SALT LAKE CITY — I had to admit, when I called Wat Misaka in Maryland early Saturday morning, I was slightly mystified why we were having this conversation 66 years after the fact.
Why was the man who made NCAA and NBA history being interviewed and honored now?
"That's exactly the way I felt about it — this is ancient history," said the ever-modest Misaka. "Why now? It's lucky that some of us are still around. Most aren't, but still there are a few."
Nearly seven decades after Utah's "Whiz Kids" won the NCAA basketball tournament, the soft-spoken former electrical engineer from Bountiful is telling his story. A DVD documentary released last year called "Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story" details his journey from a childhood on notorious 25th Street in Ogden to the NBA. Only recently has he started to confirm his part in history. I called him several years ago to chronicle his experience as a basketball player during the World War II years, but he didn't sound enthused.
He was fine discussing the 1944 Utah team that won the NCAA Tournament; he just didn't want to go over the trials of being a Japanese-American athlete in wartime America.
Now he's no less humble, just a little more willing.
On the heels of the DVD's release — the brainchild of a pair of New York filmmakers — and a pending film release, Misaka finds himself appearing at a variety of functions. Though he played only three games in the NBA, his picture and a brief explanation were placed in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame last summer. He has been thanked in a speech by President Barack Obama.
Last week, he was at the University of Maryland, at the invitation of the Asian Studies program. A national Asian-American heritage group plans to honor him this summer as sportsman of the year.
Sports Illustrated highlighted him in an article in March on the '44 Utah team.
In December, the New York Knicks — who drafted him in 1947 — acknowledged him at a game. He was selected when the Knicks were in the Basketball Association of America, which later merged with the National Basketball League to become the NBA. The NBL fielded black players four years earlier, but Misaka was the first non-Caucasian to play in the Basketball Association of America.
By any measure, he's a piece of history.
The main reason Misaka's story has taken so long to go national is this: He didn't promote it. In an era when publicity-hungry athletes appear on reality TV and post Twitter messages, Misaka hails from a quieter time. Yes, he reluctantly allows, he experienced racism. Although born and raised in Ogden, the emotion of wartime America elicited vitriol from some fans when Utah played on the road. Even now, he tends to chalk those things up to fan intensity, rather than racism.
"I didn't really try to make anything out of it, I sort of ignored anything, any kind of confrontation," said Misaka, "and the team was just so supportive. Like I said, all of the team was white and from my eyes, that's all I'd see, so I kind of felt like I was just one of them, and they really acted like there was nothing different."
Misaka's story never did leave the Wasatch Front until recently. His father immigrated to the U.S. in 1902, working the railroads and then opening a barbershop on 25th Street, the back of which served as the family's living quarters. It was a roughneck area of brothels and bars. But Misaka was mostly oblivious, tending to his schooling at Ogden High and later Weber Junior College, before transferring to Utah.
The history of Utah's run to the national title is well known — if a little dusty — around here. Utah was invited to the NIT — then the most prestigious of the postseason tournaments — as well as the NCAA's. The team chose the NIT because it covered all expenses.
Utah lost its opener to Kentucky and prepared to come home. But a withdrawal by Arkansas, due to a roadside traffic accident, opened the way for Utah to enter the NCAA's. Utah went on to beat Missouri, Iowa State and Dartmouth to win the championship.
Misaka, a quick, relentless guard, was a hit in New York.
"In 1944, we were really out in the sticks," said Misaka. "When we went to New York, Salt Lake City, Utah, wasn't a place they knew much about. So this kind of put Salt Lake on the map."
Utah won the 1947 NIT, solidifying itself as a formidable basketball school.
After his brief pro career, Misaka returned home to work. Other than the two years he spent in the Army, he never left.
"I'm 86 years old, kind of an old stick-in-the-mud," said Misaka. "Other than the time in the service, I've been a Utahn through and through forever."
An American, too, though sometimes people forgot.
He organized Japanese-American bowling and golf leagues and contributed in various alumni capacities with the U.
Even though Misaka says athletics "defined my life," he is only a moderate March Madness watcher.
"I watch it a little, but if Utah's not in it, it doesn't keep my interest that much," he said.
Rather, March Madness has again taken an interest in him.