ABA-American Basketball Association, Indianapolis, Music

Breakfast with Neto: Marvin Gaye.

Neto Breakfast cropedOriginal publish date:  May 2, 2017

This is the first in a series of articles that I hope will bring insight into the Indianapolis sports and pop culture history scene as seen through the eyes of former ABA Pacers All-star player Bob Netolicky. I have known Bob for well over 20 years and have had the benefit of his counsel and insight on topics both on and off the court. Neto’s stories are informative, often amazing and always entertaining. Neto has called Indianapolis home for over 50 years and frankly, these stories need to be shared. We meet regularly for breakfast at the Lincoln Square Pancake House at 7305 East 21st Street so I’m calling these articles “Breakfast with Neto”. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them.
tumblr_mpjk7gTsvv1qzp5buo1_400The ABA Indiana Pacers were the powerhouse of the old American Basketball Association, appearing in the league finals five times and winning three Championships in nine-years. By the time of the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, the Pacers had established themselves as the league’s elite. The players were household names and their reputation was now legend. The crowds at the State Fair Coliseum, and later Market Square Arena, where the Pacers held court were always dotted with celebrities from all walks of life. In the Circle City of the seventies, everyone wanted an association with the Pacers. In short, they were rock stars.
During the summer of the 1975-76 season, the Pacers held informal workouts at the Brebeuf high school gym. “The guys would all get together for scrimmages to keep in shape, It was me, George (McGinnis), Roger (Brown), Mel (Daniels), Danny Roundfield and a few others. We would get together and practice with the high school kids there.” says Neto. “One of the guys, I don’t remember who, showed up one day with Marvin Gaye in tow. Marvin was so bad, we made the high school guys take him on their team.”
Wait, what? Motown star Marvin Gaye? THE Marvin Gaye? “Yep, Motown star Marvin Gaye.” Neto replies. “He was in town for a concert as I recall.” Marvin Gaye, Jr. was born on April 2, 1939, in Washington, D.C., to a church minister father and domestic worker mother. He grew up in the Fairfax Apartments on the rougher side of D.C. Although once populated by elegant Federal-style homes on the Southwest side, when Marvin was coming up there it was primarily a vast slum. Buildings were small one or two story shacks in disrepair, many lacked electricity or running water and nearly every dwelling was overcrowded. Gaye and his friends nicknamed the area “Simple City”, owing to its being “half-city, half country” atmosphere.
slide_409216_5137250_freeYoung Marvin, who would grow to be over 6 feet tall, became a fixture on the tough D.C. basketball courts. One of his neighbors was future Detroit Mayor and Pistons All-star Dave Bing. Although smaller and four years younger, Bing played alongside Gaye on those DC project courts. The two men forged a friendship that lasted the rest of their lives. Bing continued to excel on the court as Marvin’s skills faded. Ironically, both men landed in Detroit. Gaye turned to song, which led him to Motown immortality; Bing landed in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Marvin once said, “I was always a sports fan but I was determined to play for real. I knew I could. When I was a kid, I was scared to compete. Father wouldn’t let me. Preachers kids weren’t supposed to be football players. Well I decided to change all that. I trained with the Detroit Lions and was convinced I could start at offensive end. You see, I had this fantasy. I was in the Super Bowl, with millions of people watching me on TV all over the world, as I made a spectacular leaping catch and sprinted for the winning touchdown.”
footballWhile Marvin was busy helping Berry Gordy shape the sound of Motown in the 1960s, he never lost his love of sports. The “Prince of Soul” recorded iconic concept albums including What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On while keeping active on the courts, courses and fields around the Motor City. In the book “Divided Soul; The Life of Marvin Gaye”, author David Ritz says, “Gaye was a good athlete, but not of professional quality. His football playing, just like his basketball playing (where he loved to hog the ball and shoot) were further examples of his delusions of grandeur.” Gaye was a regular at celebrity golf tournaments and loved rubbing elbows with pro athletes like Bob Lanier, Gordie Howe and Willie Horton.
In 1969, The Four Tops’ Obie Benson and Motown songwriter Al Cleveland began working on a song that would eventually become “What’s Going On.” The song was repeatedly turned down by several different Motown acts. The duo pitched the song to Marvin Gaye in 1970. Gaye told a couple friends, Detroit Lions stars Lem Barney and Mel Farr, about the song during a round of golf at Detroit’s Palmer Park Golf Course. Palmer attracted many of the city’s black celebrities, including Joe Louis, Smokey Robinson and The Temptations. Gaye was reluctant to record the as yet unnamed song saying it just didn’t fit his style. Farr and Barney talked him into it, saying that Marvin was the only person who could pull it off.
Marvin finally agreed, coming up with the song’s title while with his two Lions buddies over a few beers after another round of golf. Marvin told the duo that he would only record the song under one condition: if Farr and Barney sang background vocals. The Al=Pro duo thought Gaye was joking, but they soon discovered that he was quite serious. The two men, NFL offensive and defensive rookies of the year just three years earlier with the Lions, agreed even though neither had ever sang professionally before. True, they had been in the studio before as Marvin’s guests, but they never dreamed they would be singing alongside their friend.
