As the dying days of the Depression gave way to World War II, LaVell Smuin presented his teenage son, Dick, with an unusual challenge. LaVell worked as a smelter in Utah's Bingham Canyon copper mines and in his spare time busied himself coaching the Kennecott Mining company's AAU basketball team and raising fighting chickens, which wasn't uncommon at the time. The father knew that college could spring his son from a miner's life if Dick could land an athletic scholarship. So LaVell sent him into the chicken pens with orders to catch a fully spurred bird.
Few assignments carry a greater incentive to adopt a perfect defensive stance. "The only way you can catch a fighting chicken without getting hurt is to have your knees bent, your back straight and your palms up," Dick's son, Jim, says today. "You've got to catch the bird coming up, because if you don't, it'll hook you with its spurs or peck you."
Dick Smuin did indeed earn a scholarship, to Utah, where he was a freshman forward on the 1943--44 team. He was the only recruit on the squad. The other players had responded to a notice of tryouts that coach Vadal Peterson had tacked to a bulletin board that fall. World War II had forced the schools in the Utes' Skyline Conference and most other colleges in the region to cancel the season, but Peterson decided that if he could find the players, he'd field a team.
Perhaps if he had known all the obstacles that would confront him, Peterson wouldn't have tried. The Army Specialized Training Program had commandeered the campus gym for use as a barracks, so the Utes practiced 90 minutes a day in the women's gym. For home games they moved to the Deseret Gym in downtown Salt Lake City, where a track overhead ruled out shots from the corners. The Utes, all but one of whom came from within 35 miles of campus, averaged only 181/2 years of age, and as the season wore on, military call-ups depleted their ranks. Graduate manager Keith Brown made up the schedule from week to week, hustling up games with a handful of college teams and military and industrial squads.
The Utes included two Japanese-Americans, one on release from an internment camp outside Delta, 120 miles away. The other, a 5'7" reserve, was thrust into the lineup when the Utes' center—their captain, best athlete and leading scorer—went down with a sprained ankle on the eve of the postseason. And war with Japan be damned, that Nisei, or second-generation Japanese-American, would enchant crowds during tournament play.
Today the NCAA tournament can be counted on to produce a Cinderella team. But there are Cinderellas, and then there is the Original Charwoman of March. The '43--44 Utes, variously known as the Whiz Kids, Blitz Kids, Squeeze Kids, Zoot Utes, Blitz Babies, Kids of Destiny and the Live Five with the Jive Drive, would go on to win the NCAA title in what still stands as one of the biggest upsets in tournament history. That the Utes came together at the right moment in time was the result of a chain of improbabilities, including the starkly contrasting stories of two players, both Utah-born, who lived parallel childhoods in the city of Ogden.
Around noon on Dec. 7, 1941, 17-year-old Wataru (Wat) Misaka was going through his Sunday routine, listening to the radio as he swept and mopped the floor and cleaned the mirrors of the Western Barber Shop, which his family had run for decades.
Wat's father, Fusaichi (who was known as Ben), orphaned in his native Japan, had come to the U.S. in 1902, at age 19, to escape a life of farming. He worked on the railroad, then opened a barbershop on 25th Street, on Ogden's west side. He returned briefly to Japan in 1922 to marry Wat's mother, Tatsuyo, and bring her back to Utah.
A legacy of the railroad culture that built Ogden, 25th Street comprised a notorious gantlet of gambling joints, brothels, opium dens and bars. Nine out of every 10 robberies, knifings and murders in the city took place on Two-Bit Street. As Wat Misaka reached high school age, the street featured 11 whorehouses, including one, the Colorado Rooms, literally overhead. After Ben Misaka died in 1939, Wat's mother suggested that they go back to Hiroshima to live with her brother. "I said no, feeling like I'm a big shot," recalls Wat, the oldest of three children. "I told her, 'You can take [my brothers] and go. I'm staying.'"
The Misakas stayed. Two-Bit Street may have been the devil's own thoroughfare, but angels lurked on its corners. A white barber helped Tatsuyo get her license to cut hair. Other Japanese immigrant families, who ran noodle shops and dry-goods stores, kept an eye on her kids. Despite living in the rear quarters of the barbershop, Wat grew up largely oblivious to the vice around him.