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He noticed subtle ethnic slights, to be sure. Moviegoers seemed to sit at a remove from him, and when the Misakas entered a store, they were usually the last to be waited on. But a whirlwind of sports and homework kept Wat too busy to dwell on his apartness.
Then Wat heard the news bulletin from Pearl Harbor that December afternoon. How, Wat wondered aloud to his mother, could the country of her birth do something so terrible to the country of his?
Across town, Chariton Arnold (Arnie) Ferrin Jr. was visiting his girlfriend on that day. The name Chariton came from a river in Missouri that an ancestor forded on his way west with the Mormon pioneer Brigham Young. Arnie's mother, Ellen, had died when he was four, and his father traveled the Rockies as a salesman, so Arnie's paternal grandparents, Chariton and Ida, raised him in a world bounded by church and basketball. In Utah in those days, Arnie recalls, "if you saw a barn without a basketball hoop on it, you'd think the family didn't have any male children."
Ferrin knew of 25th Street—"the toughest street in Utah," he calls it today—even though he grew up on Ogden's leafy east side. But the 14 blocks that separated his home from Wat Misaka's marked off two worlds. Arnie entered Ogden's two-year senior high school just when Wat left it after a fine basketball career to attend two-year Weber College. Arnie knew of Wat only from reading the sports pages, and Wat didn't know Arnie at all.
Upon hearing of the Japanese attack, friends pounded on the door of Ferrin's girlfriend's house to tell him the news. The next day young men all over Utah would visit their recruiting offices. But, only 16, Ferrin was too young to serve, and because of a trick knee, he would eventually be turned down twice for combat service. As for Misaka, he was determined to go to college—and besides, the U.S. military wouldn't accept soldiers of Japanese descent until later in the war.
In time, the lives of Ferrin and Misaka would be permanently intertwined. When the Utah team rode the rails during the 1943--44 season, soldiers and other priority passengers sometimes bumped them from their seats, and the two teammates from Ogden found themselves sleeping side by side in an upper berth. After college, though he had earned a mechanical engineering degree, Misaka would struggle to find a job until Ferrin put in a word for his old teammate at a Salt Lake City firm. (Misaka may have returned the favor three decades later, when he served on the search committee that hired Ferrin as Utah's athletic director.) Sometimes Ferrin would get the assist, sometimes Misaka—but only after the two had left Ogden and, each taking his own path, met that first day of tryouts at the U.
To give colleges a better chance to field teams during the war, the NCAA had suspended its ban on freshman eligibility. Meanwhile Uncle Sam offered deferments to young men who chose to study engineering or medicine or who, like Ferrin, were classified 4-F, unfit for duty. Despite their youth, the Utes were unusually tall for their time. Ferrin, a rangy 6'4", moved easily in and out of the lane to squeeze off his silken one-handed shot. Sophomore center Fred Sheffield, though only 6'1", had won an NCAA high jump title the previous spring and could long-jump 23 feet. Forward Herb Wilkinson, who grew up with a high jump pit in his backyard and would place fourth in that event at the 1945 NCAA championships, stood only 5'2" as a high school sophomore but had sprouted to 6'3" by the time he enrolled at Utah. Bob Lewis, a 6'4" guard, was a fine defender and a good enough tennis player to reach the NCAA doubles semifinals and later in life defeat Pancho Gonzales. Misaka, the sixth man, played with a lunch-bucket spirit, as did Smuin, who had grown up with immigrants' kids in copper-mining country. The two quickly became close.
Utah won 15 of its first 16 games, losing by only two points to Fort Warren, the Army team starring future Harlem Globetrotter Ermer Robinson. The crowds in the Deseret Gym, which numbered in the dozens at the beginning of the season, gradually approached a couple thousand. In February the Utes lost again, to Dow Chemical, an industrial team that featured 6'7" Milo Komenich, an All-America who had led Wyoming to the previous year's NCAA title. "We didn't realize that the teams we were playing were the equivalent now of pro teams," recalls Fred Lewis, Bob's identical twin, who was a reserve guard for the Utes. "We didn't know how good we were."
They did know they were improving. Their only other regular-season loss was by 15 points to Salt Lake Air Base, which featured a diaspora of Big Ten players, including Ed Ehlers, a star at Purdue. Ehlers scored 28 and guarded the Utes' fastest player "by holding me back with a hand in the stomach that the officials couldn't see," Misaka says. Ehlers apologized to Misaka afterward, confessing that he couldn't stay with him otherwise. Three weeks later Utah avenged that loss with a 62--38 home victory to end the regular season.
The Western pedigree of the Utes freed them from the hidebound, earthbound orthodoxies of East Coast basketball. Peterson let his players fend for themselves on offense. "We didn't have plays," recalls Fred Lewis. "We just took advantage of what the opponent gave us. Then, when somebody shot, we went after the ball." At a time when most players still kept both feet on the floor and both hands on the ball, the Utes played the game of the future: slashing, wrist-flicking basketball, with a preference for the pass over the dribble. Peterson would exaggerate only slightly when he wrote for a basketball guide, "If a boy can drop them in blindfolded from the center of the floor, using nothing but his right elbow, we'll gladly accept him."