John Brisker Sent Down to the Minors, 1974

[John Brisker may go down as the NBA’s greatest mystery man of all time (though Bison Dele runs a close second). From his career-ending spats with then-Seattle coach Bill Russell to his presumed life-ending dinner with Ugandan strongman Idi Amin, nothing is very clear about the latter part of Brisker’s career and probably life. 

Let’s go “way downtown” with Brisker to the year 1974. Bill Russell, by all accounts, wants Brisker and his million-dollar contract gone for good to lower Seattle’s bloated payroll and to clean up the out-of-control locker room that he’d inherited. The mystery is why Russell singled out Brisker? Some of the best scuttlebutt points to jealousy. Russell, recently divorced, was back on the single’s scene, and Brisker tried to charm a woman whom Russell considered his property. As many have remarked, cross Russell, and he never forgets—or forgives. The scuttlebutt, though, comes with no tangible supporting evidence to lift it out of the realm of hearsay.

Another good possibility comes from a late-1990s interview with reporter Steve Rudman. Rudman said Russell was loath to do the interview and arrived in full scowl. Then, like a lightbulb suddenly went off in his head, he started talking—and guffawing—and wouldn’t stop saying things that he probably shouldn’t have said. 

“I can’t tell you how many times I got called at two or three in the morning to find out the players were busted,” Russell told Rudman. “I’d make a call to a lawyer, and I’d say, ‘This is Bill Russell,’ and he’d say, ‘Oh shit! Who’s in jail now?’” The assumption, though unconfirmed, is Brisker ran with the “who’s in jail now” crowd.

Whether jealousy, too many early-morning phone calls—or both—Russell wanted Briskerand his big contract gone. And so, in January 1974, the greatest winner in sports history hatched what seemed like a winning strategy to destroy his nemesis: Russell demoted Brisker to the Eastern Basketball Association (EBA), the NBA’s unofficial minor league, though mainly for its East Coast-based franchises. 

Brisker’s demotion was tantamount to a supervisor giving a staff member an unsatisfactory midyear performance review. Russell had already locked in Brisker’s unsatisfactory rating by keeping him on the bench for most of the season. But now Russell was using the EBA to put Brisker on the NBA equivalent of probation, adding further documentation to his case and endgame of firing his 6-foot-5 pain in the neck by the end of the season. 

The timing of the demotion couldn’t have been worse for Brisker. His wife Michelle was nine months pregnant with their first child. Some speculated that Brisker wouldn’t go East, while Larry Fleisher and the NBA Players Association filed a grievance with the league on his behalf. The NBA had no formal minor-league agreement with the EBA and, thus, Russell could not force him to go down and “work on his defense.” 

In the two newspaper articles below, you’ll see that Brisker reported to the EBA’s Cherry Hill Rookies in surprisingly good spirits. The first article is from the Philadelphia Inquirer’s syndicated columnist Bill Lyon. It’s by far the best synopsis of Brisker’s demotion. His column ran on February 5, 1974. Give it a read.]

Brisker (holding ball) with Russell (shirt and shorts) before things turned bleak.

John Brisker was talking soft and low and dreamy, like the bittersweet melancholy notes he likes to push through his trumpet when he seeks refuge from the hasslin’ world. Brisker was in Seattle, talking like a three-pack-a-day smoker who was swearing off . . . like an alcoholic taking the pledge, pouring that last stashed bottle down the drain. 

“I gotta grow up. I know that now. Attitude is very important to me. I’m gonna turn my whole life around. I been carryin’ a big chip, felt like it was me ‘gainst the world. I got a bad rep, but I’m gonna live it down,”

Brisker does have a bad rep, pedigree blotched with unsavory tags like punch-out artist and troublemaker, league jumper, money-grabber and, it is even whispered, fixer and thrower of basketball games. 

Brisker came out of Toledo university in 1969, a sleek bundle of natural talent, smooth muscles and blurring speed, coveted by the Dallas Cowboys and San Diego Chargers, and also by both professional basketball leagues. Miss drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers of the National Basketball Association and by Pittsburgh of the American. 

There was the usual flesh market bidding and legal scuffling. Brisker ended up with Pittsburgh. He was all-league two of the three seasons, scoring 53 points in one game.   

Then he jumped leagues and played with Seattle in 1972-73. He averaged 12 points a game on a team seething with unrest and dissension and booed by a city that grew disgusted watching the Sonics lose game after game with players like Jim McDaniels and Spencer Haywood, who had contracts rumored to be worth millions but desire worth loose change. 

