Wataru Misaka: The Utah native who broke sports barriers

Oct 14, 2022, 5:00 PM | Updated: Jan 5, 2023, 2:44 pm

Image of Wataru "Kilowatt" Misaka in the 1940's Utah Utes jerseys (Photo courtesy of UofU Athletics...

Image of Wataru "Kilowatt" Misaka in the 1940's Utah Utes jerseys (Photo courtesy of UofU Athletics)

(Photo courtesy of UofU Athletics)

SALT LAKE CITY — When people think of Utah sports, it’s likely they will think of the household names who brought success to teams in the state. Like John Stockton, Karl Malone, and Nick Rimando.

Then, they will probably think of hometown heroes like Steve Young, Zach Wilson, and Steve Konowalchuk.

But, there is one man who isn’t as well known. He was born in the state, attended the University of Utah, and went on to break racial barriers in professional sports.

His name? Wataru “Wat” Misaka.

A professional against all odds

In the 1940s, developments in World War II led to the internment of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. Over 100,000 people of Japanese descent were relocated and interned across 10 camps in the United States. This was done out of fear for national security following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Today, it is seen as one of the biggest violations of civil rights in our nation’s history.

Misaka was the son of two Japanese immigrants, Tatsuyo and Fusaichi Misaka. Despite Utah having its own internment camp in Topaz, Misaka was not interned since he had lived in Utah and was not a coastal state. In fact, he played in the 1944 NCAA Basketball Championship Game while the internment camps were still being used.

Misaka brought the Utes their first, and only, national championship in 1944. The game was the first national championship game to require an overtime period. The next championship game to go to overtime wasn’t until 1957.

At the time, the school had two names. The ‘Utes’ and the ‘Redskins’. In 1972, they dropped the ‘Redskins’ name and solely identified as the ‘Runnin’ Utes’.

In the middle of his two seasons playing for Utah, Misaka was drafted into the military. He eventually rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant before returning from service and leading the Utes to the 1947 National Invitation Tournament title.

Misaka was drafted by the New York Knicks in 1947. He was the first non-white player to play in the Basketball Association of America, which later became the NBA. Misaka broke the race barrier for basketball the same year that Jackie Robinson did in the MLB

Who is Wataru Misaka?

Misaka was born in Ogden, Utah. He was the oldest of three brothers. Misaka recalls growing up poor, living in the basement of his father’s barbershop which was located between a bar and a pawn shop. 

In Misaka’s childhood, he was constantly “denied service at restaurants and avoided on the street” due to his race. 

Rather than letting that treatment get to him, Misaka represented both the United States and Japan to the fullest. He fought for the U.S. in the military while remaining grateful for his Japanese roots. This love, however, was not reciprocated.

“I was a man without a country,” Misaka said. “To the Japanese, I was an invader. Americans didn’t trust me because I was Japanese.”

Although Misaka’s professional career was short-lived, his play on the court and effect on the game cannot be understated. He wasn’t your stereotypical pro-basketball player. At 5’7″ and 150 pounds, he was smaller than the vast majority of his competition. It was his defense and quickness that set him apart from the rest. Misaka was constantly referred to as a “speed demon.”

Known for his abundance of energy on the hardwood, Wat “Kilowatt” Misaka’s nickname was fitting, to say the least. Ogden, Misaka’s hometown, honored him by naming the court in Liberty park “Kilowatt Court“.

In 2008, a documentary recapping Misaka’s storied life and career was released called “Transcending: The Wataru Misaka Story.

The 1944 NCAA Tournament

The Utes’ path to becoming NCAA champions was like no other. There was a common theme in Misaka’s life. Fighting through controversy.

Due to a tragic crash that killed Arkansas’ athletic director and seriously injured two of their starters, a replacement team was needed in the tournament. The Utes had previously chosen to compete in the NIT because it offered more “money and prestige” at the time. After losing to a powerhouse Kentucky team in the NIT, the tragic circumstances gave Utah another chance. The team packed up and headed to Kansas City.

The Utes found themselves in the championship game following close wins over Missouri and Iowa State, in a tournament they weren’t even supposed to be in.

The championship game was held in Madison Square Garden in front of nearly 15,000 fans. The game was against Dartmouth, who was favored heading into the match. Misaka and the Utes pulled out a 2-point victory in overtime. 

Each player on the championship team was given a red blanket embroidered with a white U and a championship emblem. In an act of good faith, Misaka presented his teammate’s, Masateru Tatsuno, blanket to his interned family in the Topaz camp following the championship run.

