped the Utes clinch the 1947 NIT title with a 49-45 victory over Kentucky.

Then New York took him in the initial NBA draft.

"It was kind of a surprise I was the No. 1 draft pick in the first year of the draft, when each team got a territory," said Misaka, who grew up in Ogden, Utah. "How Utah got to be in New York's territory, I don't know. But to be going to Madison Square Garden, the mecca of basketball; I had a couple of Ute teammates that went on to the pros, but I was going to Madison Square Garden."

Misaka's accomplishment has made him a headliner in the landmark exhibit, "More Than a Game: Sport in the Japanese American Community," which opened March 5 for a yearlong run at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

"I think this a great exhibit, I'm just kind of embarrassed there's so much about me," Misaka said. "I sure hope this generates interest with young people, whether it inspires them or educates them. I've been waiting many years for another Japanese American to be in the NBA. It would be great to see."

Misaka, an engineer who's now heavily involved in the Japanese bowling league, isn't the only sports pioneer honored in the exhibit.

About the same time Misaka was with the Knicks, Wally Yonamine was playing pro football with the San Francisco 49ers. After a year, however, Yonamine broke his wrist in a career-ending injury and then became a pioneer of a different sort--he headed for Japan and became a Hall of Fame baseball player there.

"Although I was one of the first foreigners in Japan after World War II, with the Tokyo Giants there was no talk of war, just baseball," said the Hawaii-born Yonamine.

He tutored the Japanese in the rugged art of breaking up a double play.

"When I was in a double-play situation and had to slide, I just hit the shortstop or second baseman; I would go in and just knock 'em down," Yonamine recalled.

He added that fans used to throw rocks because they believed he played dirty.

"I don't know how I stuck it out," he said. "I loved the game so much. It changed my life and thousands saw me get inducted into the Hall of Fame."

Yonamine played for 12 years, 10 with the Tokyo Giants. After he retired, he coached and managed teams for another 26 years and was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994. He was inducted the same day as Sadaharu Oh, Japan's home run champion. Yonamine said Oh reminded him that he signed a ball for Oh when Oh was only 10 years old.

Yonamine and Misaka are two of many Japanese Americans whose athletic accomplishments are noted in the exhibit, which continues through Feb. 18 in the city's downtown Little Tokyo area.

Other than Kristi Yamaguchi, a 1992 Olympic gold medal figure skater, Japanese Americans have not been recognized in America's athletic halls of fame.

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