The song came at a time when America was coming apart at the seams. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy’s assassinations were the fuel and intercity angst the match. The Watts and Detroit riots exploded after decades of racial bigotry. The Vietnam war raged on. Now, Marvin saw a chance to merge sports with music and social commentary in the epic song “What’s Going On.” Marvin headed to the recording studio alongside two of the Detroit Lions all-time greatest players. The song and album became a hit reaching No. 1 on the R&B chart, selling over two million copies. Not long after the record was released, Gaye dropped another bombshell. Now that he, Barney and Farr were musical collaborators, Gaye told them he wanted to join them on the Detroit Lions.
Gaye was 31 and had never played football professionally. In the book, “Marvin Gaye, My Brother.” Frankie Gaye quoted his brother as saying, “Don’t even try to discourage me. Smokey [Robinson] said I’m insane, but he’s hanging in with me because, you know what?…I’d rather catch a pass and score a touchdown in Tiger Stadium, than rack up another gold record.” Problem was, Barney and Farr couldn’t guarantee a tryout, let alone a spot on the team. Gaye quickly committed himself to an intense workout regimen, running 4-5 miles per day and lifting weights. He arranged workouts at the University of Michigan and transformed portions of his house into a gym, moving his Rolls-Royce and other cars out of the garage to make room.
Gaye bulked up nearly 30 pounds during the training. Gaye was realistic, he knew his NFL dream was a long shot. He trained with Farr, Barney and future Hall of Fame receiver Charlie Sanders. In addition to the university and Gaye’s garage, they trained at parks and local high schools, anywhere a productive workout could take place. Word traveled fast in the Motor city that Motown’s Marvin Gaye was in training for a tryout with the Lions.
Joe Schmidt, then Detroit’s head coach and a fan of Gaye’s music, was impressed when he learned that two of his star players were featured on a hit song of Gaye’s. However, Coach Schmidt, a member of both the pro and college football hall of fame, was less enthusiastic when he learned that the “Prince of Soul” wanted to be a Lion. Nonetheless, Schmidt agreed to meet with Gaye. Marvin put on his best three-piece suit and arrived for the meeting in a limousine. He didn’t waste a second before selling himself in the interview. He told Schmidt that not only could he could start for the Lions, but he could score a touchdown the first time he touched the ball.
Schmidt asked about Gaye’s previous on field experience. Marvin did not attended college and never played high school football either. He told Schmidt that he had dropped out at 17 and enlisted in the Air Force. Schmidt, an eight-time first-team All-Pro whose career started with leather helmets and no facemasks, was worried that Marvin would get hurt. And getting a Motown superstar injured, or worse, would be disastrous for the hometown team.
As a courtesy, Schmidt invited Marvin to a three-day shoes-and-shorts workout at the University of Michigan. He pledged to try Marvin out at several positions, including running back, tight end, wide receiver and fullback. Before beginning his tryout, Marvin said a prayer with Barney and Farr. Marvin did everything he was asked, running routes and lining up wherever he was told to. For a musician, he made a decent football player. But for a football player, he made an excellent musician.
For Schmidt, the thought of turning Gaye loose against heavy hitters like Ray Nitchske, Deacon Jones, or Dick Butkus, was too terrible to contemplate. Marvin Gaye didn’t receive a training camp invite. Regardless, Gaye got his shot at playing in the NFL. He had achieved his personal goal. Unlike later periods of his life, during his short lived dream of playing pro football, drugs -most notably cocaine- were absent.
In 1973, Marvin became one of the 33 owners of the WFL Detroit Wheels, which lasted less than a year despite having Little Caesars founder Mike Ilitch (who would later own the Red Wings and Tigers) among the ownership. After the team folded in September of 1974, Marvin told friends that he wanted to buy another WFL franchise in Memphis, Tennessee so that he could play in the backfield and sing the National Anthem before games.
Marvin’s “post-NFL” music career was sporadic at best. Although albums like “Trouble Man,” “Let’s Get It On,” “I Want You” and the controversial “Here, My Dear,” elevated him to a living legend, soon, drug addiction and mounting tax issues led to a self-imposed European exile in the early 1980s. The song “Sexual Healing,” found on his last album, 1982’s “Midnight Love,” slingshot Marvin to the top of the music world one last time.
In 1983, Marvin Gaye won the only two Grammys of his career and delivered a soulful, moving rendition of the national anthem at the NBA All-Star Game. Farr and Barney last saw Gaye at the Detroit stop in June of the singer’s 1983 tour, Marvin’s last. Twelve years had passed since “What’s Going On” was released on Super Bowl Sunday in 1971. The album is today credited with changing the course of popular political music. Hard to believe, but only 3.500 showed up for Marvin Gaye’s concert at Indianapolis’ Market Square Arena on December 30, 1983. Barely 4 months later, on April 1, 1984, Gaye’s father, Marvin Gay Sr., fatally shot him at their house in Los Angeles. At first, fans thought the news was just a bad April Fools’ Day joke. Sadly, it was true. Motown’s Prince of Soul was gone.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the ABA. A 50th anniversary reunion is in the works in Indianapolis in April of 2018. Bob Netolicky, former Pacers & League President Dick Tinkham and noted journalist / author Robin Miller are putting the finishing touches on a new ABA retrospective book titled “We changed the game” due to be released in late 2017. A book signing / party will be held at the Irving Theatre to coincide.
Oh, about that book. It is being published by Hilton Publishing Company. HPC co-founder, Dr. Hilton Hudson II, grew up in Indianapolis and attended high school in our city. Dr. Hilton was one of the those high school kids shooting hoops with the Pacers at Brebeuf high school back in the summer of 1975. Full circle in the circle city.