Misaka: A New York Knickerbocker

The Knicks had won their first two games of the season. Misaka was putting up admirable numbers, especially considering he was a 5’7″ rookie coming off of the bench. 

Despite this, following the third game of the season, Misaka was let go by the team. He never played basketball again. 

Misaka did not become a basketball legend by traditional means. He was able to win at every level leading up to his short professional stint. But, was seemingly not given a fair shot in the pros which led to the end of his basketball career.

Misaka did not look back on his career with disfavor, but he rather appreciated what was. He says his release from the Knicks wasn’t completely unwarranted, as he was a small rookie and the Knicks had an abundance of guards at the time.

Regardless of how his pro-career turned out, he is still respected and loved by the Knicks organization.

The legacy left behind

The Wat Misaka documentary says that Misaka was offered a spot on the Harlem Globetrotters following his fall-out with the New York Knicks. But, he declined.

After leaving basketball behind for good, Misaka married and became an electrical engineer. This Continuum piece says that Misaka was retired but still consulting with a friend’s circuit-board business in 2010, at 86 years old. 

Misaka was an avid bowler and golfer in his later adult years. He was inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Crimson Club Hall of Fame in 2011. 

Satisfied with his life out of the limelight, Wataru Misaka passed away in 2019 at the age of 95. 


We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.


NHL announcement...

Adam Small

How an NHL team helps Utah for the 2034 Winter Olympics

An NHL team is officially coming to Utah. How will the new franchise help a possible 2034 Olympics in our state?

3 days ago

The Delta Center shown...


League approves new NHL team in Utah, owned by Ryan, Ashley Smith

The NHL Board Of Governors approved the establishment of a new hockey franchise (previously Arizona Coyotes) in Utah by Ryan Smith.

4 days ago

photo of the Arizona Coyotes on a rink...

Kyle Ireland, KSL Sports

Coyotes express thanks for Arizona, look forward to support of Utah

Multiple Coyote players shared thanks for their time in Arizona and looked forward to the move to Utah with optimism.

4 days ago

SLCPD is reminding anyone in the city this weekend to be mindful of travel impacts during the Salt ...

Devin Oldroyd

Salt Lake City Marathon will cause travel impacts, SLCPD warns

SLCPD is reminding anyone in the city this weekend to be mindful of travel impacts during the Salt Lake City Marathon.

5 days ago

new byu head coach kevin young...

Sam Herrera and Emma Keddington

LISTEN: BYU welcomes new head coach

BYU is welcoming its new head coach for men's basketball, Kevin Young. Young comes to the university from the NBA.

5 days ago

students celebrate utah sports championship, international students in question with utah rules...

Amy Donaldson

Utah proposes ban on some international students in high school sports

A proposed new rule before the Utah High School Activities Association would bar international students from playing varsity sports in the state next year. 

5 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Young couple hugging while a realtor in a suit hands them keys in a new home...

Utah Association of Realtors

Buying a home this spring? Avoid these 5 costly pitfalls

By avoiding these pitfalls when buying a home this spring, you can ensure your investment will be long-lasting and secure.

a person dressed up as a nordic viking in a dragon boat resembling the bear lake monster...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

The Legend of the Bear Lake Monster

The Bear Lake monster has captivated people in the region for centuries, with tales that range from the believable to the bizarre.


Live Nation Concerts

All the artists coming to Utah First Credit Union Amphitheatre (formerly USANA Amp) this summer

Summer concerts are more than just entertainment; they’re a celebration of life, love, and connection.

Mother and cute toddler child in a little fancy wooden cottage, reading a book, drinking tea and en...

Visit Bear Lake

How to find the best winter lodging in Bear Lake, Utah

Winter lodging in Bear Lake can be more limited than in the summer, but with some careful planning you can easily book your next winter trip.

Happy family in winter clothing at the ski resort, winter time, watching at mountains in front of t...

Visit Bear Lake

Ski more for less: Affordable ski resorts near Bear Lake, Utah

Plan your perfect ski getaway in Bear Lake this winter, with pristine slopes, affordable tickets, and breathtaking scenery.

front of the Butch Cassidy museum with a man in a cowboy hat standing in the doorway...

Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Looking Back: The History of Bear Lake

The history of Bear Lake is full of fascinating stories. At over 250,000 years old, the lake has seen generations of people visit its shores.

Wataru Misaka: The Utah native who broke sports barriers