[SPORTS] Size 7 Sneakers Are Still Hard to Fill
- Size 7 Sneakers Are Still Hard to Fill
By LIZ ROBBINS
The New York Times
Published: January 5, 2005
More than a half-century after Wataru Misaka became the first
Japanese-American to play professional basketball at the highest
level in the United States, he remains a gentle reminder of the
sport's first steps toward diversity.
Misaka's brief career in New York is now a faded souvenir, resting in
the soles of his size 7 Converse hightops. The Knicks let him keep
the shoes after Ned Irish, the team's owner, cut Misaka, a 5-foot-7
point guard, after three regular-season games in 1947.
Although he was a pioneer in the Basketball Association of America,
which became the National Basketball Association in 1949 (a year
before the league admitted its first black player), Misaka recalls
his stint as nothing more and nothing less than an athletic
"I felt about the same with our team as I had all the other teams I
played with," Misaka said about the Knicks in a recent telephone
interview from Salt Lake City. "I never know that I'm different. I
only see what I see, and everybody else I see looks alike."
After he was waived by the Knicks, who had drafted him out of the
University of Utah, Misaka gathered his belongings from the Belvedere
Hotel, took a train that stopped in Chicago, turned down an informal
invitation to play for the Harlem Globetrotters and continued on to
Utah, where he finished earning a degree in mechanical engineering.
On Dec. 21, Misaka celebrated his 81st birthday. He was disappointed
to hear that the Phoenix Suns had cut Yuta Tabuse, a 5-7 point guard,
who was the N.B.A.'s first Japanese-born player, because Misaka had
been hoping to meet Tabuse this month when the Suns play the Jazz in
Last week Portland signed its second-round pick, 19-year-old Ha Seung
Jin, a 7-3 center, who is the first Korean-born player to be drafted
by an N.B.A. team. Of course, Yao Ming's success in the league has
spawned a new international following and highlighted the growing
international talent pool in basketball.
Misaka appreciates his role as a pioneer, but does not overplay it.
Growing up in Ogden, Utah, playing basketball or serving in the
United States Army in Japan after World War II, Misaka has always
seemed to be on the outside looking in.
He said he has no regrets or resentments, and he is wistful about his
brief stint with the Knicks.
"I just kind of smile," said Misaka, who is known as Wat. "Before I
went, I said: 'I don't know what's going to come of it, but if I
don't go, I'll always wonder. I've always got my career to get back
He laughed. "It was a good thing I did," he said.
Carl Braun, the Knicks' star forward, was a rookie from Colgate that
season with Misaka. They were roommates during the team's training
camp and on the weekends the players were given off, Braun took
Misaka home with him to Long Island. They became friends.
"My parents found him to be such a nice person, they were delighted,"
Braun said from his home in Stuart, Fla. Misaka and Braun, 77, were
reunited by telephone for the first time in more than five decades on
N.B.A. TV last month. Afterward, they spoke about one another.
"He was a baby-faced, handsome boy," Misaka recalled. "He had this
shot he developed, two-handed over his head. I remember him smiling a
lot. He was friendly, had a good disposition. I liked him a lot. He
was good to me."
Braun chuckled when recalling their telephone reunion. "Fifty-seven
years later, it's very strange," he said. "Wat really wasn't around
that long at that time. I remember I was so impressed with him as a
person at that time. It was nice to renew it, even though it was a
The Knicks drafted Misaka shortly after a memorable defensive
performance in the championship game of the 1947 National Invitation
Tournament. He held Ralph Beard of Kentucky to 1 point, and his six-
man Utah team upset Kentucky, coached by Adolph Rupp, 49-45, in
Madison Square Garden.
An article in The New York Times on March 25, 1947, described his
impact: "Little Wat Misaka, American born of Japanese descent, was
a 'cute' fellow intercepting passes and making the night miserable
Braun remembered that game. "Wat had gotten a tremendous amount of
publicity because of how he played against Kentucky," he recalled.
Misaka agreed. "When I look back over my career, that probably was
the best game I played over all," he said. "I was lucky, being in
right place. I got a lot of rebounds and had a few steals."
With the Knicks, however, it did not bounce his way for long. He was
limited by his height and struggled with his shooting. He scored 7
points in the three games he played. Irish called Misaka to his
office to tell him that he was being cut.
"I guess at the time I felt like it didn't have to be a reason,"
Misaka said. "Being a minority, we learned to live with that sort of
thing without complaining. So that was not anything new."
The only intolerance Misaka said he experienced from his Knicks
teammates was typical rookie hazing. He does not think he was cut for
"There were a couple of New Yorkers on the team," he said. "They were
a lot smarter than I gave them credit for, as far as looking for
their own spots on the team. They gave me information on how to guard
certain people that made me look bad. Before one game, they told
me: 'He's the star player. Don't worry about him going right, he
always goes left.' "
Misaka went left and the star, whose name he could not recall, went
"He was so small to be put in that position to make it into the
pros," Braun said. "He got so much out of what he had, but to put
someone in that size is difficult. You have to have an exceptional
toughness or quickness."
In college, Misaka helped Utah win two championships with his
The first came in 1944. Although the Utes lost to Kentucky in the
first round of the more prestigious N.I.T., they were invited at the
last minute to the eight-team N.C.A.A. championship. Utah won the
N.C.A.A. crown, and shortly afterward, Misaka enlisted in the Army.
He spent nine months in Japan during the American occupation.
Being Japanese-American left him feeling oddly displaced. "Most of
the Japanese people viewed us as being different," he said.
Misaka's father had emigrated to California in 1902 and then moved to
Utah, where his mother's uncle was farming in Ogden.
"I was interested in all kinds of sports and basketball was one of
them," Misaka said. "My father was an avid baseball fan and
encouraged me to do whatever I wanted. In school, I was also captain
of the football team, a shortstop, ran track, played basketball."
Misaka, who worked for the Sperry Corporation as an engineer, holds
season tickets for the University of Utah basketball games. "I like
the playoffs of N.B.A., but during season there are so many games the
players don't seem to put as much energy or effort into them," he
said. "I'm not a real fan of the N.B.A. I prefer the college game."
Misaka was featured in 2000 in an exhibit of sports pioneers in the
Japanese-American National Museum in Los Angeles, where his Knicks
sneakers were displayed along with his Utah jersey and shorts.
"Not the bloomers they wear today," Misaka said, his voice evoking a
time when being different was not yet fashionable.