Who Is John Brisker? 1972

[More John Brisker. This article is from Phil Musick, the outstanding Pittsburgh sportswriter, and it ran in the February 1972 issue of SPORT Magazine.]

“We moved 15-20 times when I was growing up, getting out of places because we couldn’t pay the rent. When I started high school, I lived at the back end of a project. There was a basketball court 15 feet from our door. It was all dirt then. I had a lot of things frustrating me, so I’d take my frustrations outside and get rid of them shooting a basketball. I used basketball to forget living in that place. I knew by then there were better things, that other people had nice things. I’d ask myself: Why can’t we have them? Is the world so stingy, so corrupt that they could put me in that little spot in the project and make me stay there? Man, the project is a trip. My whole life was that lousy project and school. I’d go from the project to school to a job and back to the project. I got to asking if there wasn’t something else.”

A distant siren wails of some unseen misfortune, but it is a sound of his youth, and John Brisker ignores it. At odds with an image that projects him as a wild-tempered brawler, rather than the friendly, talented, all-purpose forward he sees in the mirror each morning, right now Brisker is intent on his role as interviewee. 

A warm, gregarious man he is not, he assures the tape recorder in front of him on the counter, merely a quick-fisted basketball player of unlimited potential. The recorder offers no sign of understanding. Undaunted, Brisker presses on with more evidence and slowly the hand of guilt tightens on my psyche because I have failed to construct a complete image of him. 

For perhaps two hours we have been talking. We already knew each other about as well as any writer can know any professional athlete. So, by now, I am aware of the ambivalence: On the one hand, he is covetous of his notoriety, cautious now lest he appear other than a black Jack Armstrong; at the same time, he resents the fact that his reputation as a brawler has overshadowed his talents as a basketball player. So, we have at it. And, to my chagrin—trained professional observer and all that rot—I discover that I know little of John Brisker. 

Little beyond the cursory fact that he owns an occasionally uncontrollable temper, extraordinary skills and instincts that have made him one of the five best players in the American Basketball Association, and an innate, magnetic charm that would capture George Wallace himself. 

He is a smiling, handsome 24-year-old; broad nose, saucer-like eyes, huge slash of a mouth and high forehead, combining to refute the equation that a sum is the whole of its parts. Reflecting a fierce nobility, Brisker looks like Huey Newton’s sergeant-at-arms, a descendant of some proud African prince.

Brisker is, he tells me, a bit put out that I had written that day that a journeyman forward, New York’s Ollie Taylor, had contained him the previous night. “Did he ‘harass me unmercifully,’ Phil?” Brisker smiles broadly, knowing, despite myself, that I will for the next week or so soften my criticism of his performance. I suspect he also knows it. 

Suddenly, red lights dance through the heavy glass doors, bathing the hotel coffee shop in an eerie psychedelic pink. Having gulped a second wind since we first heard it, the siren now screams its urgency as an ambulance hurtles toward Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a ghetto not unlike the one John Brisker escaped in Detroit. 

We glance at each other, sharing a sense of irony. A month before, at Three Rivers Stadium following Pittsburgh’s first World Series win, Brisker had heard another siren, this one carting him to jail to be charged with resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, and aggravated assault on two policemen after an incident involving his refusal to relinquish a taxi allegedly summoned by another person. 

That incident solidified the image Brisker says he wants to shake; the image that has allowed the sporting world to forget that he stands on the brink of superstardom, a forward with the pure skills of a Baylor; the image he feels is unwarranted, largely the product of a franchise desperately in need of attention. 

But he cannot escape it. Woefully he acknowledges that to those few who are aware of the existence of the Pittsburgh Condors, John Brisker is Mr. Mean of the ABA. The guy who beats up cops. The guy who busted open Sam Smith’s mouth. And Joe Caldwell’s jaw. And Jeff Congdon’s face. Etc. Trouble with the Big T. And, only incidentally, a super player—if. If he goes to the board more consistently; if he plays more determined defense; if he develops more of a conscience when in possession of the ball. And if his temper doesn’t one day consume him. “Someday he might kill somebody,” says one Brisker-watcher.

