Commentary

John Brisker's greatest game

The ABA hothead was as feared as he was cheered. Then he vanished

Updated: March 11, 2011, 10:36 AM ET
By Gare Joyce | ESPN The Magazine

A LARGE, VERY LARGE, BLACK MAN IN A red and gold dashiki stood in the open doorway of a small second-floor apartment in what locals consider an unfashionable neighborhood of Monrovia.

"You found me."

A sweaty man in frayed Dockers stood in the hallway, nose to armpit with the tenant. His face reddened like a thermometer.

He had knocked on a dozen doors but only one opened. A mother with kids hanging from her arms and on her legs had nothing to say. He had begun to wonder if he had the address right. He'd scrawled it in a notebook where he had been jotting down his expenses, and the notebook was on the passenger's seat of the car parked outside. His driver, who hadn't said a word to him all week, was sitting on the hood. He had scars, and the car had a tourniquet of electrical tape wrapped around the radiator hose. Both had made it through a couple of civil wars and neither inspired confidence in the possibility of a quick getaway, but snafu, it's Liberia.

Tim Morris for ESPN The Magazine

He figured there'd be no sense in bringing a camera. Try to shoot the large black man walking out the door and he'd either bolt or smash the thing and the guy holding it.

250000Z OCT 79
FM SECSTATE WASHDC
TO AMEMBASSY KAMPALA IMMEDIATE

DEPARTMENT CONTACTED BY ____________ CONCERNING HER BROTHER JOHN BRISKER. MRS. BRISKER RECEIVED A CALL TODAY FROM MR. LEE CARTER, A REPORTER WITH NBC NEWS IN SEATTLE. ACCORDING TO MR. CARTER, HE HAD HEARD A RUMOR FROM A FELLOW REPORTER THAT MR. BRISKER HAD BEEN KILLED IN UGANDA IN THE PAST THREE MONTHS ... DEP OFF SPOKE TO MR. CARTER WHO SAID HE HAD HEARD THE RUMOR FROM A REPORTER WHO WORKED FOR CBS. NO DETAILS CONCERNING HOW INFORMATION WAS OBTAINED.

250910Z OCT 79
FM AMEMBASSY KAMPALA
TO SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE

NO EVIDENCE HAS BEEN FOUND TO SUGGEST RUMOR REPORTED IN REFERENCE IS TRUE ... MR. BRISKER NEVER REGISTERED WITH EMBASSY NOR WITH GERMANS DURING YEARS LATTER HANDLED U.S. INTERESTS ... NO ONE HERE HAS HEARD THE RUMOR NOR IS ABLE TO CONFIRM MR. BRISKER'S PRESENCE IN UGANDA. HAVE LEARNED THAT LAST CBS CREW TO VISIT UGANDA DID SO OVER TWO MONTHS AGO SO. APPARENTLY RUMOR ITSELF QUITE DATED.

The white guy in the Dockers had gray temples. He was plenty old enough to remember the ABA. Since all the way back in middle school days, he loved the rebel league. But he had only read about it. There was no ABA team in Buffalo, ABA games weren't televised on any of the three networks and late-night sports never had highlights or even scores. So he subscribed to SI, Sport and The Sporting News, read and reread the ABA dispatches as if he were a dissident and a profile of Darnell Hillman was samizdat. The NBA was The Establishment, as dull as Hondo and Dave Cowens. The ABA was The Counterculture, Dr. J soaring, Artis Gilmore's 'fro dusting the rafters.

His guy was John Brisker. John Dahoney Brisker of the Pittsburgh Pipers and Pittsburgh Condors. Badder than Bad News Barnes ever was. The streets of Detroit got safer the day he accepted a ride to the U. of Toledo, and their practices got safer the day he was kicked off the varsity for pounding out the coach. There were fights on the court in the ABA as well, too many to count, and not one loss -- though Wendell Ladner gave him a run for his money more than once. Ladner, a big cracker if ever there was one, was lucky he didn't have to practice with the guy. Brisker brought a gat to workouts and kept it loaded in a gym bag he left courtside.

