Japanese-American stormed '44 tourney

Published: Sunday, March 11 2012 12:29 a.m. MST

The 1944 NCAA championship basketball team from the University of Utah included coach Vadal Peterson, back left; Arnold Ferrin (22); and Wat Misaka (21).

Deseret News Archives

Deseret News designer Josh Ferrin, grandson of former Ute great Arnie Ferrin, is a co-author of the recently released book "Blitz Kids," about the 1944 University of Utah NCAA championship basketball team. Over the next four days, the Deseret News will feature excerpts and some thoughts from that NCAA Tournament run.

During World War II, more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans were forced to leave their homes and were relocated to isolated internment camps throughout the country. These American citizens were charged with no crimes, other than being guilty of sharing a heritage with an enemy of our country.

It was a tumultuous time for America. March 1944 was just a few months before American troops would storm the beaches at Normandy. The wounds from Pearl Harbor were still fresh. War raged in the Pacific.

But on the night of March 28, 1944, one Japanese-American was playing the game of his life in front of 18,000 cheering New Yorkers. Wat Misaka and the rest of the University of Utah's basketball squad battled Dartmouth College for the NCAA title.

Wat was born in Ogden — the first child of Japanese immigrants — and was raised in the dug-out basement of his father's barbershop on 25th Street. At the time, that corner was known for the bars and brothels that hugged up against the rail line.

Despite this rough environment, Wat was kind. He saved his dimes so his brothers and neighbors would have a few comic books waiting for them under the tree on Christmas morning.

Though they didn't know it, the Misakas were poor and life offered them few breaks. When tragedy struck and Wat's father died of kidney failure while Wat was still a teenager, his mother considered gathering her three children and returning to Japan.

Wat's response was firm. She could go but he would stay.

It wasn't a hard decision for her to make. She picked up the barber's shears her husband left behind and donned his apron. Her children's hair bore the brunt of her learning curve as she taught herself the craft of cutting hair.

It was a time when Americans treated one another differently and not all were treated equally.

Once, while waiting in line at the butcher shop, Wat was passed over by the person behind him who happened to have a lighter shade of skin.

As we wrote in "Blitz Kids":

"Words that would be considered racist and extremely offensive today were splashed across the front pages of newspapers on a daily basis, while racial epithets were spoken second-naturedly across kitchen tables throughout America.

"Propaganda posters in America portrayed the Japanese as subhuman: … 'The Jap way, cold-blooded murder.'

"The obscenely caricatured Tokyo Kid featured on American propaganda posters had massive lips that curled around vampiric fangs dripping with drool. He always carried a bloodied dagger, presumably to stab you in the back, and spoke in rhyming broken English."

But sports was the great equalizer. On the court, Wat was a fierce competitor and lightning quick. His quiet intensity contributed to Ogden High School's state championship team and led him to being elected co-captian at Weber College, where he led his team to a conference crown.

Following that successful stint, Wat continued his basketball career at the University of Utah, but unlike the starring role he enjoyed at Weber, Wat didn't see much playing time during the 1944 regular season.

Utah coach Vadal Peterson tended to keep his five starters in for the whole game, and as a result, Wat's playing time dwindled.

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