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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Unsung Knick History – The FIRST Notable Knick #15

This is the twenty-sixth in a series (of indefinite length and regularity) of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Knicks history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, “The Dunk” or Willis Reed playing Game 7, but still have a place in Knicks history, especially for die-hard fans. Here is an archive of all the stories featured so far.

There has recently been some discussion about the number 15, specifically about how Carmelo Anthony has worn the number on his uniforms since college but cannot wear it as a Knick today since it has already been retired by the Knicks twice (once for Dick McGuire and once for Earl Monroe). Amazingly enough, though, there was actually another notable Knick who wore the #15 – a Knick who made history as the first non-Caucasian (and the first Japanese American) player to play in what is now the NBA!

As I am sure you folks know by now from all the past Unsung Knick History articles on the subject, professional basketball was a whole lot different in the first half of the 20th Century. In fact, they did not even have a player draft until 1947! That first draft (done by the Basketball Association of America, which had been founded a year earlier) would be barely recognizable to modern viewers, since teams did not have to make public anything but their initial draft pick. So we don’t know exactly when the Knicks drafted Waturu Misaka, just that he was, indeed, drafted by the Knicks in the 1947 BAA Draft.

Waturu “Wat” Misaka was born in Ogden, Utah in 1923 to Japanese immigrant parents. His father was a railroad worker and his mother was a barber. Luckily for the Misakas, when General John DeWitt laid out his plans for the West Coast internment zones, he decided to leave Utah off of the map, so they were not relocated to internment camps after the United States went to war with Japan (oddly enough, one of the largest interment camps was in Utah!).

Instead, Misaka became a star point guard for the University of Utah.
Misaka was only five foot seven inches tall and 155 pounds dripping wet (he wore a size 7 sneaker! Size 7, people!) but he was quick and athletic and he led his team in a thrilling game against Kentucky in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) in 1944, then the marquee college basketball tournament. After falling short against Kentucky, the Utes moved on to the (then-less respected) NCAA Tournament, which they won, playing at Madison Square Garden in front of Ned Irish, future president of the New York Knicks. The Utes then made headlines by defeating St. Johns University in an exhibition game (St. Johns was the eventual winner of the 1944 NIT).

After the basketball season ended, Misaka entered the United States Army for the rest of World War II. He worked as an interpreter for the Army and actually was in Hiroshima after the bombing, aiding in a military study of the survivors of the blast. He returned from service in 1946 and went back to school. Once again playing for the Utes, he led them to a dramatic run to the 1947 NIT title, avenging their 1944 loss to Kentucky by defeating them in Madison Square Garden in the Final game. In that game, Misaka dominated Kentucky’s famous All-American guard, Ralph Beard, holding Beard to a single point in the Ute victory! Once again, Ned Irish was watching – only this time, Irish had a professional basketball team!

So during the 1947 BAA Draft, Irish drafted Misaka. In another sign of how far things have changed in sports since then, Misaka discovered he had been drafted by reading it in the newspaper!! Irish flew out to Utah and signed Misaka to a guaranteed $3,000 contract.

The problem was that Irish had not cleared this move with his new head coach, the venerable Joe Lapchick. Lapchick was irritated by the decision by Irish, which spotlighted the glaring differences in style between Irish and Lapchick. Lapchick had a very specific idea of what kind of player he wanted playing for him, while Irish desired players that he felt could sell tickets. Irish saw Misaka as a future crowd favorite. Lapchick saw a player who was not strong enough to compete in the BAA.

When Misaka arrived at camp, he thought he had made the team (after all, Irish signed him to a guaranteed contract!), but that was not the case. He played for the Knicks all through training camp (it was during this period that Misaka wore different jersey numbers – you’ll see him wearing #4 and #16 in different pictures, including the one I have to accompany this piece) and roomed with fellow rookie Carl Braun (who went on to have a stellar career as a Knick). In the actual professional games, though, he wore #15 (becoming the first Knick to wear the number to start a season – the third to wear it period. McGuire would take the number in 1949).

When the season began, Misaka was the first non-Caucasian to play in the BAA (which, in effect, means he was the first non-Caucasian to play in the NBA). The first African-American player was not until the following year. However, after just three games played professionally as a Knick (including the last game as a starter – his first road game), Misaka was cut by the Knicks.

He was never given a reason why he was cut after just three games, but I tend to believe it was just that Lapchick finally won out over Irish. It was not like Misaka played great as a Knick – he didn’t (he was 3 for 13), but it was still odd to see it happen after three games. I’ve seen people theorize it was due to poor reception on the road (as the MSG crowd liked Misaka, just as Irish figured they would). That’s possible, I suppose, but Lapchick was so against having him on the team that I think that’s the reason he was cut.

After getting cut, Misaka was given an informal offer to join the Harlem Globetrotters (who likely had the same idea Irish did), but turned them down and went back to school where he got a graduate degree in engineering. He had a long career as an engineer. He is now 87 years old. He visited the Garden back in 2009 as part of the promotion for a documentary on his life, Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story.

Thanks to George Vecsey for information helpful for this piece!

If you folks dig these stories, you’d probably also get a kick out of my Sports Legends Revealed site. There is an archive of the ones about basketball here. I also have one Sports Legend featured every Tuesday at the LA Times.

If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at cronb01@aol.com! I’d prefer you share your suggestions via e-mail rather than in the comments section, so we can keep them a surprise! Thanks!

4 comments on “Unsung Knick History – The FIRST Notable Knick #15

  1. Brian Cronin

    It most certainly is Waturu, thanks, I fixed it (I called him by his last name so much I think I ended up glossing over his first name).

  2. Nick C.

    That is a cool story. I wonder why he as a person of color and so soon after WWII doesn’t get mention at all as a pioneer of sorts.

  3. Brian Cronin

    I guess because his stint was so brief. In addition, other pioneers in sports have others who would look back to them and that’s how they would get more attention. Like a Jackie Robinson, for instance. Every black baseball player after Robinson remembered Robinson and honored him. In the case of Misaka, he was the last Asian-American player in the BAA/NBA until Jeremy Lin…this season! Sixty years later!! He’s still the only Japanese-American to play in the BAA/NBA.

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