Gangsta Cheerleaders (The Wataru Misaka Episode with Atsuko Okatsuka)
On this episode, we are joined by comedian, actress and writer Atsuko Okatsuka! And today, I’m going to tell her one of the greatest, unknown sports stories in our country’s history: Wataru Misaka – the FIRST! Asian American and FIRST! Non-White basketball player in the NBA.
Next time on FIRST! – make sure to catch me and Ashok & Hari Kondabolu as we talk about Willie O’Ree and how he became the FIRST! Black hockey player in the NHL.
Kareem Rahma, Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Atsuko Okatsuka
Kareem Rahma 00:06
What kind of snacks you got?
Atsuko Okatsuka 00:09
I like to always like have everything by me. I’m like a pigeon lady.
Kareem Rahma 00:15
We’re starting the podcast with some ASMR.
Atsuko Okatsuka 00:20
Kareem Rahma 00:26
I just spilled water all over myself. I was trying to do ASMR.
Atsuko Okatsuka 00:29
But it’s a hot day out so it’s very hot. Pretty good. Not great for your laptop.
Kareem Rahma 00:36
It’s okay. I’m really wet. I’m really, really wet right now. That’s okay. That’s okay.
Atsuko Okatsuka 00:42
Is the episode?
Kareem Rahma 00:43
It’ll be in there probably.
Kareem Rahma 00:56
So, I’m gonna show you a photograph. And you’re gonna tell me if you know who this person is. You look so scared.
Atsuko Okatsuka 01:09
Oh, I did so poorly on quizzes, tests. This is essentially a pop quiz. You said, Atsuko will have fun. We’ll just hang out get to know each other. It’s gonna be so fun and boom. It’s like a historical figure. That’s like a no duh. And I get a wrong. I could get canceled.
Kareem Rahma 01:32
Well, you’re in luck. It’s not going to be okay.
Atsuko Okatsuka 01:38
Oh, wait, I actually do know that person. I think that is now Greg Watanabe, a basketball player. He was the first person of color. I feel like to be in the NBA.
Kareem Rahma 01:53
Atsuko Okatsuka 01:55
Oh, you know what Greg Ito is a guy I went to high school with. Yeah, he is Japanese American. And Greg Watanabe is a guy that I also know, like, currently just naming people I know. I do know that. Yeah, he was like the first I think person of color in the NBA. I just posted about him like not too long ago. I was just like, what? I had no idea, I didn’t know it was gonna be an Asian person. You know what I mean? Like, with sports. Ronny Chieng has a joke about how like, I don’t give a fuck, you know, come to the Asians if you want to solve your racial problems, because we’ll just tell you as it is, you know, we have no skin in the game. And I mean, any game NBA. For football, he’s just pretty much like there’s just no Asian. Very few. And so I wouldn’t have thought that the first person of color in basketball, NBA would be Asian.
Kareem Rahma 02:56
Yeah. So that’s what we’re going to talk about you pass the test.
Kareem Rahma 02:59
What’s up, y’all? I’m Kareem Rahma, and welcome to FIRST, a funny show about spectacular people who had a serious impact on society and culture because they were first. Today I’m sitting with comedian, actress and writer Atsuko Okatsuka. And I’m going to tell her the story of one of the most legendary people in sports history, Wataru Misaka.
Atsuko Okatsuka 03:31
Yeah, the cheerleader in me is coming out. I was a cheerleader in high school.
Kareem Rahma 03:38
So you’re familiar with sports?
Atsuko Okatsuka 03:39
Not at all.
Kareem Rahma 03:41
Cheerleading is a sport, and you’re also watching sports while you cheer.
Atsuko Okatsuka 03:45
Yeah, but Oh, you think I knew what I was doing when we were just running back and forth. We were just going wherever the football players were going. We were going to that side and then we do a pyramid.
Kareem Rahma 03:56
So you’re the cool kids.