ABA-American Basketball Association, Indianapolis, Music

ABA Indiana Pacers Reggie Harding & The Supremes. Part II

Reggie Harding and Flo BallardOriginal publish date:  March 19 2017

Detroit 7’0″ high school phenom Reggie Harding had a brief, but hauntingly promising, stint with our Pacers fifty years ago during the team’s first season in the upstart ABA. He had recently been cut loose by the Chicago Bulls after just 14 games into that milestone season of 1967-68. Harding had been the first player in the history of pro basketball to sign a contract as a high school player. He was selected by the Detroit Pistons and played parts of four seasons in the NBA. He lasted only 25 games with the Pacers; his career was over by the age of 26. He became legendary for his “world’s dumbest criminals” style antics off the court that began well before he left high school.
Here was a man who drew guns on teammates, became addicted to heroin and repeatedly robbed stores in his own neighborhood thinking no-one would ever finger him for the crimes despite being the only 7-foot tall black man in the area. He paid for his crimes with a bullet in the head fired by a man he believed was his friend and he died at the age of 30 on a trash strewn street in the Motor City on September 2, 1972. Although Reggie’s exploits are viewed somewhat comically after all these years, mainly because no one got hurt, there was at least one incident pinned on Reggie Harding that is sad and damaging in the worst way.
In 1960 Reggie Harding was a prep star for Eastern High School. The were in the second of four consecutive Detroit Public School League men’s basketball season titles from 1959-62. Reggie averaged 31 points and 20 rebounds per game while shooting an astounding 60 percent from the field for the Indians. He would earn first team high school All-American status by Parade Magaine that year. However, those sparkling hoops credentials weren’t enough to hide the tarnished image Reggie carried around with him.
While a Sophomore, Reggie had been arrested in upstate Michigan in the summer of 1959 for stealing a truck and was sentenced to probation. Reggie’s size (He was 6′ 11″ as a Freshman) taught him that he could intimidate adults on the streets, let alone kids in hall. If Reggie wanted your lunch money, or your car keys, Reggie got ’em. He didn’t even need a weapon. His most oft used tactic was to simply grab his prey by the shoulders and lift them several inches off the ground.
In 1960, when Reggie was eighteen, he was arrested for the charge of having “carnal knowledge” of a minor in Detroit. According to court records, the victim was a 15-year-old named Jean. During his trial for statutory rape, Harding admitted to the encounter but claimed in was a consensual act. At the time, Reggie Harding was ranked as the best prep player in the state and he was acquitted. That same year, Reggie allegedly raped a 17-year-old Detroit girl named Florence Glenda Chapman, better known as Flo Ballard of the Motown super-group The Supremes.
In 1958, Florence Ballard was a junior high school student living in the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects in Detroit. There she met future singing partner Mary Wilson during a middle-school talent show and they became friends. Named “Blondie” and “Flo” by family and friends, Ballard attended Northeastern High School. Wilson soon enlisted another neighbor, Diana Ross, then going by “Diane” for their group named “The Primettes”. The group performed at talent showcases and at school parties before auditioning for Motown Records in 1960. Berry Gordy, head of Motown, felt the girls were too young and inexperienced and encouraged them to return after they graduated from high school. Flo dropped out of high school while her group-mates graduated.
In the summer of 1960, just weeks after meeting Berry Gordy, Flo went to a sock hop at Detroit’s Graystone Ballroom. She had attended with her brother Billy, but they accidentally lost track of each other in the crowded dance hall. She began to walk home in the dark but accepted a ride home from a young man whom she thought she recognized from the newspapers, a local high-school basketball player. According to her friends and family, that man was Reggie Harding. Instead of being driven home, Ballard was taken north of Detroit to an empty parking lot off Woodward Ave and Cantfield Blvd where Reggie raped her at knife point.
