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.

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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