John Brisker: Mr. Punch from Pittsburgh, 1972

[In October 1971, John Brisker attended a Pittsburgh Pirates game. Sometime after the seventh-inning stretch, Brisker exited Three Rivers Stadium with a young woman and spotted a standing Yellow Cab. Brisker, the star of the ABA Pittsburgh Condors, snapped open the back door, and the two piled into the backseat. 

The driver glanced in his rear-view mirror and told Brisker that he was on call and waiting for his passengers to arrive. Brisker said he wasn’t leaving. “Get out,” the driver finally bellowed. Brisker said no, and the driver eyed two cops nearby. He waved for help. 

Patrolman Howard Trojanowski opened the backdoor and asked the two to exit the vehicle. Brisker refused. The details get a little blurry here, but Brisker either exited on his own or was pulled from the cab and then subdued by Trojanowski and his partner Rudolf Sadio. A paddy wagon arrived minutes later, and the cops yanked Brisker in its direction. Brisker refused to get in, unless Trojanowski and Sadio quit the rough stuff. 

The two seem to have acquiesced, and Brisker strode toward the paddy wagon only to cling to the back doors with all his might and declare hell no, he wasn’t going. A scuffle broke out. Brisker sprained his ankle, Trojanowski spent time in the intensive care unit, and Sadio had a large welt on his head. 

And so it went for John Brisker. Even life’s most-mundane moments could escalate quickly into pitched, life-or-death battles. In Pittsburgh, his teammates loved to tell the story of Brisker tussling with a teammate during practice, then racing off to the locker room to retrieve his pistol. Thankfully, somebody talked him down. In Seattle, where Brisker jumped  to the NBA, his coach Bill Russell quickly learned to despise him. Though nobody knows the reason for sure (Russell never spoke about it), the popular consensus is it started with a dispute over a woman. Russell tried—and eventually succeeded—in destroying Brisker’s basketball career. And, of course, things escalated fatally for Brisker after basketball when he moved to Uganda.

Nevertheless, Brisker was one of the most-feared men in the either league during the early 1970s. As NBA great Archie Clark told me: nobody wanted to guard Brisker, neither did they want Brisker guarding them. The NBA gossip said cross him, and things would escalate in a hurry to fisticuffs—and Brisker was undefeated. This article details Brisker’s ABA days in Pittsburgh before the Condors folded, which cleared the way for his jump to the NBA. The article appeared in Action Sports’ 1971-72 Pro Basketball Yearbook. The byline belongs to Lee Green.]

Now, when both professional leagues are fighting for the services of highly touted college stars, John Brisker is a refreshing novelty. At the University of Toledo, where he toiled in basketball obscurity, John was better known as a first-string tuba player in the college marching band. In his senior year, he literally doubled in brass as a bandman and as a pass-catching end on the Rockets’ football team. 

As it turned out, his one year of football created more interest among pro football scouts than his two-plus years of basketball (he was dropped from the team after six games in his senior year) did among basketball scouts. He was not drafted in 1969 by any team in either the NBA or ABA. 

Today, John Brisker is the most-prized possession of the ABA’s Pittsburgh Condors, a 6-foot-5, 210-pound forward who has led the team in scoring in his first two years of pro ball, and whose 29.3 average last season was the league’s second best. 

“Instant offense” is how Coach Jack McMahon of the Condors describes Brisker on a court. “He goes to the basket, he’s got the range on his jumper, and is he ever strong! Guys get out of the way when he goes to the basket.”

There’s good reason why they get out of the way. Brisker is the physical type who doesn’t mind taking a poke at somebody if he feels unfairly grabbed, elbowed, or jostled on his slashing drives. He was a battling terror as a rookie in 1969-70. That was the year he decked three different opponents in fist fights and earned the title of uncrowned Heavyweight Champion of the ABA. 

Last season, he was able to control his fiery temper a bit. “Only three fights so far,” he told a reporter in January. “Last year, I had maybe 10 or 15.”

“How many did you win?” the reporter asked. 

“Oh, about 10 or 15,” Brisker answered with a smile.  