The boy in Buffalo couldn't persuade his father to drive him to Pittsburgh, so he never got to see the Condors play.

041411Z OCT 80
FM SECSTATE WASHDC
TO AMEMBASSY MONROVIA PRIORITY
TO AMEMBASSY KAMPALA PRIORITY

__________________ WISHES TO REOPEN AN INVESTIGATION OF HER EX-HUSBAND, JOHN BRISKER & DEPT WOULD APPRECIATE MONROVIA'S ASSISTANCE IN DETERMINING IF MR. BRISKER HAS ENTERED LIBERIA SINCE MARCH 1978. MRS. BRISKER LAST SAW HER HUSBAND IN JAN. 1978 AND BELIEVES HE LEFT THE U.S. IN MARCH OR APRIL WITH A LARGE SUM OF MONEY ... DURING NOV. 1976 MR. AND MRS. BRISKER VISITED LIBERIA AND STAYED WITH __________ AND OTHER FRIENDS IN LIBERIA ARE ______________, SON AND DAUGHTER-IN-LAW, FORMER BUDGET DIRECTOR _______________. ADDITIONAL CONTACTS ARE ___________ ... ON DEC 6 1976 THE AFRICAN DEVELOPMENT AND INVESTMENT COMPANY WAS INCORPORATED IN -MONROVIA AND REGISTERED ... "DAHOMEY" BRISKER WAS LISTED AS TREASURER. THE MAILING ADDRESS WAS P.O. BOX 687 MONROVIA. ACCORDING TO MRS. BRISKER, HER HUSBAND ALSO SPOKE OF BUYING A PROPERTY IN LAKE PISO, LIBERIA, IN 1976 WITH THE INTENTION OF MOVING THERE ...DEPARTMENT OFFICER HAS SPOKEN TO MRS. BRISKER WHO BELIEVES RUMORS OF HER HUSBAND'S DEATH IN UGANDA MIGHT HAVE BEEN INSTIGATED BY HER HUSBAND. SHE STATED HER HUSBAND WAS "IN A LOT OF TROUBLE" AND SUGGESTED THAT HE WISHED TO DISAPPEAR UNTIL THE "HEAT IS OFF."

031310Z NOV 80
FM AMEMBASSY KAMPALA
TO SECSTATE WASHDC
INFO AMEMBASSY MONROVIA

KAMPALA HAS NO NEW INFORMATION

Who was it that was looking for him? The first document from State said his sister, Mrs. Brisker. The second said his wife, Mrs. Brisker. Probably was his wife. Probably.


"WHY YOU HAVE to come lookin' for me?"

Nothing.

"Who told you where I am?"

Nothing.

The guy in the Dockers felt faint. How did he find out? Not from looking, and he'd looked hard. He had wanted to write about sports back in college, around the time of the merger. He had taken an interest in Brisker's case, thinking that cracking it like a hoops Watergate would be a careermaker. It didn't work out that way. He had chased down a few people who had lived in the thinly populated hemisphere that was Brisker's good side. The Condors' PR man, Fred Cranwell, for one, had told him Brisker did anything asked of him if it had to do with kids. He also said he had asked Brisker to pose with holstered six-guns after the story of his bringing a piece to practice made the rounds, and Brisker said no problem. Cranwell said it was an image Brisker liked. Cranwell saw the good in Brisker. Must have worn X-ray specs.

DETROIT GOT SAFER THE DAY JOHN BRISKER ACCEPTED A RIDE TO THE U. OF TOLEDO, AND THEIR PRACTICES GOT SAFER THE DAY HE WAS KICKED OFF VARSITY FOR POUNDING THE COACH.

George Thompson, Brisker's roomie with the Condors, told him that Brisker tried to intimidate everyone, but that he had called Brisker's ghetto bluff and Brisker respected that. He called the beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Called a clarinet player who played in the Toledo marching band. Even after he was kicked off the team, Brisker marched in the back row, the world's meanest-looking tuba player. Called and called.

Family all came with the same story. "John was into a black separatist thing. Black power. Black business for black people. Black communities with black leaders." Like they were reading from the same script.

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."

