SPORTS OF THE TIMES
Pioneering Knick Returns to Garden
By GEORGE VECSEY
Sixty-two years ago, Wat Misaka was the darling of Madison Square Garden. When he flitted between the superstars from Kentucky or St. John’s, the crowd cheered his name, his Japanese-American name.
“They cheered for the deprived and the unfortunates,” Misaka recalled of the Garden crowd, rooting for a 5-foot-7 guard shutting down the great Ralph Beard of Kentucky.
Misaka was so successful at the Garden in 1944 and 1947 that he became the first draft choice of the Knicks. He lasted just three games, but is remembered as the first non-Caucasian player in modern professional basketball, three years before African-Americans were included.
Since the day he was cut in the fall of 1947, Misaka had not been back to New York, much less the Garden, but on Monday, he returned. In the hallway leading to the dressing room, he was shown plaques for every Knicks team, and there on the 1947-48 plaque was his name.
“Etched in bronze,” Misaka said.
His name and his life are celebrated in a documentary, “Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story.” He is part of basketball history but also part of American history, having lived through the internment period during World War II and later serving in the United States army in Hiroshima, three months after the atomic bomb was dropped there.
“I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over the devastation,” he said Monday.
His job with the military was to use his modest Japanese language skills to determine the effect of repeated bombing on civilians. When Misaka visited an uncle on an island near Hiroshima, they ate clams out of the bay, not even understanding the concept of radioactivity.
“We didn’t have children for 12 years, and he thought that might be the reason,” said his wife, Katie, an Ohio-born teacher descended from an ancient Samurai family in Hiroshima.
The documentary is by Bruce Alan Johnson and Christine Toy Johnson, married filmmakers from New York, who got the idea when they saw a brief mention of Misaka a few years ago.
“Why don’t we know about him?” asked Christine Johnson, of Katonah, N.Y., who is of Chinese ancestry.
Because Misaka’s family had roots in Utah, they were allowed to remain there after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, rather than be interned at Topaz, Utah, where thousands of Japanese-Americans were sent.
With the war raging, Misaka made the team at the University of Utah, although Coach Vadal Peterson did not start him, possibly for fear of touching off fans, or possibly to keep Misaka in a supporting role.
When Utah went to the prestigious National Invitation Tournament in New York, Misaka drew raves in a loss to powerful Kentucky. Then the team was invited to the less prominent N.C.A.A. tournament and earned a return trip to New York, where it beat Dartmouth for the title.
After his military hitch, Misaka returned to Utah — and had to hustle his way back onto the team, ultimately helping it win the N.I.T., in which he held Beard to 1 point in the final.
The old footage in the documentary is delightful, showing players in short shorts, taking four or five passes before freeing somebody for a layup. Misaka is a whirlwind.
The Garden crowd, cigar haze and all, loved him so much that the Knicks selected him for the inaugural season of the Basketball Association of America, a forerunner of the N.B.A. Competing against much larger guards, Misaka made it to the regular season, scoring 7 points in three early games.
The filmmakers suggest that the Knicks’ general manager, Ned Irish, might have been discouraged by the racial gibes on the road. Misaka recalls a few so-called teammates giving him faulty advice to make him look bad on the court, but he seems to accept that a 5-7 guard was at a disadvantage, even in 1947. The Knicks had given him a rare guaranteed contract, worth $4,000, but they cut him, anyway.
“I don’t think race was an issue,” Misaka says in the film.
The film reveals that Misaka, who had been a big hit against the Harlem Globetrotters, was offered a place with the all-black Globetrotters, but he declined. He went home, earned his degree, married and worked as an engineer.
Now he has come back to New York — and the “new” Garden, merely 41 years old.
The Garden staff put a ball in Misaka’s hands as he looked up at his old No. 15 hanging from the rafters, twice. “They retired your number,” somebody said. Actually, the twin numbers are for Earl Monroe and Dick McGuire.
Misaka was happy to hear that McGuire was still scouting. He has been in touch with his talented teammate Carl Braun, who now lives in Florida.
The floor and the baskets were not in place Monday, so Misaka declined the challenge to take a phantom layup. It seemed quite enough that he was finally back at Madison Square Garden and his name was on a plaque. He had lived long enough for history to rediscover him.
TL Comment: I vividly remember the frequent calls to the NBA office in the early '80s, many of which came from bars where two friends were arguing about who was the smallest player to ever play in the NBA. The Monte Towe guess was wrong... as the answer - at the time - was Wat Misaka. (Spud Webb would come along and tie Misaka-san at 5-foot-7 and Muggsy Bogues would break the record at his lofty 5-foot-3).