The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.
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More than 60 years before Linsanity, there was another Asian American basketball player making history with the New York Knicks.
Wataru “Wat” Misaka (1923-2019) joined the Knicks in 1947 and broke many firsts. The 5-foot-7-inch point guard was the first athlete ever drafted to the Knicks, as well as the first collegiate draft pick in professional basketball history. The Japanese American baller was also the first athlete of Asian descent to join the Basketball Association of America (BAA)—a precursor to the NBA—and broke the color barrier as the first non-white athlete in the league.
Despite making history, Misaka’s contributions to the sport were overlooked for a long time, as Black players Chuck Cooper, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, and Earl Lloyd have often been credited for integrating the sport when they joined the league in 1950.
Unfortunately this isn’t the first time, AA+PIs’ contributions have been overlooked in American history due to a very black-and-white view of race. In an interview with Andscape, a sports and pop culture website focused on exploring the intersections of race, sports and culture, Paul Osaki theorized that this was because back then, “person of color” only applied to Black people.
Misaka’s contributions to the sport were overlooked for a long time, as Black players Chuck Cooper, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, and Earl Lloyd have often been credited for integrating the sport when they joined the league in 1950.
“If you were Asian, you were just a damn foreigner,” Osaki, who is the executive director of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, said in the story.
Born in Ogden, Utah, Misaka played for the University of Utah and led the team to its first (and only) NCAA national championship in 1944. But Misaka’s college career was interrupted by World War II, as he was drafted into the army the day of the team’s victory parade. As Nisei (second-generation Japanese American), he joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, working as an interpreter in East Asia, according to NBC News Asian America.
Following his service, Misaka returned to Utah and rejoined the Utes in 1947. Once again, he led the team to a national championship, this time in the National Invitation Tournament. As a player, Misaka was a crowd pleaser—so much so, people actually booed during the tournament’s final game when he wasn’t named MVP, according to Andscape.
At the Knicks’ third game, and first away game of the season, instead of chants of “Go Wat!” the crowd shouted, “Go home, Jap!”
This showmanship caught the eye of Knicks founder Ned Irish and led him to draft Misaka in the hopes of capitalizing on the player’s popularity. What Irish didn’t take into account, however, was Misaka’s race and ethnicity, and the fact that they were only a couple years removed from the war. Anti-Japanese sentiment was still high. According to Andscape, at the Knicks’ third game, and first away game of the season, instead of chants of “Go Wat!” the crowd shouted, “Go home, Jap!” While Misaka was accustomed to this kind of racism, Irish and the rest of the Knicks—who had been shielded from the hate while at Madison Square Garden, where people had been more focused on the games—were not.
Misaka broke basketball’s color barrier the same year Jackie Robinson integrated baseball. But whereas Major League Baseball had been around for decades and had a plan for this milestone, BAA was still only a year old and not prepared for the controversy. After that first away game, Misaka was released from the Knicks, but he was still paid the entirety of his year-long contract—likely a sign of Irish’s guilt for having to let Misaka go.
After leaving the Knicks, Misaka never played basketball again. He turned down an offer with the Harlem Globetrotters, instead opting to go back to school and become an electrical engineer.In 1999, Misaka was inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame and into the Crimson Club Hall of Fame (University of Utah) in 2011. And in 2008, Bruce Alan Johnson directed and released the documentary Transcending - The Wat Misaka Story, which chronicles Misaka’s life.
Published on April 11, 2023
Words by Samantha Pak
Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.
Art by Vivian Lai
Vivian Lai is an experienced L.A.-based graphic and UI designer with a proven track record of problem-solving for diverse clients across industries. She is highly skilled in design thinking, user experience, and visual communication and is committed to staying up-to-date with the latest design trends and techniques. Vivian has been recognized for her exceptional work with numerous industry awards.