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Washington • While thousands of his fellow Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in U.S. camps during World War II, Wat Misaka was helping the University of Utah basketball team win its first national championship in the 1944 NCAA Tournament.

Later, Misaka — fresh off a two-year U.S. Army stint — helped the team nab another championship (in the National Invitational Tournament) in 1947 and then suited up for the New York Knicks at the old Madison Square Garden as the first non-Anglo player in the Basketball Association of America, a professional league that eventually merged with the NBA.

The 5-foot-7 point guard from Ogden may have played only three games and scored just seven points during his pro career, but Misaka's breaking of the color barrier made him a hero to the U.S.-Japanese community. And on Thursday night, attained celebrity status at the Japanese American Citizens League's annual gala in Washington.

The 87-year-old athlete — who still bowls and golfs — isn't big on the pomp and circumstance, and passes off his accomplishments as pure luck.

"It's just being at the right place at the right time and having the right people supporting you," Misaka said Thursday. "It's all a matter of luck is the way I look at it. There have been many people who are more talented than me."

And he doesn't like comparisons to being the Jackie Robinson of basketball.

"I'm just a member of the team, it's not like you're a heavyweight champ or a Wimbledon champ, you're just a member of five," he said.

But during the 1940s, when Japanese-Americans were seen as a possible threat after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Misaka provided a glimmer of hope to his persecuted race.

"I was a kid when [he] was playing but we used to gather around as a family and listen to those games," says Floyd Mori, a native Utahn and national director of the Japanese American Citizens League. "All Japanese-Americans paid attention to him. He was their hero."

President Ronald Reagan in 1988 signed legislation officially apologizing for the U.S. policy of interning Japanese-Americans during the war.

Every year the Japanese American Citizens League honors a few outstanding Japanese-Americans in its "Salute to Champions."

Misaka is no stranger to being honored. A few years ago, he was heralded at the new Madison Square Garden and has also been inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame.

He was also the subject of a documentary film, "Transcending: The Wat Misaka Story," in 2008.