SALT LAKE CITY— The University of Utah Athletics Department held the jersey retirement ceremony for Wataru “Wat” Misaka on Jan. 22 as the Utes hosted USC at the Jon M. Huntsman Center.
Misaka is the eighth men’s player from Utah to have his jersey hung from the Huntsman Center’s rafters. His No. 20 jersey now hangs in the rafters next to that of his teammate and close friend Arnie Ferrin, No. 22.
Participants in the ceremony included State Sen. Jani Iwamoto, who was instrumental in getting the recognition for Misaka; State Rep. Steve Eliason; Misaka’s son, Hank Misaka, and daughter, Nancy Umemura, who were joined by other family members and friends.
“I want to thank three groups of people,” Umemura said, speaking on behalf of the family. “First, to those who made this event possible, to Sen. Jani Iwamoto, to Rep. Steve Eliason, and to Max Chang for sponsoring the resolution in the Utah Legislature and for petitioning the university for this, to [University of Utah Director of Athletics] Mark Harlan and the Athletics Department for honoring Wat in this permanent way, and to Bruce and Chris Johnson, creators of ‘Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story’ film, who have been long-time advoctes for Wat.
“Second, I want to thank our extended family and friends, many of you who are here today and represented here today. We love and appreciate you more than we can ever say. We want to acknowledge our mom Katie, who helped Wat to be the man that he was.
“Finally, I was thinking that Wat would have turned 98 last month. Thank you to the Utah community for supporting Wat and our family for nearly 100 years. That’s amazing.
“Dad had a lot of natural athletic ability, but in team sports talent isn’t everything. You have to have someone to give you the opportunity to play. Through all the stages of Wat’s life, there were people who created those opportunities for him. His parents moving here from Japan to give him and his two brothers [Tatsumi and Osamu] an opportunity for education and a better life.
“And then in sports through Central Junior High, Ogden High School, Weaver State, University of Utah and the New York Knicks, somebody gave him the opportunity to play. Some people saw the color of his skin and treated him with compassion. And some people saw the person he was inside and treated him with love and respect. His teammates at Utah did both.
“I want to acknowledge Wat’s teammate and lifelong friend Arnie Ferrin. He couldn’t be with us today but his family is here … Arnie has been the epitome of someone who has played alongside and walked alongside as a friend, encouraging and supporting and turning opportunities into reality for him. We should all be blessed to have such a friend. We should all be such a friend to someone …
“Thank you all so much for being here for this incredible honor for Wat. Go Utes!”
“What a special day as Wat Misaka’s jersey was retired,” Iwamoto said after the ceremony. “The video summarized his achievements but his daughter Nancy captured what means most — friendships and opportunities during times of loss of liberties. His longtime friendship with Arnie Ferrin — so memorable as their jerseys are now next to each other.
“He was never into the spotlight but his life needs to be shared and celebrated. I always knew Wat as gentle and kind — it wasn’t until I asked him to sign a basketball for an auction in San Francisco that I realized what he meant to those outside of Utah — there was a bidding frenzy for the basketball.
“When he passed, news flashed all over the country. Katie was his partner in life and he often said he never could have done it without her. We love you, Wat! A life most certainly lived well.”
Born in 1923 to Japanese immigrant parents, Fusaichi and Tatsuyo, Misaka was the eldest of three boys. His sister, Sachiye, died the year after she was born. His father, a barber, died when the boys were young and his mother became a barber to provide for the family.
Misaka graduated from Ogden High in 1941. He helped Weber State Junior College win consecutive junior college national championships in 1942-43 and was named the JUCO national tournament MVP in 1942.
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 World War II, 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 and the first non-white player 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.
Having turned down an offer to play with the Harlem Globetrotters, Misaka returned to Utah and used his bachelor’s degree from the U to begin a career as an electrical engineer. He and his wife Katie (nee Inoway) married in 1952 and had two children and three grandchildren, Kennah Misaka, Erin Misaka, and Joel Umemura. Katie passed away in 2017.
Misaka was inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame in 1999, the Japanese American Sports Hall of Fame in San Francisco in 2002, and the University of Utah’s Crimson Club Hall of Fame in 2011.
In 2008, the documentary “Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story” by Bruce Johnson and Christine Toy Johnson drew national attention to Misaka’s accomplishments.
In 2009, 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 August 2018, his hometown of Ogden 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.
Misaka passed away on Nov. 20, 2019 at the age of 95 in Salt Lake City.
In 2020, the Utah State Legislature passed a resolution honoring Misaka, introduced by Iwamoto, and Harlan announced the jersey retirement ceremony — which was delayed due to the pandemic — on the floor of the State Senate.
The resolution made note of Misaka’s significant contributions as a citizen of Utah and his considerable historical achievements.
“Wat Misaka’s legacy is that of a champion,” Harlan said. “He won championships as a student at Utah and was a champion in this country, whose dignity shined through as a trailblazer and pioneer. Those who perform at a championship level at Utah are greatly valued, but also for what they accomplish in their lives beyond graduation. Wat’s achievements are extraordinary, and the profound impact he made leaves a legacy of great pride for his family, for the state of Utah and all who benefited from the opportunities he created.”