Atsuko Okatsuka 03:58
No, see my school. The cheerleaders weren’t like the Bring It On cheerleaders. No. Our cheerleaders were like, if it weren’t for cheer, I would have joined a gang. Kinda. Yeah. Most of the girls on the squad had been shanked before the girlfriends were part of the Crips. I went to Venice High School. Los Angeles.
Kareem Rahma 04:19
I’ve never heard of like some sort of cheer gang. Which would be a good movie.
Atsuko Okatsuka 04:24
We weren’t that good, either. We weren’t doing the amazing tricks because we couldn’t afford like an expensive coach. We weren’t going to cheer camp and stuff, right? That was for the rich cheerleaders. The blonde ones.
Kareem Rahma 04:39
You’re like, give me some more money needed for the fundraiser. Okay, I gotta get back to the story.
Atsuko Okatsuka 04:45
Oh, of course. Yeah. You said a Japanese American name. I went off I got excited. I said who?
Kareem Rahma 04:55
Basketball was invented in 1891. And it started as a sport dominated by White men. It’s a lot different now though. In fact, roughly 72% of professional basketball players in the NBA are Black, 17% are white, 3% are Latino and less than 1% are Asian. Cool numbers. Amazing. Interesting.
Atsuko Okatsuka 05:16
It is no, yeah, I was like, Oh, I’ll let you add it up to see if it comes out to 100.
Kareem Rahma 05:22
The color barrier was broken in professional basketball in 1947, the same year that it broke in Major League Baseball by Jackie Robinson. But in the 1940s and 50s. Baseball was much more popular than basketball. It is, after all, America’s favorite pastime.
Atsuko Okatsuka 05:44
But it’s important to have people of color be boring, too.
Kareem Rahma 05:48
That’s true. That is an area where I feel like I could potentially be a first you.
Atsuko Okatsuka 05:53
You play golf? That word could be that you were Egyptian American, I mean, cuz assuming, you know, you haven’t even started so I’m not saying that you’re gonna be bad. I’m just worried. I don’t want you to get your hopes up that you’re gonna get an award for being good.
Kareem Rahma 06:15
Well, I wonder if I’m the first Egyptian American host of a top 100 podcast on Apple, new and noteworthy charts.
Atsuko Okatsuka 06:25
Yeah, is that you? Well, then. I mean, let’s make shift on award right now.
Kareem Rahma 06:36
Yeah, I gotta get back. But in the 1940s and 50s, baseball was much more popular than basketball. So when a five foot seven Asian American man by the name of Wataru Misaka joined the NBA in 1947, there were no press conferences, interviews or news coverage. Nonetheless, the fact of the matter is that with Wataru Misaka was a hero who paved the way for people of color to become professional basketball players. So, without further ado, let’s get into the life of Wataru Misako, the first Asian American and first non-White player in the NBA.
Atsuko Okatsuka 07:18
That was my cue, right? You know about this hot man. You have to be hot to this other thing. If you’re going to be the first and of your people to do something. You also have to be attractive. That’s how you trick them to go okay, we’ll have a second.
Kareem Rahma 07:37
Every person we’ve talked about on this podcast has been hot, Connie Chung, Omar Sharif. Like every first is hot.
Atsuko Okatsuka 07:47
You think you’re […] ugly, busted ugly person be the first in their community to do anything. You have to be so hot. It’s hard to also use good lotion. You know what I mean? While being oppressed and be really good at what you’re good at.
Kareem Rahma 08:07
I guess it sounds like I won’t be first ever. Sad Music, please. Cream. Dramatic sad.
Atsuko Okatsuka 08:14
Kareem, look at yourself in the mirror. Don’t say that about my son. I thought we would role play a little bit. We gotta get back to it. Who is this hot guy.
Kareem Rahma 08:32
I liked that you’re driving the story, baby. Let’s go.
Atsuko Okatsuka 08:40
I just want to make sure that I get it right.