He had pulled files from the Department of State, FOI. He read them, pored over them. The redacted documents were still in boxes that hadn't been unpacked through how many moves.

180806Z NOV 80
FM AMEMBASSY MONROVIA
TO SECSTATE WASHDC
INFO AMEMBASSY KAMPALA

INTERVIEW WITH _____________ ... SAID HE SAW MR. BRISKER ... WHEN HE WAS IN MONROVIA ... MR. BRISKER WAS WITH A LIBERIAN WOMAN BY THE NAME OF ______________ ASKED ABOUT BRISKER'S WIFE, ______________ AND BRISKER INDICATED ONLY THAT THE MARRIAGE WAS FINISHED, AND HE HAD MET ______________ IN NEW YORK AND WAS VERY MUCH IN LOVE WITH HER ... BRISKER SAID HE HAD HAD DIFFICULTIES WITH THE SUPERSONICS OVER HIS CONTRACT WITH THEM BUT HAD GOT A SETTLEMENT FROM THEM AND NOW WAS EXPLORING INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITIES ... _____________ IS EMPLOYED AT THE BANK OF LIBERIA. SHE STATES THAT HER DAUGHTER LEFT WITH BRISKER AND __________________ ON MARCH 3, 1977, LEAVING HER DAUGHTER'S CHILD IN HER CARE. SHE NEVER HEARD FROM THEM AGAIN ... ______________ SPECULATED THAT BRISKER WANTED TO DISAPPEAR ... THAT BRISKER'S MOTIVE WOULD HAVE BEEN TO ESCAPE FINANCIAL LOSSES DIVORCE PROCEEDINGS WITH _______________ WOULD IMPOSE ... HE HAD A LUMP-SUM SETTLEMENT FROM THE SUPERSONICS, IT WOULD HAVE BEEN EASY TO ASSUME A NEW IDENTITY AND ESTABLISH HIMSELF IN AFRICA OR EVEN CONCEIVABLY RETURN TO THE STATES.

"They said they stopped looking. I read the papers. I heard about a woman who thought she was my child. Somebody shoulda told her there was no gold to dig."

The guy in the Dockers had seen something on the genealogy website a few months back. A woman posted that her mother was John Brisker's high school girlfriend and that she was his daughter. The guy in the Dockers sent her an e-mail, but it bounced back. And again.

143250 JUNE 81
FM SECSTATE WASHDC
TO AMEMBASSY MONROVIA
AMEMBASSY ACCRA

_________ HAS AGAIN CONTACTED DEPT CONCERNING THE DISAPPEARANCE OF HER EX-HUSBAND JOHN BRISKER DPOB 6/15/47 MICHIGAN, WHO ACCORDING TO _____________ WAS LAST SEEN IN MONROVIA IN MAY 1978. ______________ HAS NOW RECEIVED A REPORT FROM A PERSON IN SEATTLE THAT HER HUSBAND MAY HAVE SETTLED IN GHANA WHERE HE REPORTEDLY HAS A BUSINESS.

FOR MONROVIA: ________ BELIEVES HER FRIENDS ________________________ MAY BE AWARE OF MR. BRISKER'S WHEREABOUTS. SHE REQUESTS THE EMBASSY CONTACT THEM AS WELL AS ___________________ AT THE BANK OF LIBERIA TO INQUIRE WHETHER THEY'VE HEARD FROM JOHN BRISKER.

FOR ACCRA: JOHN BRISKER, A FORMER PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL PLAYER IS DESCRIBED AS 6-FOOT-4 OR 5 WEIGHING 215 to 230 POUNDS WITH DARK BROWN SKIN. HE HAS A SMALL SCAR ON ONE OF HIS EYEBROWS, HAS PROBABLY NO BEARD OR MUSTACHE, AS HE HAS TROUBLE GROWING FACIAL HAIR. HE MAY BE WEARING A GOLD CHAIN WITH A PENDANT IN THE SHAPE OF AFRICA ON WHICH A SMALL RUBY MARKS THE LOCATION OF LIBERIA.