For the next several weeks, Ballard secluded herself in her room, away from friends and family. She even hid from her bewildered band mates when they came to call. Eventually, Ballard told Wilson and Ross what happened to her. Although the girls were sympathetic, they were puzzled by Ballard’s subsequent behavior; she had always been strong and resilient, but now her personality had changed. Wilson described her friend Flo as a “generally happy if somewhat mischievous and sassy teenager.” Now she was sullen and withdrawn, prone to sudden rages and arguments with no explanation. One thing didn’t change for Flo though, she never mentioned the rape again.
The girls continued working after the assault with Florence as the group’s original lead vocalist and Diana and Mary singing lead on alternating songs. Despite Berry Gordy’s reluctance to work with underage girls and admonition to come back after their high school graduation, the group persisted on getting signed to Motown by sitting on the steps of Motown’s Hitsville USA building and flirting with Motown’s male artists & staffers as they came and went. When a staff producer would come outside looking for people to provide background vocals or hand-claps, the girls were the first to volunteer. In January 1961, Gordy agreed to sign The Primettes on the condition they change their name. Flo Ballard chose the name “The Supremes”. Gordy agreed to sign them under that new name on January 15, 1961.
The group struggled in their early years with the label, releasing eight singles that failed to crack the Billboard Hot 100, giving them the nickname the “no-hit Supremes”. During this period, they provided background vocals for established Motown acts such as Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells. In the spring of 1964, the group released “Where Did Our Love Go”, which became their first number-one hit on the Billboard Hot 100, paving the way for ten number-one hits recorded by Ross, Ballard and Wilson between 1964 and 1967.
According to Mary, Florence’s vocals were so loud that she was made to stand seventeen feet away from her microphone during recording sessions. Florence’s voice (which went up three octaves) was often described as “soulful, big, rich and commanding,” ranging from deep contralto to operatic soprano. Flo was known for her trademark onstage candor (which included telling jokes), she became popular with audiences & most of the jokes were in response to Diana Ross’ comments. As Flo’s jokes became more frequent, Miss Ross was not amused. Florence acknowledged the widening gap between the trio when she told an interviewer that she, Diana & Mary now had their own hotel rooms unlike in the past when they all shared one room. To combat these issues and silence those demons from her past, Florence turned to alcohol which resulted in constant arguments with Mary and Diana. Flo’s shot clock was winding down.
Eerily, Reggie Harding’s rise in pro basketball paralleled Flo Ballard’s rise in the music industry. Reggie was signing with the hometown Pistons at the same time Flo was signing with the hometown Motown records. By 1967-68 while Reggie was struggling with the Bulls, Flo was struggling with The Supremes. As Reggie missed practices and plane rides, Flo missed rehearsals and performances. By March of 1968, Reggie was out of pro basketball and Flo had left The Supremes. Both became addicts; Harding to heroin, Ballard to alcohol. By 1972 Harding was dead and Ballard was on a slow march towards an early grave.
Mary Wilson would later attribute Ballard’s self-destructive behavior to the rape by Reggie Harding when she was a teenager. Ballard’s adult personality had turned to cynicism, pessimism and fear or mistrust of others. After Harding’s murder vacated the headlines, newspapers revealed that former Supreme Flo Ballard, with three children and no career, had now applied for public welfare relief. As a member of The Supremes, Flo sang on sixteen top-40 singles (including ten number-one hit songs). In January of 1969, Florence performed at one of President Richard Nixon’s inaugural galas. Two years later, Flo’s home was foreclosed and she was an alcoholic. Florence Ballard died at 10:05 a.m. on February 22, 1976; her official cause of death, following years of alcoholism and mental stress, was coronary thrombosis aka: a heart attack. She was only 32 years old. Florence is buried in Detroit Memorial Park Cemetery located in Warren, Michigan. Florence Ballard’s grave is just a short walk from Reggie Harding’s, who is buried nearby.