“Being a fighter is part of my game,” Brisker says, sipping coffee as the ambulance roars away to deliver someone’s misery. “But it ruins any evaluation of me as a player. I come on the floor; everyone expects a fight. That’s not right. I just protect what I am. I don’t back off.”

What is Brisker? For openers, he is a paradox. On the court, he seeks no quarter, gives a bit less. Yet I remember him ever so gently letting down a teenager hopelessly infatuated with him. Rushing to an appointment, he stopped to tell her: “I’m real busy lately, my social secretary can’t even keep up with me. Maybe we’ll meet sometime.” And I remember him going from playground to playground last summer, on his own, organizing and financing clinics in ghetto areas. “The kids, they’re everything, they’re the answer.” In short, I remember his compassion.

But he is also what cops refer to as a “cronkie,” a catalyst for action. Not an aggressor, not a victim, but a danger signal. An old lady in the park after dark, or an expensive-looking drunk on the waterfront, or four guys on a deserted corner at 3 a.m. Trouble waiting to happen. 

At the World Series, it happened. Brisker and a girlfriend got into a cab supposedly reserved. There was an argument. Several policemen were called and decided to arrest Brisker, who was adamant on retaining the cab. After they decided on the arrest, they beat on his hands for a while to make him more amenable to their decision. “See the marks, they’re still sore,” he says. In 10 minutes, two policemen were sore enough to need treatment at a nearby hospital and John Brisker, his image now a hopeless case, had been stuffed into a police van. 

“If I knew now how it was going to work out, I’d have jumped in and asked to drive the wagon downtown,” he laughs, all but one minor charge settled. “But I want it clear that I didn’t hit anyone. If I had, there wouldn’t be any doubts. I just tried to tell them that I wasn’t a criminal, to talk things over. They wouldn’t listen. When they tried to handcuff me, I just tried to shake them off.”

In any case, John Brisker, the basketball player, had lost some more of his identity to John Brisker, the hellraiser. A shame, really, because he is a brilliant basketball player and, mellowing with age, an indifferent, regretful hellraiser. 

“He can shoot as well as anyone in the game, and he is the best 6-foot-4 forward alive,” says Condor official Buddy Jeannette, a 35-year veteran of pro basketball and as coldly dispassionate an observer as ever drew breath. 

Brisker would like to be the very best there is, such as he was when he was the outstanding player in a summer benefit game that drew the finest players from both leagues. 

Runner-up to boyhood buddy Spencer Haywood for the outstanding rookie award in his first year, Brisker led the ABA in scoring last season going into the final two weeks with a 30-plus average. He could still have caught eventual scoring leader Dan Issel of Kentucky on the last night of the year. In the All-Star game, he fell short of breaking the rebound record, a considerable accomplishment for a 6-foot-4 forward competing against Utah’s 6-foot-9 Zelmo Beaty and Indiana’s 6-foot-10 Mel Daniels, perhaps the ABA’s premier defensive rebounder. This year, he remains a major threat to claim the scoring title he narrowly missed last season. 

Unfortunately, Brisker’s ego has been a victim of not only his image, but also of his employer. The Pittsburgh Condors are perhaps professional basketball’s most-bizarre franchise, wanting only the touch of a Harry Wismer or a Charlie Finley to become a national gag. In five years, the club has had: eight coaches (including one whose employment terminated seconds after he punched one of five presidents who have operated the team), three nicknames, two hometowns, a vice president apparently was paid $20,000 a year for selling roughly 25 season tickets, and a magazine that—rumor has it—one year served as the sole authority on the club’s draft choices. Said choices being made by the club president and his accountant, while two employees whose careers in basketball totaled 33 years were not invited to the draft meetings. Later, it was bantered that an out-of-date magazine has been used for reference, nearly resulting in the selection of Walter Dukes.