If he was fighting less than a year ago, he was scoring more and enjoying himself thoroughly in the bargain. In one of the season’s first games, Brisker poured in 46 points to lead the Condors to a victory over Denver. But that superlative effort was virtually forgotten after what Brisker did on two consecutive nights in November. On the first night, he broke Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena record by scoring 53 points against the powerful Indiana Pacers. The next night, he tossed in 50 more against Texas before retiring to the sidelines briefly with a wrist injury. That’s 103 points in two consecutive games, pretty good for a tuba player. 

But before you get the idea that Brisker is nothing but a gunner, consider what he did to Joe Caldwell, a star of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks who jumped to the ABA’s Carolina Cougars last season. Everybody figured that Caldwell would easily outscore any opponent he came up against in the newer and weaker league. And he was doing fine—until he ran up against the Condors and John Brisker. 

In their first two meetings, Brisker provided no overwhelming challenge to Caldwell, who “held” John 27 and 22 points. But the crusher came on Christmas Day, when Brisker scored 39 points while holding Caldwell to 16. 

“I thought I had him contained for a while,” said the exhausted Caldwell afterwards, “but just when you think you got him, he explodes for five or six baskets. He made me feel like I should have been back in high school.”

There is something about competing with the best that brings an extra jolt of adrenaline flowing through Brisker’s veins. There was, for example, the night last season when New York’s Rick Barry was having one of his fabulous shooting nights against the Condors, amassing a total of 53 points. But Brisker never quit, tallying 28 and keeping the Condors close enough so that he was able to sink the winning shot—a snappy 10-foot jumper—with seconds remaining. 

There’s another side to John Brisker, basketball player—a sensitivity honed by his own series of misfortunes before he arrived in Pittsburgh. He was a man with strong feelings about doing the right thing, and two incidents last season—one at the beginning and one near the end—illustrate this. 

The first incident was Brisker’s holdout before signing his 1970-71 contract. He was coming off an excellent rookie season, in which he averaged 21 points per game and undoubtedly deserved a hefty raise. But that wasn’t the main reason for the holdout. What was bugging him was the large salary offered to rookie Mike Maloy, the All-American from Davidson who had been the Condors’ top draft pick. 

“I’ll sign if you give me $1 more than you’re giving Maloy,” he told Pittsburgh officials—and sometime after signed a three-year contract for $153,000. Whether he was given more than Maloy is beside the point, because the rookie was cut for failure to get in shape. The point was that Brisker knew he was better than Maloy, and wanted some tangible recognition of the fact. 

The other incident occurred in a meaningless game against the Floridians. Teammate Stew Johnson, a good but unspectacular scorer, suddenly got red hot and couldn’t miss the basket. Brisker might have been envious. Instead, he was delighted. He proceeded to pass off to Johnson for most of the night, which resulted in Johnson breaking the ABA record with 62 points, while Brisker settled for 25. 

A man’s feelings have been important to John Brisker since his boyhood days in the ghetto of Detroit. Even on the playgrounds, where he first learned the bruising skills demanded by one-on-one play, John was always “Ralph Brisker’s kid brother.” Ralph got a basketball scholarship at the University of Detroit. To get out of his shadow, John enrolled at nearby Toledo—only to find himself playing in the shadow of Steve Mix, the Rockets’ fine center. Brisker resented it. 

“The offense was geared around Mix,” he said. “We always were told to pass the ball to him. He was great, but one ballplayer can’t do it all.”

There were some harsh words with Coach Bob Nichols, who accused Brisker of not being a team player and eventually permitted him to drop off the team after six games in his senior season. By then, Brisker was toying with the idea of playing pro football, after catching 25 passes in his single season of play. But a summer of basketball in a Detroit playground league, during which he won a tournament Most Valuable Player award while competing against the likes of Spencer Haywood, Mel Daniels, Jimmy Walker, and Dave Bing, changed his mind. And when the word of mouth began to spread, Brisker got offers from both the Philadelphia 76ers and Pittsburgh. One of the factors which might have helped him decide on Pittsburgh was the fact that the team had just cut his brother Ralph. John felt he had something to prove. 

Brisker started the 1969-70 season as a substitute guard, he came off the bench one day to replace injured Tom Washington at forward and preceded to score 42 points. He’s been a big man in Pittsburgh ever since. 

“He’s worth a franchise,” said general manager Marty Blake. 

John Brisker has proven himself in a big way. 

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