ABA-American Basketball Association, Pop Culture

Neto Comes to Irvington.

Neto signing photoOriginal publish date:  March 11, 2018

You never know who’s going to show up when Neto walks into the room. Bob Netolicky, former ABA Indiana Pacers 4-time all-star, can draw a crowd. On any given day, Neto may show up with former teammates like George McGinnis, Darnell Hillman or Billy Keller. Or maybe with former Pacers coach Bobby “Slick” Leonard or Pacers team founder Dick Tinkham. Or media legends like Robin Miller or Bob Costas. Neto knows ’em all.
This Sunday, March 18th, you are invited to the Irving theatre to hang out with Neto and friends. Netoclicky, along with Dick Tinkham and Robin Miller, has written a book called “We Changed the Game” and all three authors will be in Irvington from 2:00 to 4:00 to sign books, swap stories and answer questions from fans. The trio has chosen the Irving Theatre for their book release party. Former Q-95 on -air personality, actor and stand-up comedian Dave “The King” Wilson will act as emcee for the event.
Neto says, “The book is a collection of stories told by those who lived it. It’s the Pacers’ insider’s view from the very first day of the franchise.” Netolicky stresses that the book is not just another stat guide or seasonal recap. “It’s the real story of a team, a coach and a handful of dreamers, who brought a new league and a new team to Indianapolis – and how they not only changed the culture and future of a city, but the game of basketball forever,” said Netolicky.
Richard “Dick” Tinkham, an original ABA Indiana Pacers founder and legal counsel, is one of the few execs still around to tell the real stories of the team, the league and the ABA-NBA merger from the perspective of someone who was intimately involved with the X’s and O’s of the team and league from start to finish. It was Tinkham who reviewed all documents, ranging from incorporation papers, player contracts to merger agreements. Yes fans, there was more than one ABA-NBA merger agreement. Tinkham will share never-before-heard stories about the mergers, anti-trust lawsuits, and wild negotiations between the two leagues that could only be told by someone who was there. Mr. Tinkham, whose reputation and shrewd negotiating skills in the league are legendary, will tell you all about it this Sunday.
ABC Sports reporter Robin Miller will also be at the Irving to talk about his days as a cub reporter for the Indianapolis Star from 1968-76. Born in Anderson, Miller grew up in Indianapolis. His first assignment with the Star was to answer the score phones and run copy. Miller had two passions during those early years: the Pacers and auto racing. He was lucky to find himself working in the epicenter of both.
This Sunday, Miller will describe the Pacer’s from the viewpoint of a cub reporter not yer old enough to drink (were there really guns in the locker room?), Tinkham will explain how the ABA contracts worked (did the team really sign Mel Daniels contract on a barrom napkin?) and Neto will share stories about Pacers coach Bobby “Slick” Leonard’s unusual motivational techniques (did Slick REALLY chase Neto around the locker room with a hockey stick?).
ABA Irvington-0263The nicest thing about this book is that, in many instances, it defines the folklore of the league by telling the real story from the men who actually lived it. For me, the book’s bombshell revelation is the story of just how close the Pacers came to folding at the close of the 1968-69 season. Before that second season, the Pacers made the greatest trade in team history, sending Jimmy Dawson, Ron Kozlicki and cash to the Minnesota / Miami franchise for ABA Rookie of the Year Mel Daniels. That trade, along with the hing of Leonard as the new head coach, legitimized the team. After starting the season 2-7, the team went 42-27 the rest of the way, winning the Eastern Division by 1 game over Miami. However, the Pacers found themselves down 3 games to 1 against the rival Kentucky Colonels in the first round of the league playoffs.
In the book, for the first time ever, Tinkham recounts how that game 5 playoff changed everything. “If we hadn’t won that game and advanced, there was no additional playoff revenue,” Tinkham said. “There was no more money and, even worse, there was no plan.” Mayor Bill Hudnut, who wrote the foreword for the book prior to his passing in 2016, said “to have the franchise fold would have sent out the message that Indianapolis could not be considered a major-league city, and that in turn would hinder our ability to garner business and jobs from elsewhere.”
The Pacers won the next 3 games by an average of 15 points per game to take the series 4 games to 3 and then defeated Miami in 5 games. The Oakland Oaks beat the Pacers 4-1 to win the second ABA Championship, but the Pacers strong playoff performance saved the franchise. That win changed not only the face of a city but the game of professional basketball forever. Netolicky averaged nearly 19 points and 10 rebounds per game. Neto seemed to always rise to the occasion in the playoffs. During his 9-year ABA career, Bob averaged 15.5 points per game. Good enough to land him at 30th place on the all-time ABA playoff scoring average list. 8 of the 29 in front of him are Hall of Famers.