Risker found himself in the boiling fringes of the whirlpool that was sucking everybody down. It was reported he was making $170,000 a year. Then came the charge that the Sonics had deliberately lost again to the Philadelphia 76ers in order to get their coach fired. 

“I played exactly six minutes of that game,” Brisker said, ”but I was being accused along with everyone else.”

Brisker, it seemed, was spending more time in legal courts than on the basketball court. But it was all going to be different this year. Seattle brought in Bill Russell, the legend in sneakers, to coach. There’d we know problem with defense and desire, vowed Russell, a man who even after 10 years in pro ball still used to psych himself so high before a game that he would be doubled over with the dry heaves and minutes before the opening tip.

Brisker takes the charge on the Knicks’ Walt Frazier.

Brisker, who is 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, was moved from forward to guard. “My second game at guard, I had 47 points, maybe 15 rebounds, and a half dozen assists,” Brisker recalled. “I was thinking, ‘This is it. All the bad stuff is gone. Now we play.’ Man, I was cookin’. The team elected me player representative. Things were sweet.”

And then Brisker was told he was being sent down to the minor leagues, to the Hamilton Pat Payers of the Eastern Basketball Assocation. “Russell said I had to go down and work on my defense.”

Brisker never made it to Hamilton . . . at least in a Pat Pavers’ uniform. Rich Iannarella, general manager of the first-year Cherry Hill, N.J. franchise, found out Brisker was being exiled to the EBA. Quicker than you can sell the island of Manhattan for 26 bucks, Iannarella got on the phone and was performing everything but a frontal lobotomy. 

He traded two players for Brisker, guard Fran O’Hanlon, and Hamilton’s first-round draft pick next year. He gave up Walter Banks and Stan Pawlak, people he’d picked up only two weeks before when the Wilkes-Barre, Pa. franchise folded. 

Iannarella knew he should have asked for a blindfold and cigarette. There was no guarantee John Brisker would fly cross country to play in the EBA—where you go to the games in station wagons, not chartered jets; where the crowds are counted by hand (sometimes on a couple of them), not by turnstile; where even spare shoelaces can be a luxury. In fact, off his past record, Brisker would have seemed a good bet to wind up playing for the Peruvian Nationals via a hijacked jet. 

But 12 days ago, on schedule, he walked off a jet from Seattle and was met by Iannarella at Philadelphia. There was a full-speed workout that night with the Cherry Hill Rookies. No one was running harder or sweating more than John Brisker. 

“I’ll admit I was surprised,” Iannarella said. “I mean, if ever a man had a right to be bitter, to sulk, to just turn his back on the world and walk away, he did.”

Brisker says he decided to accept the exile as a challenge. 

“I didn’t agree with it, of course. But Russell knows what it takes to win, so I accepted his decision. I’m done with all the hassling. All I want to do is play ball. If it has to be down here, well, okay. But I don’t intend to stay. “I’m gonna be back in Seattle. It’s a personal thing with me now. Whatever it takes, I’ve made my mind up to do it. I guess when you’re gonna become a father you get a different slant.”

Midway through the workout, Brisker found out one of the differences between the EBA in the NBA. “There was a hole in the floor. I stepped in it, felt this shootin’ pain in my lower back.”

The pain became a spasm. The Rookies played the next night in Allentown. Brisker rode with Iannarella. “I had to stop periodically so he could get out and stretch. The pain was really getting to him,” Iannarella said. 

That deal wasn’t looking so hot. 

Brisker didn’t play and the Rookies lost, their 13th of 16 starts. The next night, a week ago last Sunday, the Rookies were at Hamilton. Coach Hal Greer told Brisker to be his own doctor. With four minutes left in the first quarter, Dr. Brisker told Coach Greer that player Brisker would like to give it a shot. 

He missed his first three shots, then exploded. He hit 15 of 37 from the field, set a league record with 51 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and handing out five assists. The trumpet man gave a real concert, even though the crowd was accustomed to hearing a tune. 

“The people were standing and yellin’ at the end. He came out, and they announced he had 43 points. The crowd started yellin’ for 50. Hal put him back in, and he got eight in a minute and a half. It was incredible,” Iannarella said. 

The Rookies play again Saturday, and Iannarella says he wouldn’t be surprised if Brisker scores 100 points . . . assuming his child has arrived by then, and Brisker has commuted. 

