University of Utah College of Engineering graduate, Wat Misaka, the first person of color to play in the NBA and a member of the legendary 1944 Utes basketball team that won the NCAA Tournament Championship in 1944, passed away in Salt Lake City on Nov. 20. He was 95.

In addition to playing for the New York Knicks in the 1947-48 season, Misaka also graduated from the U’s College of Engineering with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1948. He later would become an electrical engineer.

Click here for a Salt Lake Tribune story about Misaka’s career. And below is a story from the U’s athletics department.


Misaka, who helped lead the Utah basketball program to national championships in 1944 and ’47, broke barriers when he became the first non-Caucasian player in the Basketball Association of America (predecessor to the NBA) in 1947.
“We are saddened to learn of the passing of Wat Misaka,” said Director of Athletics Mark Harlan. “He was a part of the Utah teams that won national championships in the 1940s, but Wat was bigger than the game of basketball, blazing trails into places nobody of his descent had gone before. He was such a kind and thoughtful man and will be missed by so many. Our thoughts are with his family, friends and Utah fans, who all mourn his passing.”

Known as the Jackie Robinson of basketball, Misaka was inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame in 1999 and the University of Utah’s Crimson Club Hall of Fame in 2011. Misaka was the point guard for Utah’s 1944 NCAA tournament championship team and the 1947 NIT championship team. In between his two seasons playing for Utah he was drafted into the military and rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant.

In his first season with the Utes, the tenacious defender helped guide Utah to the 1944 National Championship and a 22-4 overall record. After losing in the more prestigious National Invitational Tournament to Kentucky, the Utes were asked to take the place of Arkansas in the eight-team NCAA Tournament. After taking down Missouri 45-35 and Iowa State 40-31, where Misaka scored five points and nine points, respectively, Utah returned to New York City. The 5-7 guard had won over New Yorkers in the previous week during the NIT with his style of play, and in the NCAA Championship game he scored four points as Utah defeated Dartmouth 42-40 in overtime at Madison Square Garden.
After returning from his service during WWII, Misaka helped lead the Utes to the 1947 NIT title with a 49-45 victory over Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats. That team wound up 19-5 overall at season’s end and finished second in the Skyline Conference with a 10-2 mark.
Following his playing career at Utah, Misaka was drafted by the New York Knicks in 1947. The first player of Japanese descent to play in the NBA, known then as the Basketball Association of America, Misaka took part in three games during the 1947-48 season and scored seven points.

In August of 2018, his hometown of Ogden, Utah, honored Misaka with the “Kilowatt Court” at Liberty Park. He also was the Terasaki Budokan’s guest of honor in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo two months earlier. In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama mentioned Misaka when he spoke at the opening ceremony to mark the formation of the President’s Advisory Commission and White House Initiative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders. In 2008, Bruce Johnson and Christine Johnson directed, “Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story.”

“Wat was a person who was an achiever in all he did,” said Misaka’s Utah teammate Arnie Ferrin, who later served as Utah’s Athletics Director from 1976-85. “His contribution to winning a National Championship may not be remembered, but his play won the championship for Utah in the 1947 Tournament. Imagine playing in Madison Square Garden, the Mecca of college basketball, guarding the best player in the game (Ralph Beard) and shutting him out. That may be the best defensive performance in the history of the tournament. He did so many great things such as representing the Japanese as an American citizen during the War. He was one of my best friends, in fact we all should have a friend like him. I will miss him dearly.”