What I’ll look forward to most this Sunday are the stories Netolicky will surely share with Irvingtonians. Long considered one of pro basketball’s most colorful personalities, Neto’s tales live up to that reputation. Netolicky was famous for a having a pet ocelot. If you don’t know what an ocelot is, google it. Neto hints, “When I’d come home after midnight I’d often find it (the ocelot) in my bed, I’d try to move it… it would growl… and I’d go sleep on the couch.” Known for his mod lifestyle and popularity with Pacers’ female fans, one sportswriter dubbed him the “Broadway Joe Namath of the ABA”.
Neto talks about those days coming out of college and joining the upstart new league, “I didn’t know the difference between the ABA and the NBA. I’d been to a lot of NBA games but I found out pretty fast that the ABA game was more wide open, it moved a little faster. The NBA was a post-up league; a bunch of big, clumsy guys with a good center. The ABA had speed and quickness from the start. It was a faster league.” Neto continues, “I’m a big auto racing fan, and the way I associate the early ABA with the NBA was similar to when the rear-engine car came to Indy racing. It changed the sport by making it faster, better, quicker. They took the big, old roadsters, which were fun to watch, but slow, heavy and not very maneuverable, and they changed—they literally adapted and changed the sport, and that’s what the ABA did.”
Neto and Tinkham both agree that in those early years, the ABA was touch and go. But soon parity set in and within a few years, the most exciting players were in the ABA. Neto explains, “Right before the merger happened, there were a couple of teams, Seattle most prominent, where the owner [Sam Schulman] said that if the merger wasn’t going to happen, they were going to jump to the ABA. The Supersonics literally wanted to go to the ABA.”
“We Changed the Game” is being published by Hilton Publishing. It’s founder is Dr. Hilton M. Hudson II, one of less than 40 board-certified, African-American interventional cardiologists practicing in this country. Dr. Hilton grew up in Indianapolis and as a high school player, he used to scrimmage with the old ABA Pacers during the off seasons. Yet another Indianapolis connection to the book can be found right here in Irvington. The book is being handled by McFarland P.R. & Public Affairs, Inc. whose offices are located at 211 S Ritter Ave.
The book release party comes just a few weeks before the ABA 50-year reunion celebration on April 7th in Indianapolis Ten percent of the book proceeds will fund Dropping Dimes, an Indiana nonprofit that assists ABA players and their families facing financial or medical difficulties. “These proceeds are crucial to so many of my former teammates and league players, because after the merger … former ABA players who were not absorbed into the NBA were generally left without a pension,” said Netolicky, who serves on the advisory board of Dropping Dimes. For the past few years, Bob has been involved in trying to get the ex-ABA players their rightly deserved pensions, many of these former players are experiencing extreme hardships today.
The American Basketball Association (ABA) gave many unsung players a shot or a second chance to make it in pro basketball. It was the first to shine the spotlight on Indianapolis as a nationwide sports mecca. The ABA flagship Pacers franchise became one of the top-contending professional basketball teams in the country. 50 years ago, the ABA Pacers triggered the transformation of downtown Indianapolis, turning it into a thriving destination for sports at every level and in every hue. Come out to the Irving Theatre this Sunday and hear the story as witnessed by Robin Miller, Richard Tinkham and Bob Netolicky who were there through it all.
ABA Irvington-0012For sure, there will be other book signings for “We Changed the Game”. Thus far Neto has scheduled a signing at the J & J all-star sportscard show on Saturday March 24th from 10:00 to 12:00. The card show is held at the American Legion Post # 470 at 9091 E. 126th St. in Fishers and then again at Saturday March 31st from Noon to 2:00 at Bruno’s Shoebox 50 North 9th St. in Noblesville. Bruno’s shoebox is owned and operated by former longtime Indianapolis Star / News reporter and Indiana Pacers webmaster Conrad “Bruno” Brunner.
But this Sunday’s book release event is the only opportunity fans will have to hear stories and ask questions of the authors in a public forum. So come out and say hi to Neto, Robin Miller, Dick Tinkham and Dave “The King” Wilson from 2:00 to 4:00 pm. Books will be available for sale and you will have the opportunity to have your copy personally signed by these sports legends. Admission is free and the program will be free wheelin’. And remember, you never know who might show up with Neto in the Irv. Could be Slick, Dr. Dunk, Big Mac or any other Pacer great you can imagine. You never can tell with Neto.

Photos courtesy Lauri Mohr-Imaginemohr photography.

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.