“It’s funny,” Brisker said. “They sent me down to concentrate on being a defensive guard. But Greer needs a scoring forward. Same old thing, you know. Two different things pullin’ and tuggin’ at me. Well, I’ll just try to do both.”

Iannarella knows that Brisker can be recalled at any time. Yet with him, the Rookies have a chance, despite their dismal start, to make the playoffs and, with such momentum, probably win the whole thing. 

“Sure, I wish he’d stay here and we’d have him for the rest of the season. But that’s not what we’re here for. We’re supposed to be developing new guys.”

And giving renegade castoffs a second chance. 

“Well, I’ll tell you,” Iannarella says. “I think the guy really wants to reform. We got four first-year players, and he was hustling like them. He played like it was the last game in his life.” 

[About a week after Lyon’s column ran, Russell recalled Brisker from Cherry Hill, likely to get Larry Fleisher and the NBA front office out of his hair. Brisker flew back to Seattle and reclaimed his familiar seat at the very end of Russell’s bench. Right on cue, the Sonic faithful took up their familiar chant, “We Want Brisker!” Russell, per usual, ignored it. He and his EBA brainstorm may have been thwarted this time, but Russell wasn’t done with Brisker. Time was still on Russell’s side, even as Brisker submitted to his will, documented in his comments below.

Recounting Brisker’s return to Seattle is Leroy Samuels. He covered the Cherry Hill Rookies for the Camden (NJ) Courier-Post. His story ran on February 15, 1974.] 

Dom Vitarelli, the trainer, won’t need the ice packs and a strong right hand to rub down John Brisker’s sore back when the Cherry Hill Rookies travel to Hazleton, Pa., Sunday night. Vitarelli won’t need the ice because Brisker will be home . . . in Seattle. 

Bob Walsh, assistant general manager of the NBA Seattle SuperSonics, yesterday phoned Rookies GM Richie Iannarella asking for the return of Brisker. “Walsh said (Bill) Russell plan to activate John (Brisker), ” said Iannarella. “He’s going back to the big club.”

Back in the big leagues, John Brisker said it was like starting his career all over again. “My God, I’m home again, for keeps,” he said in a long-distance phone conversation last night. “This time, I’m going to stick in Seattle and help them win. I want to stay in the NBA, and I’ll play however Coach Russell wants me to play.”

Brisker, 27, is a five-year pro (three seasons with the ABA Pittsburgh Condors, two with Seattle) who was shipped to the Eastern Basketball Association to, as he explained, “get myself together again.”

While club officials said Brisker was sent to the EBA for “more team offense and team defense,” he said it was more than that, much more. 

“Like a lot of players who get big money in pro ball, I relaxed,” he said. “I became a fat cat, not as hungry as I was years ago. It happens to so many players in our league . . . then it happened to me.”

Getting sent to the EBA it was still a shock, according to Brisker. “My wife (Michelle) was expecting our first baby and our home was in Seattle,” said Brisker. “When he (Russell) told me I wasn’t going to travel with the Sonics on a road trip, but to report to the East, I was stunned, really upset. But the coach and I are together. We rap a lot, and we talked all of my problems over. He said I should be an all-star player in the NBA . . . he said he believed in me, and I believe in him. So I went to Cherry Hill.”

With the Rookies, Brisker play the way a hurricane rips into a coastal city. He scored 51 points against the Hamilton Pat Pavers, 58 against Sonny Hill’s Hazleton Bullets, and 29 against Garden State . . . the infamous game in East Orange where the P.A. announcer “harassed” the Rookies. 

“John gave us everything, 150 percent effort,” said Iannarella. “Obviously, we’re going to miss him a lot. Me, I have mixed feelings.  I’m upset because we lost a great player, but happy because this is the concept of the EBA . . . to get players back into the big leagues.”

Brisker persisted he had a “beautiful time” in Cherry Hill, except for the traveling. “Those vans we took to the away games, they were murder,” he said. “But, we had such a beautiful time. I don’t think anyone could be nicer than Richie (Iannarella), Hal (Greer), or Ben (Warley). They treated me terrifically, and I respect them for it.”

Brisker said his three games in the EBA “turned myself into the right direction. I certainly don’t want to play minor league basketball again. I have to believe all of this has helped me get myself together again to get my mind and body right.”

Brisker, who played with painful muscle spasms of the lower back while with the Rookies, says Russell has kept him in the game. “If it wasn’t for him (Russell), I don’t know where I would be,” said Brisker. “He certainly understands what I’m all about.”

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