''Blitz Kids': Winning NCAA set players on path to greatness

Excerpt from story of '44 University of Utah hoops champs

Published: Tuesday, March 13 2012 12:08 a.m. MDT

Utah players Arnie Ferrin, Wat Misaka, Fred Sheffield, Herb Wilkinson and Fred Lewis stand in front of their 1944 NCAA Championship Trophy. They fared better in life than their Arkansas counterparts.

Sherry Ferrin

Editor's note: Deseret News designer Josh Ferrin, grandson of former Ute great Arnie Ferrin, co-authored the recently released book "Blitz Kids" with his father, Tres Ferrin, about the 1944 University of Utah NCAA Championship basketball team. This is the third of a four-part series in which the Deseret News will feature excerpts and some thoughts from that NCAA Tournament run.

For some, winning a national championship would be the pinnacle of success. For players on the University of Utah's 1944 NCAA championship team, it was only the beginning.

At the time, the players didn't realize how monumental their win would become. The tournament has become a cultural phenomenon and arguably the greatest event in sports. It set the players on a path to success and recognition. Members of that team would go on to become doctors, dentists, engineers and professional athletes.

The fates of the University of Arkansas players were decidedly different. After giving their spot in the NCAA tourney to Utah following a tragic car accident, members of that Razorbacks team went on to live quiet lives. Deno Nichols, whose leg was amputated after the auto-pedestrian accident, never got over the injustice of that tragic night.

As we wrote in Blitz Kids:

"Deno's wife Virginia stayed at his bedside most of the time he was in the hospital. She could sense Deno was dying inside. He initially cancelled all his plans for the future and tried drowning himself in alcohol. He eventually found some success, but felt cheated and saw the accident as the cause of all the unhappiness in his life ... The last time Virginia saw Deno was a few months before he died. She was quoted in the Charlotte Observer as saying, "He was in a wheelchair. There were big circles under his eyes. He looked like a shrunken, old man. He wound up in the hospital and refused to eat. They tried to feed him intravenously, but he'd yank the needles out. I believe he wanted to die."

Only one player, center George Kok, from that Arkansas team is still alive.

Utah's Wat Misaka didn't have much time to celebrate his team's 1944 title. His mother was waiting for him at the station after their return from the NCAA championship in New York with Wat's draft notice in hand.

Being of Japanese descent, Wat served in the Army as an interpreter in Japan. He was given the task of interviewing survivors of the nuclear attack in Hiroshima. One of his clearest memories is that of a mother holding a young child covered with burns. No matter how she tried to console the boy, he wouldn't stop crying.

Upon his return in 1947, Wat returned to the University of Utah only to find out that his number had been given to a different player. He wasn't treated much differently than before the war; his teammates were his friends, the coaching staff were ambivalent, and the crowds could be hostile at times.

After winning the 1947 NIT — the most prestigious tourney at the time — Wat joined the New York Knickerbockers. He was the first person of minority descent to play professional basketball. For reasons he still doesn't understand, Wat was let go after three games.

Since then, Wat has been happy to live the quiet life of an engineer. He and his wife Katie live in Bountiful where they get to see plenty of their grandchildren. Wat is now a sports icon of a different sort. When he was denied entrance into a bowling league in the early 1950s due to a whites-only clause, Wat helped to start one for Japanese-Americans.

Now enjoying his 87th year, Wat was in Denver last weekend for a bowling tournament.

While several Utah players from the 1944 team have passed on — Fred Sheffield, Dick Smuin and Mas Tatsuno — most are still alive. Twin brothers Fred and Bob Lewis are now retired engineers who studied at Stanford. Herb Wilkinson is a retired oral surgeon who holds several world records in several different events in the Huntsman Senior Games.

Arnie Ferrin was the first freshman to ever be named Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA tourney. That record stood until 1986 and has only been repeated twice. He also played on the 1947 NIT championship team.

After college, Ferrin played with the Minneapolis Lakers for three years — winning championships in 1949 and 1950. Professional basketball was not a big-money game for the players in the 1940s so Ferrin had to pursue other endeavors in the off-season. He even was part owner of a vaudeville troupe for a time.

Ferrin was named to the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Pac-12 Basketball Hall of Honor in 2012. He is one of only two players to win NCAA, NIT and NBA championships. He was athletic director at the University of Utah and chairman of the NCAA Selection Committee.

Ferrin, now retired, lives within sight of the university he loves. He and his wife, Pat, are at almost every home game. They sit not far from Wat and Katie.

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.

Email: jferrin@desnews.com, Twitter: joshferrin

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