He had drawn the short straw and was assigned to work with a kid genetically coded to climb in the network. When things got hairy in Liberia, he and the boy wonder were dispatched to Monrovia. Word association: Charles Taylor? "Crackpot leader of a failed country." When "war criminal" was added to the résumé, the guy in the Dockers got his shots and packed his bags.

He met the producer, the "talent" and the soundman in the lounge at JFK, Terminal 4. He looked out a two-story-high window and watched landings. Gentle touchdowns.

He wasn't much for flying. It always seemed as if there were some sort of crash days before one of his flights. Celebrity deaths in crashes stuck in his mind. Back in '75, Eastern Airlines Flight 66 took off from NOLA bound for JFK but didn't make it. The Boeing 727 was coming down in a thunderstorm, met a wind shear, tipped and hit the approach-light towers. There was a fireball, and debris was scattered along Rockaway Boulevard. Ten survived, 113 didn't.

He didn't remember where he was that day, but he did remember one of the 113 was one of four ABA-era Nets to have his number retired. Wendell Ladner, 6-5, 220, was instantly incinerated. All that was left was his ABA championship ring.

Nothing in Department of State files indicated that John Brisker's Africa pendant was ever recovered. Official reports lowered expectations each year. State reached a final dead end in 1983, and a judge in King County, Wash., declared John Brisker legally dead, allowing the widow Brisker and other survivors to collect on a pittance in pension money. When the guy in the Dockers put in a request for copies of the documents filed in the case, clerks told him there was no sign of a Brisker file.

A week into the Monrovia assignment, as the rising TV star was surely doing face exercises in his room, the guy in the Dockers went someplace for something cold and wet. He was alone and so, per usual, struck up a conversation. The barman who never gave his name said an American lived around the corner, a great big man, an athlete or used to be at least, and still looked like it in his 50s. Seemed dangerous, too, without exactly saying so. Another guy piped up, said the American was in fact not an American anymore but a proud African. The man never came into this place, and he was nobody's friend. The bartender provided the address of a low-rise apartment building.

240119Z MAR 82
FM SECSTATE WASHDC
TO AMEMBASSY KAMPALA IMMEDIATE
AMEMBASSY MONROVIA IMMEDIATE

DEPARTMENT HAS RECEIVED AN INQUIRY THROUGH CONGRESSMAN PRITCHARD'S OFFICE REGARDING W/W OF BENJAMIN LEWIS TAYLOR. SUBJECT LAST CONTACTED HIS FAMILY IN MARCH 1978 FROM UGANDA. HE WAS SUPPOSED TO BE ACCOMPANYING JOHN BRISKER ________ HAS OBTAINED ADDRESSES THAT MAY BE USEFUL TO POSTS _________________ SUBJECT WAS ALSO SUPPOSED TO BE ACCOMPANIED BY MASSA TAYLOR, WHO IS SUPPOSED TO BE A NATIVE OF MONROVIA.

261120Z MAR 82 FM AMEMBASSY KAMPALA TO SECSTATE WASHDC INFO AMEMBASSY MONROVIA

THE CASE WAS ________________, WHO WAS VERY FORTHCOMING. __________ RELATED THE FOLLOWING. LEWIS ARRIVED IN UGANDA APRIL 1977 AS BUSINESSMAN. LEWIS APPROACHED AMIN WITH A DEAL TO BRING A BLACK AMERICAN BUSINESS GROUP FROM THE UNITED STATES TO UGANDA. JOHN BRISKER RESPONDED TO THE CALL AND JOINED LEWIS. SUBSEQUENTLY THE TWO AMERICAN MEN WERE ACCUSED OF CRIMINAL ACTIVITIES AND ABDUCTED FROM THEIR ROOMS AT THE KAMPALA INTERNATIONAL HOTEL BY UNIDENTIFIED PERSONS. ALLEGEDLY THEY WERE SENT TO THE STATE RESEARCH BUREAU NEVER TO BE SEEN AGAIN. SINCE POST HAS GONE AS FAR AS POSSIBLE WITH THE GOVERNMENT OF UGANDA PURSUING THIS AND THE BRISKER CASE AND SINCE OTHER EFFORTS HAVE YIELDED ONLY UNCONFIRMED REPORTS, DEPARTMENT MAY WISH TO PASS ALONG TO ___________ OUR SUGGESTION THAT A LAWYER OR OTHER INVESTIGATOR IN UGANDA BE ASSIGNED. UNFORTUNATELY POST HAS NO WAY TO DETERMINE WHETHER THE STORY IS TRUE, AS THE LEGACY OF THE AMIN ERA WAS THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE.