ABA-American Basketball Association, Indianapolis

Reggie Harding: ABA Indiana Pacers’ 1st 7-Footer. Part I

Reggie Harding 1Original publish date:  March 12, 2017

The Indiana Pacers are winding down another season and the playoff situation remains uncertain. This season marks the 50th anniversary of the franchise’s start in the old ABA. It was about this time of year a half century ago that the Pacers signed one of the most infamous names to ever blot the roster. A 7-foot tall high school star from Detroit, Michigan who certainly became more famous for what he did off the court than for we he did on it.
Reggie Harding was the very first high-school basketball player drafted by the NBA. He graduated from Detroit’s Eastern High School in 1960 (re-named Martin Luther King High in 1968). The basketball talent coming out of Detroit in the sixties was astonishing. The Motor City hoops alumni back in the day included Spencer Haywood, John Brisker, Archie Clark, Dave DeBuschere, George Gervin, Ralph Simpson, and Mel Daniels to name but a few. Harding barely scraped by academically, so college was out of the question. He played briefly at a prep school in Nashville followed by two seasons on Midwest League teams in Toledo, Ohio and Holland, Michigan.
Unlike today, 7-footers were rare in sixties, and much prized by NBA teams hoping to clog the lane and blunt the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. In 1963, the Pistons desperately needed a big man, so they drafted Reggie in the sixth round with the 48th overall pick, making him the first player ever drafted who hadn’t played in college. Harding made his NBA debut with the Pistons in the 1963-1964 season, joining the team late in the year because of a suspension on gun charges.
He played 39 games that year, averaging 11.0 ppg and 10.5 rpg. The next season, Harding averaged 34.6 minutes in 78 games and scored 12.0 ppg while pulling down 11.6 rpg for a Pistons team that finished fourth in the Western Division. When Harding joined the Pistons as a rookie in 1963, he roomed on the road with veteran 6’9″ power forward Ray Scott. During an 11-year career in the NBA and ABA, Scott played for the Pistons, Baltimore Bullets, and Virginia Squires. Scott coached the Pistons from 1972 to 1976 and in 1974, he was named NBA Coach of the Year, the first African-American to be so honored. Scott was an intellectual who favored books about the Civil Rights struggle in America.
In 1965, Reggie Harding noticed that Scott was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley and asked to read it after he finished. Turns out Reggie would have plenty of time to read it since he was suspended for the entire 1965-66 season (most likely due to ongoing gun charges because Reggie was never far from a gun). The book had a profound affect on Reggie and his views on life became more serious and his behavior more demonstrative. It didn’t help his game much though as Reggie averaged only 18.5 minutes per game during the next season, recording 6.1 rebounds and 5.5 points per game. The Pistons traded him to the Chicago Bulls for a third-round draft pick in 1967 where he lasted only 14 games. In four seasons with the Pistons and Chicago Bulls, Harding averaged 9.0 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
It was common knowledge by all who knew him that Reggie carried a gun in his gym bag wherever he went. He was known for finishing practice and leaving without showering, pausing only to towel the sweat and spin the cylinder on his revolver. Once while playing in Detroit, Harding was said to have shot at teammate (& former Purdue All-American) Terry Dischinger’s feet to make him “dance.” During his brief tenure with the Bulls, Reggie often played one-on-one with Bulls star Flynn Robinson. Flynn would routinely beat him and Reggie would threaten to pistol whip him. Flynn was Reggie’s roommate and recalled once being startled awake in the pitch dark to find Reggie pointing a gun at him. Flynn was averaging 16 points per game, Reggie less than 5, so it isn’t hard to figure out what happened next.
During a West Coast road trip, Harding was called home for his mother’s funeral. For the next 10 days, the Bulls didn’t hear from him. Finally he returned, saying that he had been appointed executor of his mother’s estate and needed the extra time away. A few days later, the Bulls placed Reggie Harding on waivers. Then the Pacers came calling.
During that first ABA season, the Pacers started out well, going 18-7 but started to lose ground to the rest of the league by mid-season. Bob Netolicky, a 6’9″ star from Drake University, was holding down the center spot. Despite his prodigious vertical leaping ability, Neto’s game was better suited for the forward slot and with about 30 games to go, Neto caught the mumps. So the Pacers saw an opportunity when the Bulls handed Harding his walking papers. Pacers GM Mike Storen and team co-founder Dick Tinkham met Harding at the airport at 5 am. The duo was due to board a plane with the team for an away game at 9:30.
