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3.21.2010

march madness: wat misaka and the utah utes

This is a really interesting, lengthy Sports Illustrated story looking back at how the 1943-44 Utah Utes, led by Arnie Ferrin Jr. and Wat Misaka, became the unlikeliest of men's basketball champions: Utah The First Cinderella.
In mid-1942 some 120,000 residents of Japanese descent, most of them U.S. citizens, were rounded up and confined in internment camps. Only those living in the three states along the Pacific Coast were affected, so by the grace of the Sierra Nevada the Misakas could continue to go about their lives. But FDR's order instantly altered the way many Americans regarded their neighbors of Japanese extraction and, inevitably, the way Japanese-Americans saw themselves.

Those at the University of Utah flaunted their patriotism, purchasing more war bonds and stamps per capita than the student body as a whole. Reviewing Guadalcanal Diary, a memoir by war correspondent Richard Tregaskis, for an English class, one Japanese-American student wrote, "This book shows how hard we will have to work to kill those Japs."

Some press reports erroneously described Misaka as a Hawaiian of Japanese descent. Misaka thinks Peterson was behind the errors but doesn't fault him. "The coach was very concerned about how I'd be accepted," he says. "Putting out that I was Hawaiian-born was a way to soften the blow." And Misaka believes Peterson never started him during his two seasons at Utah to protect him from fans' hostility: "That's what I choose to think, because he never treated me personally with any animosity."
What's interesting is that while Misaka is the one who gets all the attention, the Utah team actually had two Japanese American players that season, Masateru Tatsuno. Anyway, read the article -- it's a fascinating look back at amazing moment, pioneering moment in Asian American sports history.