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Japanese-American stormed '44 tourney

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

When Wat did play, he played like a wild man. While he didn't rack up dozens of points, he could shut down an opponent, even keeping Kentucky's infamous Ralph Beard, a member Adolph Rupp's Fabulous Five, to a single point.

That lone point was the result of a foul Wat still insists he didn't commit.

But when Utah starting center Fred Sheffield injured his ankle in a practice game the day before Utah's New York debut, Peterson selected Wat to replace him in the starting lineup.

And it made all the difference.

Wat may have been the shortest center in tournament history at a mere 5-foot-7, but he may also have been the quickest. There simply were no other defenders like him.

The rise of the New York Knicks' Jeremy Lin, an Asian-American who has taken the nation by storm with his brilliant play, had many journalists turning back to the story of the first player to cross that color line: Wat Misaka.

New York Knickerbockers owner Ned Irish was so enthralled with Wat's play in the Garden that he offered Wat a spot on his squad. Wat accepted but was cut from the team without explanation after only three games.

Journalists with The New York Times, NPR, Sports Illustrated and other have recently sat down with Wat to discuss how he changed the game. Wat, always unassuming, often wonders why he gets so much attention. He was just playing a game. Just living his life the best he could.

Wat didn't realize he was doing anything special as he was stealing the ball from Dartmouth players in Madison Square Garden in the NCAA championship game in 1944, which Utah won 42-40.

When he helped shut down a fierce Kentucky Wildcats team that had suffered only two losses in 1947, he was simply playing the best he could.

And when the New York Knickerbockers offered him a spot on their squad, not once did he think about how he was the first non-white to be drafted by a professional basketball team. He was just excited to get paid to play ball.

Wat didn't mean to make history, and he'd be the last person to tell you about it. He didn't do it for the money or sponsorships. He did it for the same reason we break out our NCAA tourney brackets every March. He did it for the love of the game.

Check back tomorrow to read another excerpt from the recently released book "Blitz Kids" about the University of Utah's unlikely road to the 1944 NCAA basketball championship.

The authors

Josh and Tres Ferrin, the grandson and son of basketball star Arnie Ferrin, both grew up hearing stories of Arnie's career at the University of Utah and in the NBA.

Josh established himself as an award-winning illustrator and artist before deciding to return to his roots to research and write with his father the amazing story of Arnie's championship season. He is an artist and designer for the Deseret News.

Tres is a physical therapist who has practiced in the area of sports medicine for 35 years. He is an adjunct faculty member at Weber State University and an avid cyclist.

Email: jferrin@desnews.com, Twitter: joshferrin

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