The First Non-White Pro Basketball Player Is Not Who You Expect

Throughout its history, the NBA has been regarded as one of the more progressive American sports leagues. But there was a time when it was an all-white league. Society’s pervasive attitudes on race at the time were just as prevalent in the NBA as anywhere. Luckily, this changed in the late ’40s when a non-white NBA player broke the league’s color barrier. If you’re not aware of who this is, the answer may surprise you.

Who was the first non-caucasian basketball player?

The first non-white NBA player debuted during the 1947-48 season, the same year Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier when he debuted for the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers. 

Today, the NBA is predominantly African-American. Surprisingly enough, the first non-white player basketball was not African-American, though. This player was Asian-American — Japanese, to be exact. 

The Knicks signed Wataru Misaka, and he went on to play three games for New York. This was before the league was even known as the NBA; it was still called the Basketball Association of America. Misaka scored only seven points in those three games, and then he never played in the NBA again.

While discrimination could very well have been a factor — this wasn’t long after World War II when anti-Japanese sentiment still existed — Misaka was by no means a star. At only 5-foot-7, his size didn’t help. While Misaka’s on-court contributions were small, what he represented as the first non-white NBA player stood for something far greater.

Who was the first African-American basketball player? 

It took three more seasons for the NBA to take the next step in racial integration by adding an African-American player. In 1950, the Washington Capitols signed Earl Lloyd, who debuted on October 31, 1950

Due to the schedule, Lloyd was technically the league’s first African-American player, but two others signed that season as well: Chuck Cooper of the Boston Celtics and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton of the New York Knicks. Like Misaka, these three men helped usher in a new era of inclusiveness in the NBA. 

Wataru Misaka’s modern-day legacy

The NBA has seen multiple Asian players throughout the years, though it is certainly an underrepresented demographic. Some have been more successful than others. Yao Ming had a strong career with the Houston Rockets, while others never quite got to his level. 

One of the more famous Asian-American players is Jeremy Lin. A Taiwanese-American who graduated from Harvard, Lin went undrafted. Then, Misaka’s former team, the New York Knicks, signed him in 2011. During the 2011-12 season, Lin went on an insane run, starting a craze known as “Linsanity” that drew the attention of fans everywhere. 

Misaka reached out to Lin at the time, emailing the Knicks to encourage their new star. What exactly did he say

Misaka described the letter in an ESPN report, noting that “he told him ‘Ganbare,’ which means ‘hang in there’ in Japanese.” While Misaka, a Utah resident of Japanese descent, lamented the Lin-fueled Knicks’ win over his hometown Jazz, he said “it’s been great to see” another Asian American doing so well in the NBA.

While Lin’s career never reached the heights of his first winter in the NBA, he’s been a solid contributor with several teams since he came on the scene. Wat Misaka paved the way for the Lins of the world. Like Misaka, Lin gave Asian fans a historical precedent.