Against this backdrop of uncertainty, Brisker’s capacities have remained largely submerged, surfacing to the public’s attention only when he becomes involved in some imbroglio. 

Ironically, on the road, John Brisker is a celebrity. In Salt Lake City recently, the Utah Stars held a “John Brisker Intimidation Night,” with six of the state’s professional fighters, including ex-middleweight champion Gene Fullmer and his brother Don, sitting at courtside. Brisker was not noticeably impressed, and the game was uneventful. 

However, no one accused Utah of imprudent publicity-seeking—in view of Brisker’s history of decimating the opposition. In four years, he has wounded approximately a dozen players—including an ex-teammate who later threatened to retaliate with a gun—and has been dubbed “the ABA heavyweight champion.”

He is, he argues steadfastly, merely “aggressive . . . competitive.” He is that, the list of those he has vanquished being too lengthy to enumerate here. Suffice it to say that one evening a year ago, a search for one of Joe Caldwell’s missing teeth was concluded at John Brisker’s right elbow, where the tooth was discovered embedded in flesh. The ex-NBA All Star suffered a broken jaw in the mishap and has played very little basketball for the Carolina Cougars since.

Brisker is uncertain how he would have posterity view the Caldwell incident, which served further notice that to hound John Brisker too diligently is to risk one’s bridgework. “I thought it was an elbow to the body instead of to the chops,” he says with a grin that is no part embarrassment. “They say I hit him. Maybe I did. He was pulling my arms.” 

But his reputation was built in his first season on a one-punch demolition of Kentucky forward Sam Smith, a huge, quiet man who bore an amazing, albeit unfortunate, facial resemblance to Joe Louis. Alas, the resemblance ended there. Smith swung twice, Brisker once. Smith was removed for extensive repairs, and rookie John Brisker became widely recognized as “bad to fool with.”

They test him no longer. On this night, three years after Smith painfully discovered a Connie Hawkins replete with left hook, Brisker is guarded, deferentially, by Indiana’s Roger Brown. 

A brilliant offensive player, Brown conserves his energies on defense, a habit which is to prove fatal. In the first quarter, freeing himself completely with moves that threaten his spinal network but temporarily paralyze Brown, Brisker works the baseline for nine points. Piqued, Brown begins crowding him in the next period, tugging at Brisker’s arms, leaning on him, and receiving for his efforts a blatant straight-arm to the clavicle just before the half ends. 

Late in the third period, Brisker moves outside, a wing in a 3-2 offense where he is defensed by Pacer guard Freddie Lewis. It was no contest. Time after time, Brisker throws in his straight-line jumper, which gives the appearance of rolling across some unseen surface before being stricken over the basket and plummeting into the cords. He gets 36 points and his roomie, George Thompson, banks one in at the final gun to give the Condors a one-point triumph over the defending ABA West champions. 

“John intimidates people,” says ex-Condor coach Jack McMahon, fired in November on the night of his twentieth wedding anniversary and one of the NBA’s better guards in the 1950s. “He goes to the basket like no one I’ve ever seen. Guys run away; it’s like a parting of the seas. In 20 years, I’ve never seen that before.”

McMahon and Jeannette, both of whom have coached Brisker, feel a Roger Brown brings out the best Brisker can offer. In the cramped Condor dressing-room, Brisker shakes his head from side-to-side as he adjusts a shoe-length red coat, one of the more expensive items in a lavish wardrobe that runs to leather and fur and outrageous, floppy hats. “Roger is not a good defensive player, everyone knows that,” he says, 36 points more or less routine. “Hell, I know I can score. But I want to win. We’ve finished fifth for two years and, when you don’t make the playoffs, everyone thinks you’re not a player.”

The image comes calling suddenly. “We’re going to make the playoffs if I have to break someone’s leg to do it. Sure, I want the scoring championship, but the MVP award usually covers something like that, doesn’t it?”

Immodest goals? Not for a man compelled to succeed in all things. It is a legacy of Brisker’s youth, when there was nothing but a ball and hard times and a determined woman. 

