John Brisker: The Cream Always Rises to the Top, 1971

[John Brisker may or may not have passed away decades ago in Uganda. But his legend as one of pro basketball’s all-time great brawlers is still very much alive and well today. This legend leaves Brisker hurtllng through history as a snarling, one-dimensional cartoonish brute and bad dude whom you’d never in a million years want to meet in a dark alley. 

The truth, however, is more complex. According to those who knew him well, Brisker was an intelligent guy, philosophical, funny, curious about the world, and, of course, not one to back down from those trying to cross him. 

This article, published in the magazine Black Sports in November 1971, is one of the few remaining stories that ever came close to capturing the real John Brisker on paper. It’s not a great piece of journalism, but the story shows Brisker’s depth of character and why he would journey several years later to Africa and tragically the dinner table of Idi Amin in search of adventure. The byline belongs to Jack Walker, of whom I unfortunately know nothing.]


Thirteen minutes of playing time in the first NBA-ABA All-Star game netted John Brisker a total of 14 points; easily the best average for the evening. If John had played as many minutes as some of the others who performed in this inaugural all-star game, it would have come as no surprise to those who are familiar with Brisker to see him walk off with the MVP award. Yet it did surprise the vast majority of fans who viewed the game of stars, because they were unaware of John Brisker.

Why does the leading scorer on the Pittsburgh Condors and second-leading scorer in the ABA, with 2,315 total points (topped solely by Dan Issel of Kentucky with 2,480 points) get so little credit for his efforts? Last year, the solid 6-foot-5, 210-pound Brisker was runner-up to the  Denver Rockets (now Seattle Supersonics) Spencer Haywood for Rookie of the Year. Yet, John said that this was his first interview for a magazine article. 

“As a matter of fact,” says John, “I have seen only one other magazine article exclusively about me, and it was some guy trying his best to make me into a troublemaker more than a ballplayer. But anytime you defend yourself, there is always someone who will label you violent or a brawler. I have to depend on my judgment as to how I should react to conflicts. When you start doubting your judgment, you’re likely to begin to compromise and lose your determination to compete.”

Self-determination is probably the most-important single factor that has enabled John Brisker to achieve the success he has enjoyed as a ballplayer. However, the competition on the court has been the least of John’s worries throughout his career. 

At first, it seemed hard to believe that when the Pittsburgh Condors first lucked up on Brisker, he hadn’t already been drafted by either the ABA or NBA. But after hearing John relate his college experiences, the only thing I found hard to believe was that he ever got into pro basketball at all. 

While still a senior in high school, John realized that going to college was part of the established procedure in becoming a professional basketball player, the career he wanted. After almost four years at University of Toledo in Ohio, he decided to leave. His departure was not a result of a change in goals, but rather a refusal to change those goals. 

His freshman year had been good, he led the team and continued to excel. But in his sophomore year, he had to deal with an egotistical coach [Coach Bob Nichols] with a conservative approach to the game. “He was strict about whatever he thought was right (on the court), and we couldn’t voice any opinions. He didn’t respect us as ballplayers. 

“The only thing he wanted to do was push himself ahead as a coach. He was concerned only with his tactics and how he wanted to handle players on the court. The way things were set up, I had little opportunity to improve or learn. This was a lot different than anything I had experienced, and it helped turn me onto ‘the Man’ and to life.”

It must have been a hell of a revelation for Brisker, who, in his high school years, had allowed himself to be overworked in an effort to perfect his game. His high school coach, John Radwanski, saw that he had the ability to do just about anything on the court. “And that is exactly what he had me do, anything and everything.” At that time, Brisker naively thought the excellence in itself would give him, as a Black athlete, the break necessary to compete successfully in a white society. 

Even after John began to see that “established procedures” in the college ranks might not include his best interests, he was versatile enough to adjust to the coach’s game. The existing inequities became more apparent, however, when among other things John saw teammate Steve Mix get pushed ahead of him and witnessed the unjust disposal of a good friend and outstanding player because of a “bad attitude.”

