STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
In this country, the focus of pro basketball fans centers on a single player right now: Jeremy Lin, the Asian-American point guard for the New York Knicks. Until a few weeks ago, Lin was mainly known for riding the bench. Now he has led his team on a six-game winning streak. Last night, the Knicks were tied with the Toronto Raptors with seconds on the clock.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTS BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Lin with the ball in his hands. Fans on their feet. Five, four, Lin for the win. Got it.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
INSKEEP: Lin made a three-point shot with half a second to go, giving the Knicks a 90-87 win. What's amazing when you watch that video is how casual Lin seems about it all. He's got the ball. The clock is running down. He's dribbling slowly. Then suddenly, he takes the shot from around 25 feet, and it's perfect.
Lin is one of the few Asian-Americans to make a mark in the NBA. And today, we're going to meet the first such person: Wat Misaka, who joined the New York Knicks in 1947. In Salt Lake, the 88-year-old has been watching Jeremy Lin.
I know that he's played the Utah, Jazz. And, of course, you can find games on television. Have you had a chance to see him play?
WAT MISAKA: Yes. I watched that game. In fact, my brother called me when the game was in progress, and so I finished watching the game and then I stayed on and watched the replay of that. It's the first time that I'd seen him play a whole game.
INSKEEP: Give us your professional eye. What's he got? Because he's not a very big guy.
MISAKA: Oh, yeah. That's what they say. But they said: He's kind of like you. He's not very big. But I said well, there's quite a bit of difference between 5'7" and 6'3". That's a good size for a point guard.
INSKEEP: Now, we should mention in that game that you were watching that Lin scored 28 points, eight assists, as well, helping other people score baskets, which is awfully good.
You also mentioned that you're 5'7", which does raise the question: How'd you end up on the New York Knicks in the 1940s?
MISAKA: Well, I was on the University of Utah team that won the NIT that year.
INSKEEP: Oh, and the NIT, which was a huge tournament back then, even considerably bigger than today, it was held at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
MISAKA: That's correct. And for some reason, the crowd was really rooting for me. I think New Yorkers are known to root for underdogs and I - as an underdog team, from out in the sticks in Utah, and they liked the team, and they cheered for me, and which was refreshing, because it was right after the war. And there didn't seem to be too many people that were holding that against my ancestors.
INSKEEP: Of course, a lot of Japanese-Americans were interned, put into camps during the war, particularly on the West Coast. Was your family affected in any way?
MISAKA: No. At that time that I was playing basketball at State, it was a real strange experience to be, you know, free - not without prejudice, but free - and playing the game I loved in my home state, while others were being treated like criminals.
INSKEEP: So you ended up in the NIT at Madison Square Garden as a Japanese-American, being cheered by thousands of people.
MISAKA: That's right.
INSKEEP: And then the Knicks placed a phone call to you.
MISAKA: Yes. Well, actually, Ned Irish, president of the Garden, got in touch with my coach.
INSKEEP: Do you remember how many games you played?
MISAKA: I played just in three, I think it was. I didn't score very much.
INSKEEP: Let me ask you this: You joined the New York Knicks in 1947, which, of course, was the same year that also New York City, in Brooklyn, Jackie Robinson was breaking the color barrier as an African-American with the Dodgers in baseball. Were you conscious of actually breaking a barrier, or was it just something you did and people cheered on?
MISAKA: Well, it was such an insignificant event, that I don't think anyone - especially me - even compared that with the, what Robinson had done. I never did think of myself as being a pioneer of any sort - a failure at that, so I never, you know, think of it that way.
INSKEEP: Mr. Wat Misaka, thanks very much for taking the time to speak with us.
MISAKA: Well, it's been my pleasure.
INSKEEP: He was the first Asian-American player in the NBA.
You can see Jeremy Lin's game-winning shot through a link on Twitter @MORNINGEDITION and @nprinskeep. It's NPR News.