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Wataru 'Wat' Misaka, Broke NBA's Color Barrier, Dies At 95

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The man who broke the NBA's color barrier died this week at the age of 95. Wataru "Wat" Misaka got his start at the University of Utah, and then in 1947, the Japanese American was drafted by the New York Knicks. Rocio Hernandez from member station KUER tells us more.

ROCIO HERNANDEZ, BYLINE: Wataru Misaka broke the color barrier in professional basketball in 1947 playing three games with the New York Knicks. This was the same year Jackie Robinson broke the same barrier in baseball and three years before Earl Lloyd became the first African American NBA player. But Misaka was humble about his accomplishments. He told NPR's Steve Inskeep in a 2012 interview that he saw his draft as an insignificant event.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WATARU MISAKA: I don't think anyone, especially me, even compared that with what Robinson had done. I never did think of myself as being a pioneer of any sort.

HERNANDEZ: But before Misaka rose to be an accomplished 5-foot-7 point guard, he was just a kid from the town of Ogden, Utah. He made his big break in 1944 when he led the University of Utah team in the NCAA tournament and in 1947 in the National Invitation Tournament. But his career wasn't without its challenges. New York filmmaker Bruce Johnson says Misaka played ball in the World War II era when there was heavy anti-Japanese sentiments.

BRUCE JOHNSON: When you're born in the United States and people are yelling at you to go home, it's like, what are you saying to me? So it was hard for Wat because he said he was already home.

HERNANDEZ: Chris Komai is with the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. He says that within the Japanese internment camps that were around at the time, Misaka became a symbol of hope.

CHRIS KOMAI: Most Japanese Americans were aware that he and his team had actually won the NCAA tournament. So this is a huge boost because our community has always been one that really prized the high achievers.

HERNANDEZ: Misaka is survived by his two children and his grandchildren. For NPR News, I'm Rocio Hernandez from Salt Lake City.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIROCRATIC'S "CORPORATE JAPAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.