Wataru “Wat” Misaka, the first athlete of color to play in what would become the NBA, has died at the age of 95 in Salt Lake City, Utah on Wednesday.
The Japanese American player broke barriers when he entered the Basketball Association of America (BAA) — the predecessor of NBA — in 1947, the same year he had helped lead the University of Utah to a national championship for the second time.
The university’s athletics department announced his passing with sadness on Thursday.
“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,” Director of Athletics Mark Harlan said. “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.”
Born in Ogden, Utah in 1923, Misaka attended Ogden High and Weber State University before heading to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
In his first season, the 5-foot-7 point guard helped the university beat Dartmouth to the 1944 NCAA championship.
His athletic career was put on hold when he was drafted into the U.S. Army to fight in World War II.
After serving in the war, he returned to Utah and helped the team win the National Invitational Tournament in 1947, a 49-45 victory over the Kentucky Wildcats, according to NBC News.
In 1947, Wataru Misaka became the first non-white player in the NBA.
The 5’7″ PG played three games for the Knicks.
This week, he turned 95 🙏 pic.twitter.com/UpbCJjiyNU
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 22, 2018
Then, in the same year, Misaka was drafted by the New York Knicks, taking part in three games during the 1947-48 season and scoring seven points.
He played three games with the team before being waived and continuing his engineering degree.
A documentary called “Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story”, released in 2008, detailed his life as a trailblazing athlete.
In 2013, he showed up at a Utah Jazz game to watch Jeremy Lin play, according to ESPN.
Misaka experienced racism in the years before the war, though he recalled in a 2018 interview that there had been “more discrimination on the basketball floor” than in common public places.
Still, he lived as a humble man, never coming to terms that he had been breaking barriers until later.
“Later on is when I started realizing just exactly what that sort of thing meant,” Misaka told ABC 7 last year. “I felt proud that I was a little guy but I was out there doing my best to represent my people.”
Feature Images via University of Utah (Left) and Misaka Family (Right)