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Wat Misaka: Accidental Icon

In 1947, the University of Utah and University of Kentucky battled for the national championship in the NIT tournament, which was more prestigious than the NCAA tournament then. The Utes pulled out a 49-45 win, thanks to the stellar defensive play of Wat Misaka. This is not what Misaka is known for, though. He’s remembered more for being the first non-white basketball player to have ever played in the NBA. Misaka was drafted by the New York Knicks that same year, three years before black players were admitted. He is given credit, along with Jackie Robinson, for breaking the color barrier in U.S. sports.

But Misaka doesn’t see himself as the protagonist of that narrative. It’s not that he rejects the idea of being a ground-breaking figure. It’s just that it doesn’t completely ring true. He was made to fit in a role that he never set out to attain.

“I never did think of myself as being a pioneer of any sort,” Misaka said in an NPR interview in 2012. “I never think of it that way.”

It’s not like Misaka’s entry into the league paved the way for an onslaught of Asian-American players. The next player of Asian descent wouldn’t come until 31 years later, when Raymond Townsend, a Filipino-American, was drafted 22nd overall by the Golden State Warriors.

Misaka does deserve a legacy, but it shouldn’t be defined by the fact that his parents were born in Japan. He had immense struggles to overcome, but being Asian-American wasn’t the biggest one. His father died when he was 15, leaving him the responsibility of taking care of his mom and his younger brothers during a time when the country was recovering from a great economic recession. He was a collegiate athlete and a full-time engineering student, taking 20 credit hours some quarters while holding down a part-time job. While he was in college, he was drafted for the war and served in the army in Hiroshima shortly after the dropping of the atomic bomb.

For Misaka, basketball was a game and racial intolerance was not a fight that he had a stake in. Even on the day after the Pearl Harbor attacks, Misaka said he was not treated any differently due to his ethnicity.

“I just felt terribly depressed with the goings on that my parents’ country would wage war on my country,” Misaka said in a documentary titled, The Wat Misaka Story. “The students were all quite understanding and most were fairly friendly. When you’re on a basketball team, they’re all really supportive. I really had the support of my teammates. They were for me 100 percent of the time.”

As much as we would like Misaka to be a trailblazer — a player who shouldered the hopes and dreams of an entire race of people — the truth is that he was not. That was never his intention. He has said numerous times that he did not feel personally discriminated against, further proving the point that the narrative of being a crusader for Asian-American equality was forced upon him. He was an accidental icon. We see that today with Jeremy Lin. He has the pressure of holding the (possibly) unwanted gaze of entire groups of people. As long as we keep unfairly putting our expectations on him, he will continue to disappoint us. He is a basketball player. Period. Just like Misaka was.

That’s not to say Misaka doesn’t deserve recognition. But he should be remembered for his accolades on the court, like his brilliant performance in the 1947 national championship game, where he held Kentucky’s Ralph Beard, the reigning national player of the year, to just one point. He should be remembered for the tenacity that earned him the nickname “Kilo Wat.” He should be admired for being a threat every time the ball was in his hands, despite being only 5-foot-7. He is inspiring in the same way Muggsy Bogues (5-foot-3) and Earl Boykins (5-foot-5) are inspiring. He has more in common with those athletes than he does with players like Lin or Yao Ming.

In short, what makes Misaka’s story an uplifting one is not that he is of Asian descent. Thinking that is an obstacle for a high-level basketball player means accepting the all-too-pervasive stereotype that there is something inherently limiting about being Asian and playing basketball. What about black hair, dark eyes and fairer skin gives any kind of disadvantage for dribbling, jumping and shooting?

Legacy — how much of what makes up a legacy is true and how much of it do we just imagine, spun to tell a story we want to hear?

MAGGIE THACH | @magsthach

Sports. Writing. I’ve never been a natural at either, but I love them both. I’m happy to be joining these two loves at Dat Winning. I received my MFA in creative nonfiction in 2013 and I play in an over-30 women’s basketball league. We are currently 9-3.

2 comments on “Wat Misaka: Accidental Icon

  1. Great writing, Maggie. I learned something!


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