The mysterious life and disappearance of Detroit basketball star John Brisker

This unusual basketball card featuring John Brisker only serves to fuel the strange legacy of the former ABA and NBa player.

This unusual basketball card featuring John Brisker only serves to fuel the strange legacy of the former ABA and NBa player.

Anyone who knows me well realizes that I have two major obsessions. The first, quite obviously, is baseball. Then comes horror films, a guilty pleasure that I fill on many late nights.

Not as well-known is a third obsession. That would be the old American Basketball Association, a wonderful renegade league that ran from 1967 to 1976. It’s been a long time since the old ABA tipped one off, but the mere mention of the league is sure to initiate my interest.

Within the confines of the ABA, the subject of a relatively obscure player has long intrigued me. His name was John Brisker. Though he never played for the Pistons or any Detroit franchise (there was none in the ABA), he held a clear connection to the city. Born and raised in the Motor City, Brisker set forth on one of the strangest paths the league has ever seen.

Brisker was a carefree kid, but one with the requisite toughness needed to survive the streets of Detroit in the 1950s and sixties. “In Detroit, if you’re tough enough,” Brisker once told a reporter, “they name playgrounds for you.” Brisker used to play ball at a playground located between Hamtramck High School and Highland Park. Sure enough, the playground would be named after John Brisker.

Brisker not only played basketball as a youth, but also dabbled in boxing. Brisker had the size and talent to become a professional boxer, or even a prospect for the NFL, but ultimately found his calling on the hardwood.

After starring at Hamtramck, Brisker enrolled at the University of Toledo. He emerged as a collegiate star, but his grades suffered. He became frustrated with the school’s racial disharmony. In high school, blacks and whites had socialized freely. At Toledo, many of the white students wanted nothing to do with a black student from the city. Bothered by the racism and the segregationist attitudes, Brisker struggled in class. In his senior year, he flunked out of Toledo.

Brisker soon found a home in the ABA. Drafted by the Pittsburgh Condors, he moved into the starting lineup. At six feet, five inches tall and a chiseled 210 pounds, he had the size and shooting touch of a swingman, but played more like a power forward—bruising, tough, and even violent, at times. It didn’t take long for Brisker to intimidate other players with his ferocity and no-holds-barred approach to the game.

Even off the court, Brisker developed a reputation. For years, rumors swirled that he carried a gun to and from the Pittsburgh Civic Arena. The Condors only stoked that reputation, featuring Brisker on the cover of their media guide while wearing two holsters and two guns.

Brisker could also play the game. He scored 21 points per night as a rookie. By his second season, he was up to 29 points a game. Whether it was shooting a long-range jumper or taking his man down low, Brisker could score seemingly at will. He could also rebound and defend, making him a triple threat on the court. He established himself as a two-time All-Star, one of the best players in the early years of the ABA.

Brisker made a strong impression on his general manager, Marty Blake, who would later become a scouting guru for the NBA. “I thought he was a helluva competitor,” Blake once said, “the best player I had.” Although Blake once argued with Brisker over the details of his contract, he never considered him a disciplinary concern. “I never had a problem with him,” said Blake. “He played hard for me.”

Sometimes he played too hard. With his emphasis on the physical aspect of the game, Brisker often engaged opposing players in fights. Those fights led to frequent ejections. Given his seeming love of fighting, Brisker earned the nickname, “the heavyweight champion of the ABA.”

Some players expressed concern that Brisker might do something drastic on the court. Consider the words of his former Condors teammate, Charlie Williams. “He was an excellent player,” Williams said, “but say something wrong to the guy and you had this feeling he would reach into his bag, take out a gun, and shoot you.”

One player who must have considered that possibility was Art Becker, a forward for the Denver Rockets. Only a couple of minutes into a game, Brisker threw a vicious elbow at Becker, earning an ejection from the game. But Brisker wasn’t done. He charged onto the court after Becker three different times before police officers finally restrained him and escorted him to the Condors’ locker room.

Brisker also found trouble off the court. In the fall of 1971, he and his girlfriend attended a World Series game in Pittsburgh. After hailing a cab at the end of the game, Brisker became embroiled in an argument with another man, who claimed that he had reserved the cab ahead of time. Brisker refused to get out of the cab, resulting in a fistfight with the man. Four policemen spotted the brawl. Brisker then began fighting with the policemen, prompting his arrest.

Brisker’s temper showed his dark side, but he was also highly intelligent. He possessed a deep interest in his African heritage. He borrowed some books about African culture from Blake. He began to wear a dashiki (an African garment) as a way of exhibiting his African pride. It was the kind of thing that would have been readily accepted today, but at the time, it made Brisker a target of inquiry. Some within the establishment began to regard him as a black militant.

After his third standout season in Pittsburgh, Brisker decided to cash in his ABA success and sign a lucrative multi-year contract with the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics. Financially, the move made sense. But the NBA was not as accepting of Brisker as the ABA had been. Brisker’s teammates seemed hesitant around him. By his second season in Seattle, Brisker butted heads with new Sonics coach Bill Russell, an old schooler who was a believer in strict discipline and did not mesh with his free-spirited forward.

Still, Brisker became a valuable role player for the Sonics, averaging over 11 points per game in the NBA. In addition, he became a community force, someone whom the Sonics could rely on to regularly attend charity functions during the offseason. Brisker also liked to run basketball clinics for underprivileged youth from the ghetto. He always footed the bill for the clinics.

In spite of his powerful presence both on and off the court, the Sonics demoted Brisker to the Eastern Basketball League and then released him prior to the 1975-76 season. Sonics owner Sam Schulman claimed that Brisker was sparking “dissension” on the club, but otherwise offered no specifics. No other teams showed much interest in signing Brisker. Some felt he was being blackballed by professional basketball. So Brisker gave up on his playing career.

In 1978, Brisker boarded a flight to Africa. Other than a long distance phone call from abroad, Brisker’s family would never hear from him again.

So what happened to Brisker? According to one theory, which runs on the wild side, Brisker died in the Jonestown massacre orchestrated by cult leader Jim Jones. But there is no credible evidence that Brisker was even in Guyana at the time of the massacre in November of 1978.

More likely, it appears that Brisker became friends with Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who was an avid basketball fan and invited Brisker to his home. Brisker reportedly became a mercenary soldier for Amin, who was thrown out of power in 1979. According to this theory, Brisker was shot by a firing squad consisting of revolutionaries who had overthrown the Amin regime.

Officially, Brisker was considered missing. That remained his status from 1978 until 1985, when the King County medical examiner in Washington finally declared him dead at the age of 38.

Still, there are some skeptics who believe that Brisker remains alive. No official documentation tying him to Amin has ever been located. His body has never been found. There are those who have speculated that Brisker simply did not want to be found, that he wanted to start his life over in anonymity.

In a sense, it’s a fitting epitaph to such a conflicting and contradictory figure. The mystery surrounding his fate only adds to the legend of John Brisker.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.