Kareem Rahma 08:49
So the story starts like this, on December 21 1923. Wataru Misaka is born in Ogden, Utah to Japanese immigrant parents to Tatsuyo and Fusaichi Misaka. The Japanese have a specific word for what we in America call second generation. Ise Japanese language term used to specify the ethnically Japanese children born in a new country to Japanese born immigrants who are called ise.
Atsuko Okatsuka 09:18
I know where this story is going. You said 1920’s Utah?
Kareem Rahma 09:23
Atsuko Okatsuka 09:27
I smell internment camps come in.
Kareem Rahma 09:30
Yeah, they’re part of the story.
Atsuko Okatsuka 09:32
Oh, yeah. It’s just you know, when something’s cooking, and you can smell it. I’m hungry.
Kareem Rahma 09:38
I believe that there will be some twists and some turn.
Atsuko Okatsuka 09:40
I hope there’s a break like a breaking out story.
Kareem Rahma 09:45
So what Wataru’s father had moved from Japan to Utah 20 years earlier in 1903. To escape a life of farming. He moved to America to pursue the American dream and opened up his own barber shop becoming the Ogden town barber, Wataru had two younger brothers and a sister. So it was tough to support a family of six on barbershop wages. The family lived in the basement of the barber shop, which was between a bar and a pawn shop in a bad area of town, which was rife with prostitution, beer halls, drugs and brothels. Ogden was generally a tough town back there. Even my boss Al Capone himself was heard comment that Ogden was too wild a town for him. Al Capone was like, I ain’t gonna hug them.
Atsuko Okatsuka 10:31
Dang. Sounds kind of fun to me. I mean, you just named a bunch of people that I’m like, they’re just, they’re just the people that people judge so quick, you know?
Kareem Rahma 10:39
Oh, beer halls drugs.
Atsuko Okatsuka 10:44
And you don’t have to partake. They had a barber shop, but it was a rough town. It was so rough. Capone was like, no.
Kareem Rahma 10:55
And you’re saying Wataru developed an interest in sports early now.
Atsuko Okatsuka 11:02
That was so good.
Kareem Rahma 11:15
Wataru developed an interest in sports early on. But without much money, the family couldn’t really afford to buy sports equipment. So Wataru would build his own track hurdles in the alley outside his father’s shop, to practice something, that this time many parts of the US still enforce some form of segregation. And it wasn’t easy for Asian Americans to see that. I actually discovered something that I didn’t really know about when I was doing research on Wataru. There was another Ellis Island on the west coast called Angel Island. And I didn’t know about this at all, but Angel Island, essentially function very differently from its neuro counterpart in that Ellis Island served as a processing center primarily for European immigrants, who were viewed as more like Americans and faced relatively fewer obstacles. But by contrast, many of the immigrants who came through Angel Island were from Asian countries, primarily China, and were subjected to long interrogations and detentions. I didn’t know that.
Atsuko Okatsuka 12:17
I didn’t know that either. Where is Angel Island? Just like California to the left, just somewhere. Somewhere in California. Angel to the right angel to the left.
Kareem Rahma 12:32
Exactly. Yeah, I did. I was like, wait, what? I was like, it makes sense. In my mind. I was like, okay, geographically. It doesn’t make sense. What didn’t make sense is that literally I’ve never heard the word Angel Island.
Atsuko Okatsuka 12:44
Yeah, same. Also what a tricky name. It’s like, it sounds nice. A literal angel is welcoming you. In a nice way.
Atsuko Okatsuka 12:55
Atsuko Okatsuka 13:00
That’s the guy. That’s just a man’s name. We don’t even know. And you’re foreshadowing it is good. Good storytelling so much. But Asians and other people.
Kareem Rahma 13:12
This is what I’m talking about it.
Atsuko Okatsuka 13:14
Even from coming in, and then what happened?
