Complications and Liberations from Race

When prodded about the possibility that some teams in the young N.B.A. did not want a Japanese-American player so soon after World War II, [Wataru Misaka] has maintained that his demotion had more to do with his modest size.

I’d like to go back and ask them, Misaka said the other night, permitting himself that bit of skepticism.

Via “The Old Guard Welcomes the New Guard”

That was the New York Times’ George Vecsey interviewing pioneering player Wataru “Wat” Misaka earlier this week on the Jeremy Lin story sweeping the country.

Misaka was one of the first non-white or “person of color” (I hate that term) to play in what is now the NBA back in the 1947-48 season. He was from Utah and of Japanese descent. The United States had always been wary and even overtly hostile to Asian immigrants when they began to arrive in the mid-1800s, but the trials of World War II, and the prejudices it allowed to flow freely, were perhaps the darkest times for Japanese-Americans.

Most Japanese-Americans on the Pacific coast of the United States were rounded up and detained in internment camps following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Until the war ended in September 1945, this was where the majority of them lived. Internment camps. No trial, no accusation, just assumption of guilt and complicity with a foreign country many of these people were descended from but had never visited.

(Some Italian- and German-Americans were also given this treatment but not on the same vast scale as Japanese-Americans).

Manzanar Internment Camp, California (National Archives)

Amidst this climate of fear and dazed craziness, Misaka’s family was fortunate to escape such harsh treatment. Since they were Japanese-American, they were considered perhaps sympathetic to Japan’s plan to dominate the Pacific, but since they lived in Utah, they were in no position to presumably aid the enemy like they would have been had they lived in San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Honolulu.

Wat was able to attend Weber State in Utah during the war. In fact, his connections at the university allowed a friend of his to be transferred from an internment camp in California to the Weber State campus. The university president, at Wat’s request, vouched that the young, interned man would be occupied and not get into mischief. A noble thing to undertake, but think about that for a moment.

A young Japanese man never convicted of, or even tried for, anything maintains his freedom only by having a voucher from a white university president. Sadly, this kind of paternalism was commonplace and highly perfected in the Southern United States where African-Americans could be arrested on charges of “vagrancy” for not being employed, a practice that dated back to the 1870s. The road to be climbed by minorities in the United States then was a steep one.

And that included basketball.

Wat transferred to the University of Utah becoming a basketball standout. After the war, Utah won the NIT tournament played in the bright lights of New York’s Madison Square Garden. Misaka rode the wave of the tournament victory to a contract to play for the New York Knickerbockers after his graduation. Misaka’s tenure lasted a full three games before being cut. In those days, a contract was usually not guaranteed, largely because the franchise, and even the league, was not guaranteed.

The Basketball Association of America (BAA), was a fledgling operation having only begun in 1946-47. It was largely the brainchild of NHL hockey owners looking to fill the seats in their arenas during off-days (hence the BAA’s initial members being in New York, Boston, Toronto, and other northeastern locales). Hockey had a largely white male clientele and these owners kept that sensibility with their new basketball league, despite the vastly different demographics of basketball.

Girls playing basketball at an internment camp during World War II (National Archives)

If Wat’s appearance with the Knicks was shocking, his quick exit wasn’t. At that time and continuing even into the late 1970s, an racial minority player of equal caliber (or even slightly superior caliber) would not be kept at the expense of a white player so that white fans could “identify” with the team. Examining the team stats, Misaka’s play wasn’t that much worse (or better) than your average backup guard in 1947.

To that point, Leo Gottlieb was given 27 games that year to shoot a terrible (even for then) 20% from the field before being jettisoned. Stan Stutz played the entire season with a 21.8% shooting line. Misaka in very limited action shot 23%. But again, being average wasn’t going to cut it for minority players at that time and Misaka departed New York for his home in Utah to work as an engineer after those precious few three games.

Misaka with the Knicks (New York Times)

As the BAA scraped by in the Northeast, it began to poach the more established National Basketball League (NBL), which was based in the Midwest, for teams and players, eventually forcing a merger in 1949 and thus the NBA was born.

While Japanese-Americans were being detained in California, a few ball clubs in the NBL – like the Chicago Studebakers, the Rochester Royals, and the Tri-Cities Blackhawks – began employing black players as early as 1942, five years before Jackie Robinson’s entrance to MLB and nearly a decade before Earl Lloyd debuted as the first black player in the NBA. The delay was no accident and sprung from the same forces that quickly spun Misaka out the league.

The BAA (and subsequently NBA) owners were deathly afraid of using too many black players, figuring it might alienate fans as well as the mighty barnstorming Harlem Globetrotters’ owner Abe Saperstein, and lead to the financial ruin of the league. When the BAA and NBL merged to create the NBA, NBL pioneers like the all-black Dayton Rens squad and players like Pop Gates and Dolly King were curiously absent in the new league.

So, by increments, black players rejoined, usually as bench or role players. Don Barksdale made history as the first black All-Star. Ray Felix as the first black Rookie of the Year. Finally, Maurice Stokes burst down the doors in 1956 winning Rookie of the Year as well as earning All-NBA 2nd Team and All-Star honors heralding the era of the black NBA superstar.

Then came Bill Russell the following season. Then Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and so on. Still, in the early 1960s, there was the assumption among black players that teams had an unspoken quota that only three or four players per team could be black. When Al Attles, black, was drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors, Woody Saulsdberry, also black and the 1958 Rookie of the Year, was shipped out almost immediately. The quota was apparently all too real.

Al Attles with the Philadelphia Warriors his rookie season (NBA)

Nevertheless, the dye had been cast with Stokes and Russell and we now have an NBA that is overwhelmingly black, and increasingly diverse with ever more foreign players from every continent – except you, Antarctica. The silly prejudices of the past have died down somewhat, but like hope, it springs eternal.

Jeremy Lin’s ascendancy has brought a fresh new batch of insensitive and careless, if not blatantly racist, comments and actions.

If you spend far too much time on Twitter, like I do, then you have seen terribly insensitive jokes like “MSG in MSG” or Jason Whitlock’s unfortunate and stupid tweet. Finally, Floyd Mayweather skipped the jokes and blatantly declared Linsanity was taking hold only because of Lin’s ethnicity. Never mind the mind-boggling points and assists he was putting up for a point guard making his first career starts.

For sure, Asian-Americans are rooting for Lin much like African-Americans rooted for Maurice Stokes back in the 1950s. The cheers aren’t so much for that particular person as it is for what that person’s achievements will mean. Stokes winning the 1956 Rookie of the Year meant black players as a whole were more likely to be judged on their individual merits and not limited by quotas and stereotypes. Lin’s current play means that future Asian players won’t be readily dismissed or given a half-hearted, cursory look.

Liberation from narrow-minded ideas over what can be successful had begun as coaches and teams went out in search of the next Maurice Stokes. Now they’ll go out in search of the next Jeremy Lin.

But there was no “next Maurice Stokes.” There was a Bill Russell, an Elgin Baylor, and even “lesser” but still great players like Al Attles ready to contribute at a high level.

And there will be no “next Jeremy Lin.” But his success will help ensure that some Asian-American player in the future won’t be dismissed as Wataru Misaka was in the past.

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