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Brad Rock: Utah's Wat Misaka tracks 'Linsanity' with interest

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 15 2012 8:33 p.m. MST

University of Utah Crimson Club Hall of Fame inductees Jeff Griffin, Sue Stednitz, Wat Misaka and Luther "Ticky" Burden pose for a photo at the Little America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Monday, Apr. 18, 2011. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — He's an Asian-American basketball player who in some ways shocked the world; a humble, likable, grateful point guard who is taking this "Linsanity" business in stride.

So what is Wat Misaka doing these days?

Caught in the swell of publicity surrounding New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin, Misaka is once again a topic. The reason is the 88-year-old Bountiful resident also played for the Knicks and was the first Asian-American to appear in what is now the NBA.

The short story is this: Misaka was 5-foot-7, 150 pounds, and lasted just three games in professional basketball. Lin is eight inches taller and 50 pounds heavier and coming off a buzzer-beating 3-pointer on Tuesday. Lin is showing up on big screens from Taipei to Toledo. Misaka played in an era before television was generally available. He was a member of the 1944 University of Utah team that won the NCAA championship and was drafted 60th by New York.

Misaka was also one of pro basketball's first minorities.

"My involvement has been overplayed, I'm quite certain about that," Misaka said on Wednesday.

To understand why Misaka is in the news is to know what has happened in the last two weeks. Lin has taken the NBA by force. An undrafted guard from Harvard, he played for Golden State last year but appeared in only 29 games, averaging a meager 2.6 points. He was cut by two teams before this season. Then came the Feb. 4 Knicks-New Jersey game, in which Lin scored an unanticipated 25 points. The Jazz helped advance Lin's career two nights later by allowing him to notch 28.

Who? Did whaaat?

But the madness mushroomed when he scored 38 against the Lakers. In his last six games he has averaged 27 points and 8.5 assists. On Tuesday he pushed the Knicks past Toronto, thanks to his long shot with a half-second remaining.

It's a story too quirky to ignore. Lin is the first Harvard NBA player since 1954. Meanwhile, news outlets across Asia and America are panting to cover the story. A White House spokesman said President Barack Obama is "fully up to speed" on Lin's exploits. Stories say Lin went from sleeping on his brother's couch to the 20th floor of the Trump Tower in White Plains, almost overnight.

Meanwhile, headline writers worldwide are quietly giving thanks. There's no telling where the puns will end: "Linsanity!" "Lincredible!" "Linspirational!" "Lincomprehensible!"

This is just the sort of ruckus Misaka would have avoided when he played. A quiet, modest man, he only allows that he and teammates helped put Utah on the map in 1944. A book chronicling that season has recently been released called "Blitz Kids."

But that all happened back when NCAA basketball was still a fledgling industry. Though Misaka never became truly famous, he had his moment. Sports writers even then couldn't resist a good, catchy nickname. Some referred to him as "Kilo Wat" Misaka.

On one hand, it could be considered overkill to make a big deal out of such things as Lin and Misaka. Both are American born and raised. It's also debatable whether fans should cheer for an athlete based on race. At the same time, the story is irresistible to many. Lin is the first American-born NBA player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent. Misaka was Japanese-American.

"Well, times have changed," Misaka said, when asked whether the Lin story has been overblown. "Over the last decade, the whole world has taken up basketball. … Chinese-Americans, just like Japanese-Americans have not previously entered the professional stage. So it's noteworthy, I think."

A retired engineer, Misaka says he has been following Lin. Last year he sent a note of encouragement to him while Lin was in Oakland. On Tuesday, Misaka couldn't get the Knicks-Toronto game on TV, but did see highlights.

"Good for him," Misaka said. "I think he's a deserving kid and worth all the accolades he has received so far. The big question is will he continue when the rest of the team gets back, or what he's going to be."

Coming soon

Look for excerpts from the recently-released book, "Blitz Kids," about Wat Misaka and the University of Utah NCAA Championship team, which will be featured in upcoming editions of the Deseret News.

email: rock@desnews.com

Twitter: therockmonster

Facebook: rockmonsterunplugged

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