“In the summer of ’68, just before my senior year, I was informed by the coach that I would have to do everything he wanted or I wouldn’t play ball for him again. I couldn’t do that, so I told him I didn’t need him. Even if I couldn’t play basketball for him, I was talented enough to do something else.” That year, Brisker went out for football and led the team in pass receptions. When football season ended, however, his desire to play basketball was still there, no matter what had been said. “Every day for two weeks after football practice at 3:00, I would go to practice with the freshman basketball team at 7:00. Doing both was a hell of a strain on my body, but that was how badly I wanted to play.”

That final climactic season unfolded, and John found himself being used in only the difficult games and sitting on the bench the rest of the time. “After the coach started putting me back on the bench, I developed an ulcer, which I still have, and started losing my hair. At the same time, other things started to go badly. My grade average took a dive. I decided to quit the team, and it became a big controversy. It was played up as my not being able to make it academically, when it was actually the coach and me not making it in any way. I didn’t feel that staying at Toledo would be worthwhile. The only thing I could have accomplished was to hurt somebody and ruin myself. While I still had my pride and self-respect, which they couldn’t strip me of, I left.”

From there, Brisker went to Detroit, where things started happening for him right away. He met several pro ball players and participated in various tournaments. He did well and was invited to Dave Bing’s basketball camp in the Pocono Mountains, where he was given counseling by brothers such as Sonny Dove, Archie Clark, and Bing. 

It was there that he found the favorable vibrations and encouragement, which was all this natural talent was really ever in need of. It was also there that the pro scouts came to see just what John could do. Contract offers started coming in, including a good one from Naples, Italy. But staying in the states was more important than money for the moment and eventually John signed up with Pittsburgh. Now he’s termed as “worth a franchise” by General Manager Marty Blake of the Condors. He was also said to be the second-best property in the ABA by Commissioner Jack Dolph. Such appraisals for men like these didn’t come too soon, either. In fact, in his rookie year, John signed with Pittsburgh only after they had raised their offer of $10,000 to $12,500, the minimum salary level, which they had to have been well aware of. 

Furthermore, it was a quirk of fate, more than due recognition, that enabled Brisker to get his chance to show his bag of tricks. He sat on the bench for 15 games, until one eve when someone got hurt. That night, he totaled 42 points within 32 minutes of playing time. Since then, wonders have not ceased, such as totaling 103 points in two consecutive games. 

What does this unique athlete think about the NBA, ABA, and critics? “Basketball is a game of physical contact, but not necessarily one of violence. The fights I have been in are fights other people started. When I first came into the league, it was a big thing of respect—the veterans were there to test me, that’s their job. Hustling is sometimes misinterpreted, but you do what it takes to win. All good athletes are also good thinkers. That is the difference between a good athlete and a poor one. Poor athletes may have physical assets, but without mental alertness, concentration, and the ability to react quickly and effectively in a given situation, they cannot excel.”

Spencer Haywood, Larry Jones, Mel Daniels, Oscar Robertson, Lew Alcindor, Roger Brown, Earl Monroe, and John Brisker all have confidence, natural ability, and quick thinking. 

“I’ve been asked by critics if I think I could play with the NBA superstars,” John continued. “If I had never played in the ABA or competed in the NBA-ABA All-Star game, I would still have thought I could play with them. There were a lot of players on the playground who were better than many pro players I’ve seen; guys who never really got a chance to show what they had because they were pushed aside and blocked by the system in the promulgation of the great White Hope.”

If some of the existing inequities don’t change soon, I expect those sports fans and critics who still had doubts about John’s ability to play in the NBA will have a chance to have their curiosity satisfied. Brisker would be an asset to any club in any league and worth the investment of his true value. Says Brisker about money, “If I do as much as Rick Barry or Dan Issel, then pay me their salaries.” With the increasing opportunity to watch Brisker play in interleague games, some NBA team might just offer the correct amount of cash. 

“I’ve also been asked if the presence of 7-footers affects my game. There have always been tall men around 6-foot10, so 7-feet doesn’t seem much different to me. But I can see where a couple of inches might mean a lot among them. Actually, there are not too many centers like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, or Lew Alcindor. You can work your game around guys in that position. There are only five or six that can block shots, assist, come out and screen, as well as score. I’ve tried to use my weight and muscular power on those I have come up against. You might say that it’s what someone my size has to have. 

