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Wat Misaka, first person of color to play in the NBA, dead at age 95

Wataru "Wat" Misaka was drafted by the New York Knicks in 1947 and became the first non-white athlete to play professional basketball.
Wat Misaka and Lee Knorek
Knickerbockers' Wat Misaka and Lee Knorek.George Torrie / NY Daily News via Getty Images file

Wataru "Wat" Misaka, the first non-white athlete to play in the NBA, died at age 95 in Salt Lake City, Utah, Wednesday.

Misaka's death was announced Thursday by the University of Utah Athletics Department, where the Japanese American player helped lead the school to national championships in 1944 and 1947. Misaka was drafted by the Basketball Association of America (BAA) in 1947, making him both the first non-white player and first player of Asian descent to play professional basketball.

Utah's Director of Athletics Mark Harlan said Thursday that the school was saddened to hear of Misaka's passing.

"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," Harlan said. "He was such a kind and thoughtful man and will be missed by so many."

New York Knicks v Utah Jazz
Wat Misaka, right, the 1947 draft pick for the New York Knicks who was drafted from the University of Utah, cheers on the Utah Jazz as they play against the New York Knicks at EnergySolutions Arena on Jan. 12, 2011 in Salt Lake City, Utah.Melissa Majchrzak / NBAE via Getty Images file

Misaka was born in Ogden, Utah, in 1923, where he went to Ogden High and Weber State University before attending the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

In 1944, his first year playing for the University of Utah, he scored four points to help the team defeat Dartmouth 42-40 in overtime at Madison Square Garden at the NCAA championship. At the parade celebrating the school's victory, Misaka's mother informed him he'd been drafted into the U.S. Army, according to the Japan Times.

In the summer of 1944, Misaka was trained and sent off to work as an interpreter in East Asia after the U.S. military dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Times said.

With the backdrop of World War II, Misaka would often be described as "Hawaiian" to protect him from anti-Japanese sentiment after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, reports the Salt Lake Tribune.

He returned to the University of Utah after his service to play for the Utes once again, leading the team to win the 1947 National Invitation Tournament held by the NCAA. It was not long after that the New York Knicks, then part of the BAA, picked Misaka up to play professional ball.

Wataru Misaka
Jeremy Lin of the Houston Rockets speaks with Wataru Misaka, the first NBA player of Asian descent, before his game against the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City on Jan. 28, 2013.Melissa Majchrzak / NBAE/Getty Images file

The BAA merged with the National Basketball League in 1949 to become what is now known as the NBA. Misaka played three games with the New York Knicks before being waived.

He then turned down an offer to play with the famed Harlem Globetrotters to finish his engineering degree.

Misaka told the Japan Times in December last year that he was lucky to be the first Asian American to play professionally. He said he didn't think about being the first, he merely wanted to be more than just "a plain old Japanese immigrant son."

"I was never that good to make more than anybody else. I wanted to be good, even if I was Japanese," Misaka said. "It made you feel good if you’re good. I never had any idea that I wanted to be the first Japanese player to win an NIT trophy or anything like that.”

Misaka is survived by a daughter and a son.