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SALT LAKE CITY -- Jeremy Lin, the Harvard-educated New York Knicks player, is unusual. An NBA star of Taiwanese descent, he's leading the team on a surprising run of wins. But the first Asian-American in the league was a Utahn whose parents were Japanese.
Wat Misaka's story goes back to the University of Utah, during World War II-era, but he's recently been interviewed by outlets from NPR to NBC, thanks to the surprise emergence of NBA start Jeremy Lin. Misaka also played for the Knicks, and on a visit back to Madison Square Garden was surprised to see that the first team plaque on the wall was from 1947, and it had Misaka's name on it.
He started on a University of Utah team that won two national championships, including one in 1944, while the U.S. was still at war with Japan and other Japanese- Americans were living in internment camps. At times, Misaka endured hateful comments from the crowd.
"I just chose to ignore it all," Misaka said. "I felt like it would do me no good at all to dwell on that and let it bother me."
Misaka won over crowds and teammates with his energetic defensive intensity.
"We won the NIT championship with a 5'7" center," said teammate Arnie Ferrin. "That's pretty good isn't it?"
"In the forties the game was a lot slower than it is today," said Bill Marcroft, a U. broadcaster. "But with Wat, his energy and his boundless enthusiasm stood out because nobody else played that way."
Misaka is a humble man. Looking back now, he prefers to focus on friends he made -- like teammate Arnie Ferrin -- rather than his own personal accomplishments. Meanwhile, a new book is out about the U of U. team from 1944, called "Blitz Kids," which has sold movie rights for the story.