Decades before Lin's rise, Misaka made history for Asian-Americans
Wataru Misaka became the first Asian-American to play pro basketball in 1947
The pioneer scored seven points in three games for the Knicks before he was cut
He sent a note of encouragement to Jeremy Lin when he was with the Warriors
If you're not smiling at the Jeremy Lin story, consult your cardiologist immediately. There are, of course, so many irresistible elements to this story. This humble kid -- close to being cut for a third time since December, sleeping on his brother's couch, accosted by arena security -- just dropped 38 on Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, his fourth dazzling performance in a row, all Knicks victories. There's the Harvard pedigree, the Chinese-American heritage, the Tim Tebow-esque, unapologetic acknowledgment of faith. We love that even in this age of Moneyball and analytics, it's still possible for prospects to surprise us, to make even the best talent evaluators look silly.
If we're being honest here, the Legend of Lin also comes with built-in accelerator clauses. If he plays in Memphis or Milwaukee, and not in the country's media epicenter of New York, his story doesn't become this big, this fast. It helps that Lin plays for a terminally dysfunctional organization, desperate for some good vibes. It helps that his breakthrough came the week after the Super Bowl when the sports media returned to considering pursuits other than the NFL. Even his name has cooperated, giving us easy Lin-Sanity and Lin-Guistics and Lin-Satiable tropes.
For all that, let the record reflect: He was not the first Asian-American to play professional basketball in the United States. He was not even the first Asian-American to play for the Knicks. In 1947, the Knickerbockers drafted Wataru (Wat) Misaka, a 5-foot-7, 150-pound -- yes, 5-7, 150 pounds -- point guard.
Misaka's father had moved from Japan to Ogden, Utah, in 1903 to escape a life of farming. He became the town barber. His son was a sports star who ended up playing basketball at the University of Utah and serving in the U.S. Army as part of the occupation of Japan. Misaka helped the Utes beat an Adolph Rupp-coached Kentucky team in the 1947 NIT championship game. An article in The New York Times on March 25, 1947, asserted: "Little Wat Misaka, American born of Japanese descent, was a cute fellow intercepting passes and making the night miserable for Kentucky."
The game was held at Madison Square Garden. A few months later, the building's full-time tenants drafted Misaka. "Honestly, I think [Knicks owner] Ned Irish thought I could help at the gate," said Misaka, now 88, though you'd never guess it talking to the man.
Sadly for Misaka, his pro career, like his stature, was decidedly modest. He played three games and scored seven points and was then cut for reasons that were never quite explained. The team let him keep his size-7 sneakers -- "I think they figured no other player would fit them," he said -- and he went back to Utah on a train.
Though this was a few years after World War II and anti-Japanese sentiment was still high in some precincts, Misaka claims he experienced no racism or prejudice in New York. He figured he was cut simply because the team had a surfeit of guards. After turning down an invitation from the Globetrotters, he returned to Utah and earned an engineering degree.
"The salary for a rookie and the salary for starting engineer weren't much different," he said. "So I was fine. History has a way of smoothing things out."
He went to work at a firm in Salt Lake and has lived there ever since. He's been married to the same woman, Kate Misaka, for 60 years. They had two kids and then grandchildren. Life moved on and he rarely spoke about his brief pro career. It wasn't until she went to college that his daughter learned that he'd played for the Knicks. "I didn't want to put pressure on my children when they were growing up," he said. He donated his uniform and those size-7 shoes to a Japanese-American museum in Los Angeles.
Misaka, though, has always been a hoops fan, if not an outright junkie. For decades, he was a regular at Jazz games and, of course, Utes games. Last season, he caught wind of another Asian-American in the NBA, an afterthought on the Warriors' bench.
"Jeremy Lin seemed like a good kid in a dark and gloomy time," Misaka said. "I wrote him a note of encouragement and just told him to hang in there."
Last week, Misaka was as pleasantly surprised as anyone as Lin morphed from bench-warmer to folk hero in a matter of days.
"I didn't see him play in college. I had no idea of his skills, really," Misaka said. "But he's making shots, making plays. It's great, isn't it? But tell people I wrote to him a year ago. I don't want you to think I was a Johnny-come-lately, or a fair-weather fan!"
And it is here that Wat Misaka, age 88, starts giggling gleefully. And this turns into a full-throated laugh when he's asked if he plans to write Lin another note.
"Now? He doesn't need my encouragement. I'm just going to enjoy it like everyone else."
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