Ernestine Brisker—small, tough, devout—raised three children, of which John is the second, in Detroit’s West Side ghetto. Partially paralyzed and separated from her husband when John was five, she sold old clothes and did odd jobs to keep her family intact. 

John Brisker knew no frivolous hours in his youth. He worked eight hours a day from the time he was 11, catching pneumonia in a carwash before janitoring in a dozen buildings until he was 18.  

“I feel like I missed part of my childhood,” he says. “I lied about my age, but I had to keep switching jobs because they’d find out. They tried to take us away from my mother one time, but she got out of the hospital and she struggled. I look at her now and think how easy it would have been for her to just quit, give up. But all three of us went to college.”

Teaming with Rudy Tomjanovich (now a Houston Rocket) in high school, and dueling such future pros as Daniels, Haywood, Ralph Simpson, Eddie Miles, and Ray Scott on the dusty Detroit playgrounds, Brisker was subjected to enthusiastic recruiting. He passed up Michigan State for Toledo, which she now regrets. 

“Toledo made me the best offer, car, apartment, wardrobe,” he says. “Man, I asked, ‘Where do I sign?’ I didn’t care what school it was. But when I got there, I saw people against me because of my color. I hadn’t experienced prejudice before, and I started asking questions. I didn’t get any answers. I changed then. I got hostile. I wanted to know why I couldn’t live in this world, too. I’m still asking.”

In Brisker’s sophomore year, Toledo was 20-1 and ranked No. 10 nationally. But the following year Steve Mix, a 6-foot-10 white center, became the focus of the Toledo offense and, in his senior year, a racial conflict arose, numbering Brisker among its victims. 

He played football that fall (after three years as a tuba player in the Toledo band), against the wishes of basketball coach Bob Nichols, and later got offers from three NFL teams. Then, early in the basketball season, Brisker became ineligible and shortly thereafter Nichols suspended a black player, causing at least a temporary division on the team. 

“Nichols was from Toledo and, when the black-white thing got into the papers, I was the villain,” Brisker says, his mouth tightening at the memory. “He had the bright idea the black players were a separate group. That was the split. And I fought him over that because we’d always been together as a team. But it got to the point where my hair was falling out, and I developed an ulcer.”

After leaving Toledo, Brisker worked for several months before playing that summer in Philadelphia’s Baker league, which attracts many outstanding pro players and the attention of every pro club. The grapevine did its thing, and Brisker moved on to Pittsburgh, where early in the regular season a forward named Tom Washington twisted an ankle and missed a game. Brisker got 42 points in his first start, and Washington’s ankle was allowed to heal leisurely, the veteran having given way to the embryonic superstar. 

So three years-and-change later, we stand in the hallway beyond the Condor dressing room. Utah has survived another of what have become mean, explosive games between the two teams, and the loss has driven the smile from Brisker’s open face. He is not mollified by his personal triumph over nemesis Willie Wise, slowly being recognized as one of the ABA’s finest all-purpose forwards. 

He has outscored and outrebounded Wise, and, going head-to-head, has worn the Utah star down physically. Furthermore, restraining an impulse, for the third time in a week, he has played the role of peacemaker, breaking up two fights that stopped just short of skinned knuckles. 

“That’s all I’ve been hearing, Willie Wise, the complete forward,” he says sourly. “It bugs me. Suddenly, because he has a center to play with, because he’s playing with a lot of experienced players, he’s the best all-around forward. I don’t dig that.”

We leave the arena and outside the night air is crisp, autumn grudgingly surrendering to winter. “In this article you’re going to be an ‘unmerciful harassment?’” he grins, his mood changed as he shoves out a hand. I smile back, and wanting to tell him I realize he is more than a streetfighter in basketball shoes. I give him the handclasp of black awareness. 

“Well, now you know me,” he says, getting no answer as to how this image will fare in SPORT.  A flick of the hand, and he is gone. 

Yeah, I know him. He’s worth knowing. He plays mean basketball but, in his soul, there is no meanness. 

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