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Misaka, for his part, spent two years in the Army, including nine months with U.S. occupation forces in Japan, where he interviewed survivors of the atomic-bomb blast in Hiroshima. One day he showed up at the home of his uncle, whose house—the one in which Wat's mother had grown up—had been shielded from the blast by a hill. "A personal no-man's land," Misaka has called the emotional territory he covered during that period. "No matter where I looked, I was a traitor in someone's eyes."
Tatsuno's daughter recalls the red of that commemorative blanket, spread across her parents' bed until it became so threadbare that they finally framed it for the wall. "As time went on, he was able to reconcile all these things," Shiozaki says. "He understood that they had to take Wat, and to take two [Japanese-Americans] probably wasn't a good idea when you had to travel across the country." But over the years those old feelings of unworthiness would rear up. "I tried and tried to get him to come," says Misaka, who helped organize team reunions. But Tatsuno never did attend. There's an old Japanese expression: Shikata ga nai. Accept your lot and go on. Tut Tatsuno's daughter uses it to describe her father's attitude. As he looks back, Misaka invokes it too.
His teammates lived in a different world. "We didn't think it was difficult for Wat," Fred Lewis says today. "[It was like] we didn't know he was Japanese."
Early that season, however, Smuin had made clear to Misaka that he would look out for him. If other teammates were comparatively oblivious to what Misaka was going through, says Bruce Alan Johnson, codirector of Transcending, that was a kind of gift from Misaka himself: "Wat was so able to overlook racial inequality that he made others able to overlook it too."
In the fall of 1946, Misaka, Ferrin and Smuin reunited on the Utah varsity. Rival colleges fielded teams again and packed their gyms when the Utes came to campus. At Utah State, Misaka heard, "Dirty Jap, why don't you go back home?" (I am home, he said to himself.) At Wyoming, where the court was known as Hell's Half-Acre, Ferrin remembers making several trips up and down the floor with only three other Utes. He swears that a couple of roughneck spectators had detained Misaka behind the baseline, an incident Misaka doesn't recall.
That March, with the help of a splendid forward named Vern Gardner, Utah returned to New York to win the NIT. Though he still rarely started, Misaka played virtually the entire final, holding Kentucky's Ralph Beard, the player of the year, to a single point. "You know how Beard scored his one point? I fouled him," Ferrin confesses. The crowd booed when Misaka wasn't named MVP. A few months later New York Knicks general manager Ned Irish, who had now watched Misaka charm the Garden fans in three competitions, made him the team's No. 1 draft pick.
The pro National Basketball League had fielded black players in the 1942--43 season, but Misaka became the first non-Caucasian to play in the Basketball Association of America, the other league that would soon merge with the NBL to form the NBA. Misaka scored seven points in three games, but shortly after the Knicks' first road trip he was let go. He never received an explanation. During a stopover in Chicago on his way home he briefly considered accepting a standing offer from Abe Saperstein to play for the Harlem Globetrotters, but instead he returned to Utah to finish his studies.
Every regular on the 1944 Utah team except Bob Lewis would either play pro basketball or be drafted to do so, and Ferrin would win two NBA titles with the Minneapolis Lakers. But the Zoot Utes' greater successes may have come away from the game. Sheffield and reserve Jim Nance went on to become doctors. Wilkinson became a dentist. Fred Lewis and another backup, T. Ray Kingston, joined Bob Lewis and Misaka as engineers. Smuin left the mines behind, becoming a teacher and coach, while Tatsuno took business classes at Cal and helped reopen the family's store in the Bay Area.
Wilkinson sees all this as a logical outcome of the championship. "Anything like that gives you more confidence to do other things in life," he says. "You think, Gee, if we won the NCAAs and weren't expected to, we could probably do a lot of other things we didn't think we could do."
Today Ferrin agrees, having watched Misaka bowl a 299 at age 80 and having won an all-church golf title in middle age himself. He muses on what once was—and nearly wasn't—as well as what might have been. "Maybe we were just a flash in the pan," he says, "but it would have been nice to have stayed together to find out. We'll never know. So we can say anything we want to."