What the Wat?? Asian Americans in the NBA

Jeremy Lin

Linsanity has taken over New York. In case you are not a basketball fan, or an underdog story fan and you have been living under a rock, Jeremy Lin is an Asian American basketball player who has taken the New York Knicks by storm.  And we know, it’s not just him.  It seems that he has helped revitalize the whole team and everyone is playing their A game.  I haven’t had this much fun watching the Knicks since the early 90s when my brother made me forced me to watch it with him.

What a great story though.  This kid plays basketball and makes waves in high school but ends up going to Harvard for college even though they do not give athletic scholarships.  So he plays for the Harvard team, also doing well and somehow makes it to the NBA.  And apparently, that is not as glamorous as it sounds if you are warming benches.

Despite showing a lot of potential, he gets shuffled around a couple of teams, goes back and forth from the D league until he gets his break.  He makes it to the Knicks roster and since it seems they’ve run out of point guards, he gets the signal to get in the game.

And he shines. And he keeps shining! Yes, this guy is for real. Stop asking if he is!

I saw the article in the New York Times last week talking about Wat Misaka and how he was the first non-Caucasian in the NBA.  This was in 1947 right after World War II when racial tensions were still broiling over from the war.  This is the same year that Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play in Major League Baseball and Wally Yonamine became the first Asian American to play in the NFL for the 49ers. [Coincidentally, it is also the same year that Miya Company was incorporated in NYC by our founder, Mr. Chosuke Miyahira.]

So I googled Wat Misaka and found a documentary about him called, “Transcending, the Wat Misaka Story.” (www.watmisaka.com)  I promptly sent them my money to get a copy. I get excited about Asian American history, don’t judge me!

If you get a chance to see it, I highly recommend it.  It’s a bit slow in some parts but it’s quite an interesting story. He lived through the time of Pearl Harbor, Japanese American Internment, Japanese American conscription into the US Army against Japan, the bombing of Hiroshima & Nagasaki and of course, all the racial tension that stemmed from all of this.  At one point in the documentary, Wat Misaka put into words the feeling of confusion and despair of many Nisei (2nd generation Japanese Americans) after Pearl Harbor.  He says that it was devastating thinking that his parents’ country was waging war on his country.

Wat Misaka in Utah

He was living in Utah and was able to leave the internment camp with a sponsor to play basketball for his college team.  The accounts of his time with his team with real footage from the games were amazing.  He gets drafted and ends up in Hiroshima close to where his mother’s brother lived.  They use a quote in the documentary about his wearing an American Army uniform in Japan saying that no matter where he was, he was seen as a traitor to his country – in the US, simply because he was of Japanese descent and in Japan because of his uniform.

Wat Misaka with John Starks in 2009 at Madison Square Garden. (image from http://www.watmisaka.com)

The documentary is a great story of his spirit and a nice overview of Japanese American history.  He was honored in 2009 by the Knicks in recognition of his place in Knicks’ history. He was 5’ 7”, Japanese and the Knicks’ first draft pick in 1947.  How incredible.
Wat Misaka is getting some press lately because of Jeremy Lin’s success.  You can see some similarities in their stories but, of course, both men should be celebrated for their own achievements.

As much as Jeremy Lin has become a hero to many kids, Asian American or not, who see him as their inspiration, imagine what it must have been like to see (or more likely, read/hear about) Wat Misaka playing at Madison Square Garden in the 40s. That is truly a story of the American spirit.

And excuse me but I must add in the gratuitous, “GO KNICKS!!”