Reggie Harding sat down with the Pacers’ duo in an airport coffee shop booth and listened disinterestedly until the subject of money came up. The Pacers reps explained that since there was less than half the season left, the team would pay Reggie $ 10,000 to sign. Reggie scoffed saying that if they signed him the Pacers were guaranteed to win the Championship. Reggie replied, “They can talk about black power and white power. I believe in green power: money, man, money.” Reggie countered with a bottom line figure of $ 15,000. Tinkham, true to his shrewd reputation, offered $ 300 per game adding, that if what Reggie said was true, the Pacers had 30 games left in the season and another 20 in the post season. $ 300 for 50 games adds up to Reggie’s desired number. Reggie signed and dressed for that night’s game. The deal, like Tinkham himself, became a Pacer’s legend,
Harding was a problem from the start beginning with his refusal to wear a suit and tie on the plane to the game. Instead he wore his uniform. From there, Reggie skipped practices, arrived late for team flights and once requested leave from the team saying he had to go to his daughter’s funeral. Problem was, Reggie didn’t have a daughter. Perhaps the most famous Reggie Harding Pacers story comes from Kokomo prep star & I.U. 2-time All-American Jimmy Rayl. While rooming with Reggie on the road one night, Rayl was asleep in the darkened room. He heard the door open and saw the silhouette of his 7-foot roomie walk through the door. Moments later, Reggie clicked the light on, Rayl opened his eyes and found he was staring down the barrel of a gun. Reggie accused Rayl of being a racist, which Jimmy is not, and after a long conversation, Reggie put his gun down. Jimmy Rayl slept in the lobby that night.
The Pacers finished the season 38-40 and played just three postseason games; losing each game by double digits to Connie Hawkins’ eventual ABA champion Pittsburgh Pipers team. Reggie’s game total didn’t really matter because between the fines for missed practices, suspensions and arriving late for flights, Harding ended up owing the Pacers $400. During that abbreviated 1967–68 season with the ABA Pacers, Harding averaged 13.4 points and 13.4 rebounds in 25 games. Obviously, Reggie Harding did have occasional flashes of brilliance. The Pacers’ first triple-double came courtesy of Reggie Harding when he had 30 points and 22 rebounds on March 14 against Mel Daniels and his Minnesota Muskies. Although blocked shot stats were not kept back then, the newspaper account of the game stated Harding “pounded at least 10 shots back at the stunned Muskies.” His capstone for his Pacers career came when, during a television interview, Reggie threatened to shoot Pacers’ general manager, Mike Storen.
Reggie Harding’s once promising pro career was done by the time he was 26. With no other marketable skills, Harding returned to small time cons and petty larceny on the mean streets of Detroit. He quickly fell in with the wrong crowd. The sad after-basketball life of Reggie Harding is perhaps best exemplified by one oft repeated story. Reggie walked into a neighborhood establishment (described variously as either a liquor store or gas station) with a nylon stocking over his head, brandishing a gun and demanding money. The clerk took one look at the 7-footer and reportedly said, “I know that’s you, Reggie,” to which Harding replied, “It ain’t me, man. Shut up and give me the money!” Legend has it that Harding robbed that same gas station in his own Detroit neighborhood a total of three times.
Reggie Harding’s post-basketball career was plagued by a number of personal problems. He spent time in jail and often struggled with drug addictions. But he was turning his life around. He had kicked his heroin addiction, was jogging and playing basketball every day and talking to friends about an NBA comeback. He was scheduled to start a new job in the Fall. Reggie had been raised by foster parents but had recently reconnected with his mother, Lilie Mae Thomas. In August of 1972, Lillie Mae was shot and killed by her husband. Witnesses remembered Reggie standing at his mother’s graveside and telling the preacher how he wanted to be buried.
On September 2, 1972, Harding was standing on the corner of Parkview and Kercheval talking to a couple of girls. A car pulled up and parked nearby. 26-year-old Carl Scott, a former friend of Reggie’s, stepped out, walked up and pointed a gun at the former NBA player. Reggie thought he was joking (he’d just taken Scott to church with him the Sunday previous) and said, “If you shoot me, shoot me in the head. I don’t want to feel no pain.” On his way down to the ground, Reggie cried out, “Why? Why? Man you shot me.” Reggie Harding died on the litter strewn sidewalks he had grown up on. A warrant for First Degree Murder was issued for Carl Scott but the outcome of charges, if ever brought, are unknown.
Reggie Harding was dead at the age of 30, a bullet through his skull and brain. Mike Storen, the Pacers’ General Manager who Reggie had threatened to shoot 4 years before, was one of only three white people to attend the funeral. When the funeral party arrived at the Greater Mount Carmel Baptist Church, it became apparent that the 7-foot tall Harding’s grave, like his life, was too short. The large casket had to be buried at an angle in the plot. Reggie’s body was laid to rest near the burned out shell of the old Eastern High School Building where Reggie gained fame as a prep star. Seems that, even in death, Reggie Harding couldn’t catch a break.
Next week, in part II of this story, Reggie Harding’s other connection to Motown.