Kareem Rahma 13:21
With this backdrop, it’s no surprise that Utah wasn’t the most welcoming place. When Wataru was a kid, non-White kids were excluded from extracurricular activities and kids of Japanese immigrants had to play in their own sports leagues. What Tara’s family was regularly denied service from restaurants. Because of their Japanese ancestry. Neighbors crossed the street to avoid them. And it would get worse. In 1939, when he was only 15 years old, Wataru’s father died. His mother nearly took the family back to Japan. But Wataru the oldest child and the big shot of the family was like, no, we’re not going, we’re staying.
Atsuko Okatsuka 14:03
Bad call Wataru. If I were his mom, I’d be pissed. You’d be like getting the fucking car with what’s coming next.
Kareem Rahma 14:14
Fortunately, by the time Wataru entered high school, Utah was a lot more tolerant and he was allowed to join the school’s sports teams at Ogden High School, Wataru became a star athlete. He ran track specializing in hurdles, he played baseball and football. He killed it as point guard on the basketball team and led the school to consecutive state basketball titles in 1940 and a regional championship title in 1941. He joined the basketball team after watching and becoming inspired by the Harlem Globetrotters.
Atsuko Okatsuka 14:49
But then, he broke his ankle.
Kareem Rahma 15:47
Let’s just say that this is the part.
Kareem Rahma 16:55
That we were all kind of waiting, right? This is, this is the part where I say I don’t want to.
Kareem Rahma 17:35
Listen to it anymore.
Atsuko Okatsuka 17:39
Ever make a movie out of his life, I hope for this part, which is interment. I hope they this is a song that turns on. Okay, what did America do?
Kareem Rahma 17:50
Let’s get back into the story. The attack on Pearl Harbor happened on December 7 1941. And it changed everything for Ouattara. He went to school on that Monday, but the principal had decided that Japanese American students should go home. And it wasn’t exactly clear when he’d be coming back. I’m sure that this was a very confusing time for Ouattara. I mean, it was confusing for me during 911 and I know it’s not exactly the same but I do remember like being in school and being like, oh, and then seeing the news and seeing like people from the Middle East and I was just like, I don’t know what’s happening but it doesn’t seem like a good situation for me. And I do remember not wanting to go to school. I was just like, this is not gonna be good for me. And it wasn’t.
Atsuko Okatsuka 18:49
I won’t make you, I won’t make you screw the people who are making you talk.
Kareem Rahma 18:53
The internment camps. After Pearl Harbor, which brought the US into World War Two, the US used racism against Japanese Americans as a propaganda tool and prohibited Asian immigrants from owning property. Posters portrayed Japanese soldiers as insects or vampires dragging off white women. slogans and songs urged vigilante revenge against fellows that are in yellow, I’m using quotation marks, Bugs Bunny and Popeye even joined in cemeteries were vandalized at road games. Spectators threatened Wataru from the stance shouting the words dirty Jap, go home, go home. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a wartime order and from 1942 to 1945. It was the policy of the US government that people of Japanese descent including US Citizens be incarcerated in isolated camps. This meant that more than 120,000 Japanese Americans who are living in designated coastal exclusion zones were removed from their homes and transferred to desolate rudimentary camps in the middle of nowhere. Because they lived in Utah. Wataru’s family escaped internment. The coastal Exclusion Zones.
Atsuko Okatsuka 20:34
Okay, so he was able to, like, skip it. And stay in school. I’m sure his classmates were like, oh, you know what I mean? Maybe the ones that oh, where we stayed? Oh, they’re like, you know, like, yeah, or like the principal or whatever. The principal that was like, stay home. Yeah. I’m sure like, you know what I mean, it’s still like a weird atmosphere for sure.
Kareem Rahma 21:05
But the family of his teammate, talked to […] who were his best friend did not. […]. family lived in San Francisco and was sent to the Topaz camp in Utah. Weird.
Atsuko Okatsuka 21:16
That’s what I’m saying. Like different camps in Wyoming. And Utah isn’t like school where it’s like you live near? Oh, you just missed it. You don’t get to go to this because.
