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The team had been gone from Utah for 12 days and spent more than half of them on trains. After the Utes pulled out of Denver for the final leg of the trip home, the president of the Rio Grande Railroad, a Utahn, arranged for the players to be feted in his private car with steak and strawberries, rare delicacies in wartime. Meanwhile a welcoming party mustered at the station in Salt Lake City for a rally and parade. Smuin's mother, Helen, got her son's draft board to give him two more days so he could take part in the celebrations. In the flotilla of horn-honking convertibles driven by students was Pat Warshaw, who hoped to meet a basketball player. Alas, Coach Peterson climbed into her car first. But in 2005, after each had lost a longtime spouse, Pat would marry Arnie Ferrin.
Another woman met the team that day. Tatsuyo Misaka came bearing a letter for her son. "My greetings from Uncle Sam," Wat says. He had been drafted into the Army.
In mid-1942 some 120,000 residents of Japanese descent, most of them U.S. citizens, were rounded up and confined in internment camps. Only those living in the three states along the Pacific Coast were affected, so by the grace of the Sierra Nevada the Misakas could continue to go about their lives. But FDR's order instantly altered the way many Americans regarded their neighbors of Japanese extraction and, inevitably, the way Japanese-Americans saw themselves.
Those at the University of Utah flaunted their patriotism, purchasing more war bonds and stamps per capita than the student body as a whole. Reviewing Guadalcanal Diary, a memoir by war correspondent Richard Tregaskis, for an English class, one Japanese-American student wrote, "This book shows how hard we will have to work to kill those Japs."
Some press reports erroneously described Misaka as a Hawaiian of Japanese descent. Misaka thinks Peterson was behind the errors but doesn't fault him. "The coach was very concerned about how I'd be accepted," he says. "Putting out that I was Hawaiian-born was a way to soften the blow." And Misaka believes Peterson never started him during his two seasons at Utah to protect him from fans' hostility: "That's what I choose to think, because he never treated me personally with any animosity."
The experience of the team's other Nisei, Masateru (Tut) Tatsuno, also suggests that Peterson, who died in 1976, was aware of the risk of suiting up Japanese-Americans during wartime. Tatsuno's family, which owned a dry-goods store in San Francisco's Japantown, was assigned to the Topaz camp near Delta, a collection of several hundred wood-frame buildings that opened in September '42. Tut would have been confined there with some 8,100 others if not for the university's pledge to accept up to 150 qualified internees of college age from camps around the West.
Tatsuno occasionally traveled with the Utes during the regular season as their 10th player. But even though he practiced with the team until the day it left for the NIT, the Utah postseason traveling party of 14 included only nine players. He was odd man out.
Peterson phoned Tatsuno during the Utes' journey home to tell him to show up at the station and be sure to wear a suit. Over the following days he took part in the whirl of celebrations and received an inscribed championship watch. After school let out, Misaka visited Tatsuno at the camp in Topaz to present him with a personalized Utah-red commemorative blanket in front of his family.
Tatsuno's older brother, Dave, captured Misaka's visit with an 8-mm movie camera he had smuggled into the camp. In the footage, which appears in the 2009 documentary Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story, the teammates mug for the camera. "It was the first and only time I'd been in camp, and it was a real shock to me," Misaka said last May, speaking to a multigenerational audience after a screening of Transcending in San Jose. "I'd heard stories and seen pictures, but to see the bleak desert environment was very depressing. I smiled a lot in that film, but I felt the injustice of it all."
Tut Tatsuno died in 1997, and today his daughter, Marice Shiozaki, summarizes the jumble of emotions her father felt during that long-ago basketball season and its aftermath: bitterness at being left behind, embarrassed surprise at being showered with trinkets and recognition for accomplishments from which he had been thousands of miles removed, and, over time, a gradual pride at having contributed nonetheless.