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Utah Utes to immortalize basketball pioneer Wat Misaka, first pro player of color, this January


SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – At long last, one of the pioneers of the sport will have his playing number honored by the University of Utah basketball program.

No. 20, belonging to Wat Misaka, who played for the Runnin’ Utes on national championship-winning teams in 1944 and 1947, will be raised to the rafters during Utah’s game on Jan. 22 against USC.

Not only was Misaka, a defensive specialist and point guard for the Utes, an integral player for the NCAA championship squad in ’44 and the NIT-clinching club in ’47, but he also broke barriers in the game by becoming the first non-Caucasian player in the NBA, then known as the Basketball Association of America.

Some national sports pundits consider Misaka, who was born of Japanese descent in Ogden in 1923 and passed away in 2019, to be the “Jackie Robinson of basketball.”

“It’s an honor and privilege for our basketball program here at the University of Utah to have an alumnus like Wat Misaka, who was a trailblazer in our sport,” said Utah head men’s basketball coach Craig Smith in a press release. “Our program’s history is special, and we’re thrilled to have the Misaka family join us as we hoist his jersey up into the rafters to be honored with all the other great Runnin’ Utes that have played here.”

The program was originally set to hang Misaka’s jersey in the arena after an announcement made in Feb. 2020, but the ceremony was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although he stood just 5-foot-7, Misaka was a tenacious defender for the Utes, who won a dramatic NCAA championship in 1944 with a nail-biting win over Dartmouth at Madison Square Garden. However, in between his first and final years as a member of the team, Misaka was called into military service, during World War II at a time when many Japanese Americans were sent into internment camps. He would rise to the rank of Staff Sergeant before finishing his service and returning home for another championship run with Utah.

Mad scramble for the ball ensues during the Utah-Kentucky final game of the National Invitation Tournament in New York’s Madison Square Garden, March 24, 1947. From left: Wat Misaka of Utah; Alex Groza of Kentucky and Arnold Ferrin (22) of Utah battle for the ball. Also identifiable are Wallace Jones (27) of Kentucky. Behind Ferrin is Leon Watson of Utah. Utah won the game, 49-45 to take the title. (AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman)

After clinching his second national championship, this time in the National Invitational Tournament, Misaka was selected in the 7th round of the pro basketball league’s draft by the New York Knicks. Though he played just three games, scoring seven points during his professional career, he paved the way for future athletes of all colors to play hoops at the highest level.

So far into the 2021-22 campaign, the first under Smith, the Runnin’ Utes have a record of 7-4 with a 1-1 mark in Pac-12 Conference play.

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