Kareem Rahma 21:27
The Topaz camp in Utah, which opened on September 11, 1942. Was about 8000 Americans of Japanese descent. Tut’s brother Dave became famous for sneaking a video camera into the camp and capture the only film of life under internment in America. The film was smuggled out to Tut who developed the film while balancing his academic and basketball careers alongside Wataru and is now archived in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. At this point, it’s around 1943 And another one of his best friends Roy had just moved to Los Angeles after high school. He was sent to a camp in Arizona, Wataru kept in contact with Roy, and he told Ouattara that he could leave the camp as long as he had a sponsor, someone who could guarantee work. So Tara talked to the President of Weber Junior College, where he was now enrolled, and Wataru had the President signed papers to get Roy out of the camp, and come work at the school. And he stayed out the rest of the time.
Atsuko Okatsuka 22:34
Kareem Rahma 22:35
So Wataru was going to bat for his boys, right. He was just like I’m out, you’re in, I’m gonna get you out.
Atsuko Okatsuka 22:43
Meanwhile still being hot. Very attractive and good at basketball.
Kareem Rahma 22:49
Yeah, whoever’s listening to the podcast, please google Wataru Misaka. You’re gonna be like, damn, daddy.
Atsuko Okatsuka 22:54
Yeah. Had to look hot too. During all this.
Kareem Rahma 22:58
Could have easily been a movie star.
Atsuko Okatsuka 23:03
He chose life basketball and getting his friends jobs.
Kareem Rahma 23:06
Well, that’s what that’s what people say those like ball is life do you know that phrase? Ball is life?
Atsuko Okatsuka 23:10
Yeah, I think I heard it in Space Jam.
Kareem Rahma 23:18
Did Michael Jordan said that?
Atsuko Okatsuka 23:22
I think it was bugs, but bugs. I’m pissed that bugs I didn’t know he said racist things.
Kareem Rahma 23:27
Bunny is a bitch. Who do you think they would use now?
Atsuko Okatsuka 23:32
For propaganda, Gosh, the Blue’s Clues guy.
Kareem Rahma 23:38
The dog or the man?
Atsuko Okatsuka 23:40
No, the dog. That’s a great idea. Yeah, just use blue.
Kareem Rahma 23:44
That’s a good idea.
Atsuko Okatsuka 23:45
Talks like this. Anyways, Bugs Bunny yeah, ball is life
Kareem Rahma 23:56
At Weber junior college, retardo helped lead the basketball team to two championships. He was named the most valuable player in 1942 and in 1943, he was named the Weber junior college athlete of the year. After two years of junior college Wataru enrolled at the University of Utah and joined the Utes basketball teams. The young team finished with an 18 and three record in 1944 season, both Wataru and his teammate tut, pushed past anti-Japanese hostility, propaganda and racial taunting during the road trips. What tartar was sometimes listed as Hawaiian during this time at Utah, to protect him from Tom’s from opposing fans, as animosity against Japan was prevalent during this time. But back to the good news. In 1944, the youth were invited to the NCAA tournament and the National invitation tournament. They chose the NIT because it was more prestigious at the time, and it meant a trip to New York City.
Atsuko Okatsuka 25:04
Ball is life.
Kareem Rahma 25:08
[…] All right back to the big ball. The team lost to Kentucky in the first round but the youth were given a chance to continue playing in the NCAA Tournament. Utah basketball coach […] Peterson done urgent telegram saying that the Arkansas University basketball team had gotten involved in a tragic car accident just days before the Western Regional. The NCAA needed a new six seed and the youths caught the next train to Kansas City. The team could only afford to take nine players which were members. All through the tournament, one of the coaches had to put on sneakers so we could practice and shit. The youths were fun to watch their team was called the Blitz kids, because they played at a faster pace than any other team. This was a time when basketball was dominated by the two hands step shot. If you don’t know what that is, I highly suggest you look it up. It’s pretty hilarious. It looks like your grandparents playing sports. On the other hand, the bliss kids would shoot with one hand midstream. They’re also credited for inventing the given go although they call it the drive and dish.
