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Breaking basketball’s barriers

Northeastern University has a unique connection to the first person of color drafted by the Basketball Association of America, a precursor to the NBA.

In 1947, Japanese-American college basketball star Wat Misaka was drafted by former New York Knicks coach Joe Lapchick. Thirty-seven years later, Lapchick’s son, social justice pioneer Richard Lapchick, founded Northeastern’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, which uses the power and appeal of sport to foster diversity and promote social responsibility.

Richard Lapchick credits his father for influencing his commitment to equality. “My dad had a huge influence on my life and my values,” said Lapchick, who is now Sport in Society’s director emeritus. “Seeing some of the negative response to his signing of Nat Clifton (the first African-American to break the NBA color-barrier) reinforced his—and later—my desire to stand up for justice and not block its path.”

Now a little-known instance of Joe Lapchick’s commitment to justice has been captured on film, in a documentary chronicling Misaka’s ascent to the NBA at a time when anti-Japanese sentiment ran high.

“Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story” will premiere at the Rhode Island International Film Festival in Newport on August 8, cohosted by Northeastern’s center, the film festival, and ReImagined World Entertainment. The documentary features interviews with Wat and his family, teammates, basketball historians and sportscasters who discuss Misaka’s barrier-breaking journey during the end of World War II, when many Japanese were still in internment camps around the country.

To create a fuller educational experience, Sport in Society teamed up with filmmakers Bruce and Christine Johnson to develop a curriculum on Japanese-American history for young people who watch the Misaka documentary. And on the same day as the film’s screening, the center will hold a fundraiser, hoping to attract university alumni and others interested in the intersection of sport and social justice.

“Misaka is one of the unsung heroes of sport,” said Jarrod Chin, director of the violence prevention and diversity program at Sport in Society. “In a lot of ways, he’s basketball’s version of Jackie Robinson. He is a figure for social justice and inclusion.”

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