ABA-American Basketball Association

Whatever Happened to John Brisker? Part II

john-brisker-part IOriginal publish date:  February 1, 2016

For 3 seasons (1969-71), John Brisker ruled the ABA. He averaged 26.1 pts per game, which is crazy good, but more importantly, he led the league in fights and his intimidation factor was off the charts. In an outlaw league filled with castoffs and misfits, John Brisker topped them all. Executives placated him, coaches hated him, opposing players feared him and even his own teammates refused to guard him during practice. All of which was perfectly fine with John Brisker.
Brisker’s temper showed his dark side, but he was also highly intelligent. He was proud of his African heritage and studied African culture by reading and researching the subject whenever he could. He began to wear a dashiki (a loose, brightly colored African shirt or tunic) as a way of exhibiting his African pride. Although readily accepted today, at the time, it made Brisker a target of inquiry. Some within the establishment pegged him as a black militant.
During his 3 seasons in Pittsburgh under 2 different team names (Pipers & Condors) Brisker also found trouble off the court. In the fall of 1971, he attended a Pirates World Series home game with a girlfriend. After hailing a cab at the end of the game, Brisker got in an argument with a 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. Three nearby policemen spotted the brawl and as they investigated, Brisker began fighting the cops too. Two of the three officers were hospitalized and Brisker was arrested for assault and battery, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. The handwriting was on the wall for John Brisker.
Brisker decided to cash in his ABA success by signing a lucrative multi-year contract with the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics. Los Angeles businessmen Sam Schulman, the Sonics owner, was threatening to move his team to the ABA and worse, to move his soon-to-be ABA team to L.A. to compete directly with the Lakers. The Sonics had just signed Brisker’s Detroit neighbor & ABA All-Star Spencer Haywood the season before. Brisker had come in second to Haywood for ABA Rookie-of-the-year honors in 1969-70. So it seemed like a good fit for everyone involved including the fans.
It was a good financial move, but it came at a deeper price for Brisker. The NBA was not as tolerant of Brisker’s Bruising Brawls as the ABA had been and his new teammates, perhaps dubious of the ABA hype, were not as accepting of him. NBA players didn’t scare so easily, and they knew he wasn’t going to risk a suspension, with its fine and loss of pay. Still,old habits die hard and during one Sonic scrimmage, Brisker got in a shoving match with a teammate, knocking out the player’s front teeth. A move that prompted one Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist to induct Brisker into the Seattle Boxing Hall of Fame. So, faced with this new reality, Brisker did his best to fit in. Despite his negative reputation, he became a positive force in the community, always the first to volunteer to attend charity functions during the off season. Brisker also liked to run basketball clinics for underprivileged youth from Seattle’s slums, always at his own expense.
“I want to play here, in this city, for these fans,” Brisker said. Any plans for conformity and NBA normalcy by Brisker were derailed during the 1973-74 season when the Supersonic hired former Boston Celtic great Bill Russell as their new head coach. Brisker quickly found himself at odds with Russell, an old school NBAer who was a believer in strict discipline, practice and a strong defense. Russell’s philosophy did not mesh with the free-spirited offensive minded forward.
Although still a powerful presence both on and off the court, the Sonics demoted Brisker to the CBA’s Eastern Basketball League after only 35 games even though John was averaging a healthy 12.5 points per game. Russell said Brisker “lacked discipline” and he “sent him down to learn to play some defense.” Brisker, obviously thinking a good offense beats a good defense every time, scored 56 in his first CBA outing. The next season saw more of the same with Brisker playing in only 21 games and averaging a career low 7.7 ppg. By the time Brisker collected the third paycheck of his third season he was out of Seattle’s starting line-up.