Atsuko Okatsuka 26:39
I’m just listening carefully. I’m like whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, all those foreign words.
Kareem Rahma 26:43
Driving dash, give and go, common leave. Throw the fist. That one I just made up.
Kareem Rahma 26:55
Is five guys about a basketball team?
Kareem Rahma 27:05
Is there five guys in basketball? That’s how much I know about basketball.
Atsuko Okatsuka 27:11
It’s five on five.
Kareem Rahma 27:12
Oh, sure. You know a lot about basketball.
Atsuko Okatsuka 27:15
I feel like that’s the basic and it’s a ball and you dribble.
Kareem Rahma 27:19
I know what the dribbling in the ballpark.
Atsuko Okatsuka 27:21
I think it’s five on five but someone called point guard. Yeah, they kind of like run down the court. They’re like the quarterback. People are listening to us are like these fucking losers. Just go back to the grab them play or whatever.
Kareem Rahma 27:41
Go back to the grab and play. I’m gonna go back to the grabbing player. They lost in the first round. And then this other team had this car accident. So they were like we got to so they were like your back end because we need that another team. So they got in and then they won. And then they ended up going to New York so it all worked out, which is pretty sick. So 15,000 fans packed Madison Square Garden that night, it was a record audience for a college basketball game. betters favored their opponent Dartmouth, but Utah style was something nobody had ever seen before at this level. They won 42 to 40 and overtime with key help from Wataru snatching passes and rebounds from taller opponents they were national champions. This was college basketball’s first Cinderella story, by the way, Utah hasn’t won the NCAA championship since.
Atsuko Okatsuka 28:36
Wow, good job. Wataru that shout out to our boy Ouattara, my favorite Hawaiian player.
Kareem Rahma 28:45
But as usual, there’s always a but right?
Atsuko Okatsuka 28:48
Oh, but yeah, but I mean, shoot. What more racism? I figured that was happening throughout the whole thing.
Kareem Rahma 28:58
It wouldn’t be a super celebration for Wataru. His mom was waiting with the crowd at the train station for Wataru to come home with his team with a trophy in her hand, she held his draft notice for World War Two.
Atsuko Okatsuka 29:12
Oh, right. Oh, the war that thing.
Kareem Rahma 29:17
Wataru was assigned to an all Japanese American infantry unit and because he spoke Japanese, he was later reassigned to a military intelligence unit destined to join the invasion of Japan. But then the US dropped two atomic bombs and Japan surrendered before Wataru was deployed into action. But as unit was still sent to Japan to pioneer a new social science for the US strategic bombing survey, what tours shuffled between Yokohama and Hiroshima, where he and other soldiers interviewed Japanese civilians about the effects of the bombing on morale. They were ordered to neither help nor console in what Tara’s words. We couldn’t say anything that would influence their response. Those, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over the devastation. I was a man without a country to the Japanese. I was an invader. And Americans didn’t trust me. Because I was Japanese. He rose to the rank of staff sergeant and after two years in the Army, he returned to the University of Utah and rejoined the team. Pretty cool.
Atsuko Okatsuka 30:23
Yeah, but that’s still a lot it’s like two years you didn’t get to practice, you know? And yes, of course and the psychological distress of the atomic bombing that’s your home but yes, all of that. Yeah. But also since ball is life is coming back to you know friggin play at two years off you know, if I don’t do stand up for like a week I feel rusty. Oh, my goodness. Not too much time off. No, I gotta get back. Gotta get back.
Kareem Rahma 31:00
Yeah, get that tattooed in your hand. All right back to the story. So he rose to the rank of staff sergeant and after two years in the Army, he returned to the University of Utah and rejoined the team and in 1947. The team won the NIT tournament their second national championship in four years. Again, the youth were invited to the tournament in New York and the team slipped by the first two rounds before beating Kentucky 49 to five to capture the 1947 NIT championship title. Wataru held Wildcats all American guard draft year to a single point again, he made the garden go crazy. The crowd was going absolutely wild over it. As the New York Times put it, I’ll read this in a cool old school voice As the New York Times […] American born of Japanese descent with a cute fellow interception passes and making the night miserable for Kentucky.
