Original publish date: January 25, 2016
I was an ABA fanatic when I was a kid. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I was growing up in the greatest basketball state in the nation and the hometown of the American Basketball Association’s greatest team. My parents did not necessarily share my rabid enthusiasm for the Pacers. Oh, they were fans but they simply didn’t feel the need to indulge me by buying tickets to every Pacers home game as I often begged them to do. Instead, they humored me by taking me down to the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum about an hour before Pacers home games. Then they would drop me off near the player’s entrance where I would stand and get autographs of my heroes as they filtered in while they killed time with coffee and pie at the TeePee restaurant until tip-off.
During those years, I think I met every player from every team. Dr. J Julius Erving, Big Mac George McGinnis, The Rocket Rick Mount, The Beast Mel Daniels, Iceman George Gervin, Skywalker David Thompson, The Kangaroo Kid Billy Cunningham, Dr. Dunk Darnell Hillman, The Whopper Billy Paultz, Marvin Bad News Barnes, Little Louie Dampier, and Big Z Zelmo Beaty. They were always quick with a smile, friendly hello and quick autograph for a skinny little buck-toothed kid sporting a Hollywood Burr. Yep, that was me. I still have all of those signed cards and during this frigid Indiana winter, I took a walk through them the other night. My eyes filled with stars just like the old days. I stopped suddenly when I saw one signed card in particular: John Brisker.
John Brisker never played for the Pacers, but he first shot to prominence here as a rookie with the 1969-70 Pipers during a game where he replaced injured veteran Tom Washington in the line-up, scoring 42 points, while grabbing 12 rebounds. Brisker became one of the first true unknown talent discoveries ever made by the ABA. He was one of the Motor City Marauder imports from Detroit that included fellow ABA All-stars Mel Daniels, Spencer Haywood, Ralph Simpson and George Gervin. He too had a nickname: “the heavyweight champion of the ABA.” At 6’5″ and 210, he wasn’t the biggest guy in the league and he was certainly not the strongest, but he was the most feared.
Brisker enjoyed a short but stellar career at the University of Toledo. Well, stellar athletically at least. Brisker joined future NBA star Steve Mix to lead the 23-2 Rockets to the 1966-67 MAC championship. Although on scholarship, he remained academically ineligible for his first 3 years at TU. In the fall of 1966, he joined the Toledo marching band to raise his GPA so he could play basketball. He proved to be an A student and a pretty fair musician mastering the sousaphone, a scaled down tuba that fits around the body like Rambo’s bullet belt.
Brisker was drafted by the ABA Pittsburgh Condors, the league’s first champions. He was built like a linebacker with 40+ inch vertical leap and the shooting touch of a swingman, but played more like a power forward-bruising, tough, and even violent, at times. Brisker averaged 21 points per game as a rookie. By season two, he was up to 29 points a game. Whether it was shooting a 3-pointer or posting his man down low, Brisker could score at will. He could also rebound and defend when he wanted to, but make no mistake, Brisker was there to score. He established himself as a two-time All-Star, one of the best players in the early years of the ABA.
Brisker quickly earned a reputation as one of the most volatile players in the league, ejected from more games for fighting than any other player during those early years. According to his Condors teammate Charlie Williams, “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.” Rather than shunning his bullying image, the Condors capitalized on Brisker’s reputation as an enforcer. Their 1970-71 media guide featured Brisker in a Mexican sombrero with a pair of six-shooters holstered to his hips. The Condors’ PR man, Fred Cranwell, got the idea based on Brisker’s routine of bringing a loaded gun with him to practice and games.
Brisker’s most infamous incident came during a game on December 5th 1971 against the Denver Rockets. He was ejected two minutes after tip-off for a vicious elbow on the Rockets’ (and former Pacer) Art Becker. Brisker was sent to the showers early but charged back onto the court after Becker three more times. Police finally ushered Brisker to the locker room for good under threat of arrest. After the game rumors swirled league-wide that the Dallas Chaparrals head coach put up a $500 bounty on Brisker. During that 1970-71 season, Brisker was involved in bloody fistfights on the court with Wendell Ladner of the Memphis Pros, Joe Caldwell of the Carolina Cougars, and Ron Boone of the Texas Chaparrals. The latter two fights requiring facial reconstructive surgery due to Brisker’s punishment.
His Pittsburgh teammate and roomie George Thompson once said everyone in the ABA had been terrified of him and Brisker cultivated that image. Brisker once racked up 56 points in a game without shooting a single free-throw. Guys were afraid to guard him, let alone foul him. Around the league, Brisker had a justified reputation for provoking fights and drawing blood. Early during the 1971-72 season, the Utah Stars visited the Condors at Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena. The Stars’ Willie Wise held Brisker to just four points in the first half. A frustrated Brisker scuffled with several Utah players, and tempers flared before the game was over. Brisker was held in check and thankfully no blood was spilled.
On November 4, 1971, the Condors visited Salt Lake City, and Stars’ management dreamed up “John Brisker Intimidation Night.” The Stars put pro boxer Ron Lyle on the cover (A heavyweight who fought Muhammad Ali for the title and was the only man to ever knock George Foreman down in the ring). The Stars added to the spectacle by lining the courtside with boxing stars both past and present including Lyle, Don and Gene Fullmer, Rex Layne, Tony Doyle and more. The ploy worked and Brisker behaved himself that night.
Even in a league defined by a multi-colored ball, 3-point shots and on court fist fights without suspensions or fines, Brisker’s transgressions stood out. One legend claims that Brisker’s teammates were so worried about guarding him during practice (particularly the day after a loss) that Pittsburgh Execs brought in a brawny ex-football player whose only job was to watch Brisker and flatten him the first time he got out of line. Reportedly, the practice was halted after the football player warned the surly Brisker that he was going to the locker room to get his gun. Brisker said he was fine with that, since that gave him time to go to his locker and get his gun.
Another story claims that immediately after the ABA All-Star game at Greensboro, North Carolina In 1971, Brisker walked up to league commissioner Jack Dolph and demanded his All-Star bonus right then and there. Brisker had scored 15 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in his team’s win. Knowing the fearsome reputation of the man standing before him, Dolph reached into his own wallet and paid Brisker $ 300 cash on the spot. By the next season, both men were out of the league.