“My outside shot comes into my game, too, because I don’t do a heck of a lot of driving. I drive when it is necessary, but most of the guys play me for the drive—so my jump shot has to be deadly; really effective from the outside. By playing me for the drive, they give me the two extra inches that I need for the jump shot. But you have to make the threat—you have to show them that you can drive in order for them to play that way. 

“Some centers come out on you, and that’s when the drive is necessary. But you have to have a diversified game, a lot of alternatives, in case one approach doesn’t work. You can’t be really good at one thing and not be able to capitalize on another. In the game of pro ball, it will catch up with you. The touch which is necessary for a short or long shot is something that has to be worked on. I take at least a month out of each year to go back to the playgrounds because that is what it’s all about.”

The playgrounds will always be a reminder of where John first learned his one-on-one ballplaying technique. “My game is a very liberal, freelance kind of game. I like to run the natural game.” And, of course, there is the memory of the guys who played with him on the playground: Sam Williams, Virgil Hill, Bobby Jo Hill, Ralph Brisker, John Hunt, Spencer Haywood, Mel Daniels, Tyrone Clifton, Rudy Tomjanovich. With a lineup like that, no wonder he seemed out of place in his college years with a conservative coach. “The cream always rises to the top, so I’ll get my due,” says John. Still, one can’t excuse the flaws in a system which is supposedly there to recognize and develop such talent. 

For a man who wasn’t even allowed to start for a college coach, Brisker has come a long way. Forced out of college and out of traditional means of entering the pro scene, Brisker has managed to prove quite a few things. Steve Mix was pushed ahead of John because he was simply a better player, according to Toledo school officials. But their rookie year statistics in the pros tell another story.

If all goes well, Coach Nichols might even get to see another of his products, Bob Miller, in professional sports. Miller had been a good friend of John’s while at Toledo U. and was also the leading scorer and rebounder in his own senior year, before he was kicked off the team for what was labeled a “bad attitude.” 

“He was a hell of a ballplayer but was blackballed and supposedly has a bad name.” Brisker has arranged for Miller to try out with the Pittsburgh Condors and hopes to see a natural basketball talent reinstated to his rightful place.

As a Black person, a Black man, and a Black athlete, Brisker credits his mother for that spark of determination which has brought him this far. “There was one person who had a great influence on my whole life: my mother. Several times I wanted to leave college, and she was right there telling me to stick it out, giving me the moral encouragement that I needed at that time. She’s always been there, telling me not to be a quitter, never give up, finish what you start. If you’re going to do it, do it well. This is what she instilled in me. She’s a good athlete herself, a very versatile woman. She gave me a lot of incentive to go on, not only in my basketball career but in life in general. 

“There is a very vital role I feel I have to play for myself and for my people. In the field of nation and community development, there are a lot of things Black athletes can do. I feel that I can use my reputation and rapping with the brothers and sisters about drugs, convincing them that it is just another form of slavery. Perhaps they can even use some of my experiences as a yardstick for their own lives. 

“The field of economics is also important. This is what ‘the Man’ has been getting over on us for years. We have to develop economically so that we can do for ourselves. We have an organization, now called BATH, which is supported by incorporators: Muhammad Ali, John Henry Johnson, Willie Stargell, Connie Hawkins, Doc Ellis, Mudcat Grant, Horace Davis, and myself. We got together to form this organization to help with research for sickle cell anemia. I think it is important for all brothers who are in a position such as we are to get together and talk, rap, find out what’s on each others’ minds and hit the roots of what is happening today in the world concerning Black people. I think it is very vital. I can’t stress this point too much: the time is now.”

The time is now, and it is encouraging to see brothers like John recognize and seize the time. If John Brisker and his compatriots like Muhammad Ali, Connie Hawkins, Spencer Haywood, etc. continue to manifest within a social and cultural context, the same fortitude, desire, and self-determination that carried them through their personal conflicts within an oppressive system, brothers and sisters will be touched and inspired with positive vibrations which will benefit all. Like he said: THE TIME IS NOW. 

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