Atsuko Okatsuka 31:04
Joke is life.
Kareem Rahma 31:05
Joke is life.
Kareem Rahma 31:50
We’re gonna be like weird slurs in there.
Kareem Rahma 33:52
So this is the best part. This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Wataru has played basketball for nearly his entire adult life. He endured racism and family challenges. He’s been in the US military during a time of high anti-Japanese sentiment in America. He’s played at Madison Square Garden, not once, but twice. And then in 1947, Wataru is drafted by the New York Knicks as a first round draft pick, becoming the first non-White player to join the NBA.
Atsuko Okatsuka 34:32
And that’s the draft, you want to be drafted into, not the other. I kind of wish it was also his mother that was at a train station holding that.
Kareem Rahma 34:50
No, I don’t think they send a letter to mother. What a dramatic story.
Atsuko Okatsuka 34:55
Yeah, very, very dramatic story. What this whole thing?
Kareem Rahma 34:59
I mean, no, it’s all So just specifically that part at the train station.
Atsuko Okatsuka 35:04
I know at that point really ingrained in my head.
Kareem Rahma 35:06
It was like raining, probably. That’s not a fact. So don’t quote me on that. Like I said earlier, this was the year that Jackie Robinson made his MLB debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. A big moment for New York sports a big year for American sports in general. The Knicks even featured Wataru in a promotional campaign before their season opener, describing him as a sensational defensive player. There were no press conferences or interviews to commemorate Wataru’s first game and in his words, it wasn’t a big thing. Nobody cared. I read it in the newspaper. That’s how I found out I had been drafted by the Knicks in June 1947. I was surprised. I didn’t even know they were having a draft. There was no hype about pro basketball. My college coach called me and we met Knicks president met Irish at the hotel in Salt Lake City, a hotel I’d never think of registering at. They didn’t let non-White stay there. The New York Knicks offered Masako a guaranteed contract of $4,000 for the 1947-48 season. That autumn although Wataru joined the team, he faced long odds. The Knicks coach hadn’t been a part of the decision to draft him, and the players had little incentive to welcome him. They’re already three point guards on the team, and having another just meant less playing time for that. Many people believe that Net Irish the next president was hoping to capitalize on Ouattara, his popularity to promote the NBA. And that’s why Irish made Wataru the team’s very first draft pick. Remember earlier, I was like every time he went to Madison Square Garden, everyone was like, Yeah, this guy was like, oh, he’s kind of like an attraction. Industry buzzy. Exactly. It’s like a buzz guy. This is a quote from an NBA documentarian. To his credit I really think it didn’t enter that Irish his mind that what was Japanese America. I think he just saw how excited the crowd was. And he wanted that inside Madison Square Garden. Interesting. On the Knicks, first row games, things got a bit ugly. The team promoted Wataru’s appearance and local papers and to a degree it worked. The crowd showed up. But instead of crowds chanting go what? It was more like go home Jap. Throughout his time playing basketball, what’s harder is home crowds in Utah loved him, his hustle his charisma, his intangibles. But the college basketball tournaments he played at Madison Square Garden shielded the hate because generally, all the teams were visitors and it was all about the sport. And that’s what met Iris saw. But outside of the chemistry bubble, there was no shield from the anti-Japanese sentiment.
Atsuko Okatsuka 37:57
Because now that you’re in the big leagues, right?
Kareem Rahma 38:02
And you’re in Arkansas.
Atsuko Okatsuka 38:03
When anyone’s welcome. When that happens? Wait, what do you mean, the bigger the bubble? It’s like I always say like Disneyland, right? Everyone’s allowed. And so that means you’re in there with everyone.
Kareem Rahma 38:26
Wataru played […] games for the Knicks and scored seven points in the 1948 season before being cut from the team. He believed he was caught because the Knicks had too many guards. So just like that, after only his third professional basketball game, and the first game he started in his NBA career was over.
