The American Basketball Association (ABA) would be long forgotten except for its tri-colored basketball; “Semi-Pro,” starring Will Farrell; greats including Julius Erving, Artis Gilmore, Moses Malone, David Thompson and Maurice Lucas who started their professional careers there; and some of the craziest characters in any league. One of its biggest characters was John Brisker, who may or may not still be alive.
Brisker, a native of Detroit, could be a first-team All-Bad Ass in all of sports, not just professional basketball. Brisker played tuba in the marching band while starring with Steve Mix, who also played in the NBA. He signed with the Pittsburgh Pipers (later Condors) and was runner-up to Spencer Haywood for Rookie of the Year in the 1969-1970 season. Brisker averaged 29.3 and 28.9 points per game in his second and third seasons, respectively, combining a devastating outside shot with immense inside power from his 6’5”, 210-pound frame. He was better known, however, for his nasty personality.
In one of the great basketball books of all-time, Loose Balls: the Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association – As Told by the Players, Coaches and Movers and Shakers Who Made It Happen by Terry Pluto, teammate Charlie Williams said of Brisker, “He was an excellent player, 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.” Billy Knight remembers an encounter with Brisker at a practice with the Pipers while attending the University of Pittsburgh. “The first time I played a game against Brisker, he just turned toward me and busted me in the mouth. . . . [H]e stood there waiting for me to do something about it. I didn’t do anything. He just scared me.”
Because Brisker only picked on bigger guys, Pittsburgh brought in an ex-football player to take care of him during one of the training camps to ensure he didn’t hurt his teammates. The football player was supposed to deck him the first time he got out of line. In Loose Balls, then-Pittsburgh coach Dick Tinkham recollects, “Well. the two guys are going at it. Then the football player said, ‘The hell with you, I’m gonna get my gun.’ And Brisker said, ‘If you’re getting a gun, then I’m gonna get my gun.’ Then the two guys ran off the court in different directions, presumably to get their guns.” The coaches immediately called off practice.
1970-1971 Pittsburgh Condors media guide
During the 1971-1972 season, the Dallas Chaparrals were in the midst of a nine-game losing streak before a game with Pittsburgh. In order to energize his team, Dallas coach Tom Nissalke offered to pay a cash bonus of $500 (a practice no longer permitted) to the first Chaparral to deck John Brisker. Len Chappell, in his last season as a pro after playing with seven NBA teams and normally a reserve, asked if he could start. As the opening jump ball was tossed, Chappell knocked Brisker cold with one punch. Oddly, none of the officials saw it happen. Dallas ended up breaking their losing streak that night.
Brisker drives on Trooper Washington of The Floridians
Nov. 17, 1970
After three years in Pittsburgh and the franchise’s collapse, Brisker jumped to the Seattle SuperSonics of the NBA for the 1972-1973 season. His scoring average dropped from 12.8 to 12.5 and 7.7 points per game for his three years in Seattle, respectively, and he was cut from the team before the 1975-1976 season for causing “dissension.”
In early 1978, Brisker traveled to Africa, reportedly to start an import/export business. He was never heard from again after that year. Several theories exist about his fate. The one that he died in Jonestown has been largely dismissed. More likely, he traveled to Uganda at the invitation of dictator Idi Amin, a basketball enthusiast. Amin was overthrown in 1979, and speculation is that Brisker was executed by an anti-Amin firing squad. A King County, Washington, court declared Brisker legally dead in 1985. Still others think he may have escaped and is living who knows where with a new identity. This much is sure: one messed with John Brisker at your own peril.