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Pro Basketball's First Asian-American Player Looks At Lin, And Applauds

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Linsanity is buzzing through the sports world, as New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin has come off the bench to emerge as a star. The unlikely story of an NBA player of Taiwanese descent who attended Harvard — and who, at 6 feet 3 inches, outscored Kobe Bryant to beat the Lakers — has won him many admirers.

There aren't many players like Lin. But in Utah, there's a man who knows something about what he's experiencing. Like Lin, Wat (for Wataru) Misaka is an Asian-American who became an unlikely star and played basketball for the Knicks. But he did it in the 1940s.

That was after two trips to national title games, including one played in Madison Square Garden — also the Knicks' home court.

"For some reason, the crowd was really rooting for me," Misaka, 88, tells Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep of that tournament. "New Yorkers are known to root for underdogs. I think that was the reason. Here was an underdog team, from out in the sticks in Utah."

"They liked the team, and they cheered for me, which was refreshing," he says. "Because it was right after the war. And there didn't seem to be people holding that against my ancestors."

But World War II had already had an effect on Misaka's teenage years. That was the era of internment camps, when many people of Japanese descent were forced to live in confined areas, some of them in desolate and remote parts of the western United States.

"That was the real strange part of it," Misaka says. "At the time that they were being taken from their homes, and being put into these camps in early 1942, I was playing basketball at Weber State, which is in my home town of Ogden."

Then he moved on to play for Utah.

"It was a real strange experience," he says, "to be free — not without prejudice, but free — and playing the game I loved in my home state, while others were being treated like criminals."

Misaka had interrupted his college career to serve two years in the U.S. Army's intelligence services division during the occupation of Japan. Then he returned to Utah and made a name for himself. The Knicks drafted the 5-foot-7-inch guard/forward, but his pro career lasted only a few games.

When the Knicks cut him from the team, Misaka went back to Utah to work as an engineer; he's lived there ever since. And that's where he watched on TV as Lin lit it up against the Utah Jazz, when he made his first start. In that game on Feb. 6, Lin had 28 points and 8 assists.

"In fact, my brother called me when the game was in progress," Misaka says. So he watched it — and then watched it again.

"He is quite an amazing player," Misaka says. "Just like everyone else, I was really surprised at the skills that he had."

As for Lin's game, Misaka says the guard "is fairly tall — 6'3 is a good size for a point guard. But he has the speed to make that pick and roll work, and work well. It seems like he has the skill, and the know-how, to really take advantage of any lapses on the defense."

Misaka says he eventually got in touch with Lin, to offer his encouragement to the young player.

"From now on, I can sit back as one of his thousands of fans," he says, "and see what happens next."

If you hadn't heard of Misaka before now, don't feel too bad about it. He says he's never been one to trumpet his early success on the court — even to his son and daughter, who live near him in Utah.

"I never did talk much about sports to the kids. I had this notion that I didn't want them to be saddled with any kind of pressure, and so on," he says. "In fact, my daughter was in college, I think, when she found out that I had played basketball in my collegiate days."

To be exact, Misaka did more than play. He won an NIT title by beating one of Adolph Rupp's Kentucky teams, in 1947. And it's important to recall that in those days, it was the NIT, not the NCAA tournament, that was the gold standard.

Misaka's path to stardom was strikingly similar to Lin's. As a 2010 article in Sports Illustrated noted, Misaka "was thrust into the lineup when the Utes' center—their captain, best athlete and leading scorer—went down with a sprained ankle on the eve of the postseason."

But unlike Lin, Misaka never got a chance to start for the Knicks.

"I really didn't play many minutes," he says. He later added, "I never did think of myself as a pioneer."

Misaka returned to New York to visit Madison Square Garden in 2009, after a documentary about his playing days, and his status as the nation's first non-Caucasian player in the pros, came out. The film was titled Transcending.

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