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What We Talk About When We Talk About Wat

After giving Golden State’s recently-released Chinese New Year uniforms a little more attention than they probably deserve, I thought I’d continue my inane ramblings along the same trajectory and spew some more oddball thoughts about how the organization has (if you’ll pardon the pun) courted an Asian American fan base.

Seeking a little inspiration, I pulled out my Warriors promotional t-shirts from past Asian Heritage Nights, but they failed to spark any creative fire. Then, thankfully, I read Maggie Thach’s post on Wat Misaka, and it dawned on me that I could change tack and ponder over the one piece of Asian American-themed sports apparel I wear the most:

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AFD 163013
The assortment of knuckleheads pictured above represents What Would Wat Do?, my rec league hoops team. We lack the swagger and the disposable income to rock anything fancier than those reversible mesh jerseys, but their blandness inadvertently helps them better resemble what Misaka donned for the New York Knickerbockers nearly 70 years ago. The guy who had them printed up gave me Wat’s number 15 as a nod to my having founded the team back in 2006, when, under my incompetent leadership, a smaller collection of mostly different dudes got drubbed by 20 points every Sunday while wearing mismatched tops.

I’d never heard of Misaka before my squad stumbled onto the idea of using his name for our name, so in that sense, Maggie’s labeling him an “accidental icon” strikes me as a fitting coincidence. We were intrigued to learn he was the first person of color to play in the NBA, and we latched on to that fact for the purpose of shaping our identity. Granted, our tribute collapses his personal history into a nugget of trivia, but if you’re going to discuss his legacy, you start the conversation with that one nugget.

I have to question whether anyone is really having that conversation, though. Wat may have gotten a little love from the press here and there, but I’d hazard most people don’t even know who he is. Over the years, I have fielded countless oblivious inquiries about my team’s wacky name, despite our competing in a league that was for Asians only when we joined, and that remains majority Asian today. I’m not convinced Misaka’s contemporaries have much awareness about his exploits, either; I once interviewed a bunch of senior citizens for an oral history project about Japanese American basketball, and no one bothered to speak of him.

Now if Wat had put up monster stats with the Knicks, his legacy would carry much greater weight, and with a lot more fans. But beyond an impressive high school and college career, his impact on the sport of basketball from a performance standpoint was infinitesimal. And yet he draws comparisons to Jackie Robinson, one of the most talented and accomplished professional athletes ever, who appeared in twice as many MLB All-Star games (6) as Misaka appeared in regular season NBA games (3). There’s really only one reason to mention them in the same sentence, and that sentence will always contain the phrase “color barrier.”

It may be unfair to reduce Wat to some triumphant symbol, but it is also natural and unavoidable. And that’s not just because his timing and ethnicity differentiate him from the thousands of anonymous young talents with hard luck backgrounds who once logged a few scant minutes of pro ball. A more significant reason to cling to the narrative of Misaka as messiah is that, whether he intended to or not, he momentarily broke through against racist attitudes that still linger today.

Maggie is right — being Asian does not inherently limit anyone from excelling at sports. But try to tell that to every fan who hurled a slur, every opponent who showed added malice, every teammate who didn’t make the extra pass, every coach who withheld an opportunity, every scout who indulged a bias, and every columnist who leaned on a worn out cliché. Given the prevalence of such ignorance and animosity, Wat’s ancestry is precisely what makes his story uplifting. And that’s why we honor him.


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ALEC MACDONALD

Alec MacDonald is a writer and editor who lives in Oakland, California.

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