Sonics owner Sam Schulman claimed that Brisker was sparking “dissension” on the club and released him prior to the 1975-76 season. No other teams showed interest in signing him leading many to believe Brisker had been blackballed by professional basketball. So Brisker gave up on his playing career. The world lost contact with him by the late ’70s. Brisker played six seasons in the ABA and NBA averaging 20.7 points per game for his career (26.1 points per game in the ABA, and 11.9 points per game in the NBA). Brisker’s enigmatic, mercurial life, like his career, was about to take its strangest turn.
In 1978, Brisker boarded a flight to Africa and was never seen again. He told family and friends that he had plans to get into the import-export business in Idi Amin’s Uganda. Other than a occasional long distance phone call or photo from abroad, Brisker’s family lost touch with him forever. His brother “Rapid Ralph” Brisker, himself a former college basketball star, said John had been invited to Uganda as a guest of President Amin, a wild basketball enthusiast. The most often repeated contemporary rumor claims Brisker went to Uganda to fight as a mercenary soldier in the jungles of Africa.
When it came to Brisker’s whereabouts after 1978, John’s family offered similar variations of the same narrative:. “John was into a black separatist thing. Black power. Black business for black people. Black communities with black leaders.” Mark Brisker, a nephew who bounced around the Euro leagues for a few years, told him Uncle John had sent the family a picture from Africa of him on horseback. He signed it, “Have money will travel, John.” Brisker’s last contact came in a phone call came from Kampala, the capital and largest city of Uganda. Then literally, dead silence.
For years more wild rumors began to circulate. Brisker was on the run from the Feds. Brisker was on the run from the mob. Brisker fell in with some shady Liberian grifters. Brisker is alive and well living under an assumed identity in Africa. Brisker made it back to the States and is still alive. Another rumor claimed that Brisker was hired to coach the Ugandan National basketball team, ended up arguing with Amin and ended up as just another of the bloodthirsty tyrant’s many corpses. The wildest rumor claims that Brisker died in the Jonestown massacre orchestrated by cult leader (and former Hoosier) Jim Jones. Perhaps the most plausible explanation is that Brisker, who was living in the Royal Palace at Amin’s invitation, was executed by a firing squad of revolutionaries when the brutal dictator was removed from power in 1979. The State Department and FBI checked out that angle and came up empty-handed.
No official documentation tying him to Amin has ever been located. Officially Brisker was considered missing. That remained his status until 1985, when Seattle’s King County medical examiner finally declared him dead at the age of 38. That declaration paved the way for Brisker’s family to lay claim to his estate, modest as it was. His body was never found and his remains are believed to be buried somewhere in the steamy, impenetrable jungles that surround the Capitol of Uganda. All anyone knows for sure is that this ungentle giant’s light shone all too briefly before flaming out completely in a post-merger age. An age where Brisker should have been an established vet on his way to the Hall of Fame.
Still, there are some who believe that Brisker remains alive and simply does not want to be found, choosing instead to live his life in anonymity wherever that may be. John Brisker exuded the requisite toughness necessary to survive the mean streets of Detroit of the 1960s. “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. In a sense, it’s the most fitting epitaph to this enigmatic figure. John Brisker’s disappearance had a spiritual, antithetic quality to it; the adventurer-narrative of a lost soul journeying to a lost land for a lost cause. And then the soul vanishes. The mystery surrounding his fate only adds to the legend of John Brisker and the ABA.

ABA-American Basketball Association

Whatever Happened to John Brisker? Part I

john-brisker-part IIOriginal 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.