Atsuko Okatsuka 38:48
That’s wild. So he only played three games. He only played three games. Because it was just like, that’s so upsetting.
Kareem Rahma 38:55
And that’s why he’s not like in the history. But you know what I mean? It’s like, Yeah, but he fucking did the thing. That’s what’s crazy. Like he did the thing. I know. He did it at a time of high anti-Japanese sentiment. He did it at a time where people didn’t care about basketball as much. He also only played three games, but like, it doesn’t take away from the fact that he did do it. It’s not about staying in the league. It’s about getting in it.
Atsuko Okatsuka 39:23
Like second person. It was easier for the second person 100%
Kareem Rahma 39:25
Of course, yeah, it must have been. And so that is the end of Wataru’s story when it comes to basketball. But that doesn’t mean he stopped doing the things he loved. Wataru moved back to Salt Lake City, and he went to work at an electrical engineering firm. He married the love of his life, Katie Misaka in 1952, and they stayed married for 60 years. Together. They raised two children. He picked up bowling ultimately becoming a champion bowler and Wataru was inducted into the Japanese American National Bowling Hall of Fame in 1997. In his hometown, he would become better known for bowling than his short career in professional basketball. After his exit, there wouldn’t be an Asian in the NBA for another 55 years, when Yao Ming joined the Houston Rockets in 2001. And there wouldn’t be another Asia on the Knicks for 65 years when Jeremy Lin cause Linsanity in 2011. What Toros basketball legacy was short, but it doesn’t make it any less important. Frankly, it’s why this show exists. It’s an undeniable fact that Wataru broke down the racial barrier, and professional basketball, was hard to remain humble until his death on November 20 2019, in Salt Lake City, at the age of 95. In his words, I don’t think anyone, especially me, even compared what I did with what Jackie Robinson had done, I never did think of myself as a pioneer of any sorts. But we can still celebrate him and make his name known, even if he didn’t see himself as a hero. And that, my friends is the story of Wataru Misako, the first Asian American and first non-White player in the NBA.
Kareem Rahma 39:31
That was gorgeous. That was a good story.
Atsuko Okatsuka 41:27
So good. What
Atsuko Okatsuka 41:28
but I mean, I feel like his life was so front loaded. He was like 27 and had lived so many lives that he was like, you know what? I’m going back to Utah. Yeah, I’m gonna get married. I’m gonna pull. I’m gonna chill.
Kareem Rahma 41:28
I’m glad he got to live through all that the celebrations and seeing the other folks get to play in the NBA after him. That’s very because it would have sucked if it was like, well, and then he died. You know, like after his first and only game. It’s you had a really 95 years old. That’s really good. I feel like it. He died right before the pandemic. So he didn’t have to see that. H
Atsuko Okatsuka 42:11
I know. I’m glad you got to chill.
Kareem Rahma 42:13
Eventually people were like, Wait, this guy’s the one who did it. Yeah, and he was recognized.
Atsuko Okatsuka 42:22
Thank you for having me. That was awesome.
Kareem Rahma 42:31
Next time on first make sure to catch me and […] as we talk about Willie O’Ree and how he became the first Black player in the NHL.
FIRST is produced by some friends and salts. Ad sales and distribution by Lemonada Media. The show is created and hosted by Kareem Rahma. Executive producers for some friends are Kareem Rahma, Andrew […], researched by […], original audio production music and sound design by Salt. Executive producers for Salt are […] salts Head of Production […], Salt’s head of engineering, […], Salt’s head of post-production Robert Adler’s, Production Manager Alice […], post-production coordinator […], recording engineer Aaron Kennedy, edited and sound designed by […] Harris, dialogue supervision by Noah Kowalski. Additional sound design and music supervision by […], mixed by Ben O’Neil. Original music and composition by […] additional Music courtesy of extreme music recorded at Salt Studios in Los Angeles and the cutting room in New York City.