"I'm dead." The eyes of the very big man in the dashiki widened. The same thought was occurring to the guy in the Dockers.

Brisker wasn't dead when he signed with the SuperSonics back in '72. A couple of 29-point-a-game seasons in Pittsburgh were worth a healthy six figures in the NBA once he found a GM who bought his act. A kid in Buffalo very much wanted Brisker to bust up the NBA, proving again that the other league was as good as the one with The Establishment's seal of approval. He finally got to see Brisker play when the Sonics came to the Aud on Dec. 1, 1972. But it wasn't Brisker who tore it up. It was Spencer Haywood. Brisker was at best the fourth option, played 25 minutes. The Braves got the win. Brisker didn't look up when he walked off the court, not even at the kids who held out programs for him to autograph. It was the same the next winter, his last trip to Buffalo.

Twelve ppg? That didn't seem like John Brisker. Was it drugs? Maybe. Or maybe it was just a player waking up old one day. Or maybe he was never that good. His Pittsburgh teammate George Thompson had said everyone in the ABA had been terrified of him. He racked up 56 points one time without a trip to the line; whenever he touched the ball the lane parted like the Red Sea.

But the NBA guys didn't scare so easily, and they knew he wasn't going to risk a suspension, with its fine and loss of pay. By the time Brisker collected the third paycheck of his third season he was out of Seattle's rotation.

Brisker knew his contract would be the last he'd sign. So he began to dabble in business. He threw money into a couple of things -- some aboveboard, others with risk attached. The worst risks closed in during that last winter in Seattle. Scary isn't Wendell Ladner. Scary isn't a gat in a gym bag. Scary is a badge asking questions. Scarier is a guy who will sell you out. Or take you out.

Some go fishing. John Brisker went to Uganda. Or wherever.


"I can kill you, and I will."

The room started to spin, and the white guy couldn't mumble a word. He had no faith his driver would even bother to call the authorities to report him missing. What authorities were there in Monrovia, anyway?

There was no Africa pendant. No scar, not one he'd remember anyway. No tuba in plain sight. No metaphysical certainty in Liberia in 2003. No confirming sources. It could have been Benjamin Lewis Taylor. It could have been Massa Taylor. Who the hell were they?

It would have just been his word, like that of the CBS reporter who'd tipped Mr. Lee Carter. "Get out of here. You tell anyone, I'll hunt you down, kill you and burn what's left." Nothing but a tremble.

"And you come back here tomorrow, you won't find me."

Not a single move. Not even a blink. From either.

The very big man in the dashiki had a reasonable and justified confidence the guy in the Dockers could never get so lost that he'd find him again.

The driver didn't say a word. The notebook wasn't where he had left it.


THE GUY WORE thermal underwear under his Dockers. His cheeks, fuller now, were bright pink from the Arctic cold. He was in Alaska, once again drawing the short straw. This time, the rising star he was shepherding hoped his work on the campaign trail would land him a top slot in the Washington bureau.

The day was at an end, and he would soon trudge through the snow to the first open bar in Barrow. Before that, though, he opened his laptop. Seven years after what he hoped would be his only assignment in Liberia, he continued to track the seemingly endless trial of Charles Taylor. He scanned the photos of Taylor that ran with the stories filed from the special court in The Hague for someone, maybe on the edge of the frame, who was a head taller than everyone else.

He looked, but not for John Brisker.

John Brisker was dead.

Gare Joyce has been a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com since 2003. He lives in Toronto. After seeing Brisker's name on a Wikipedia list of missing persons two years ago, Joyce filed a Freedom of Information request with the Department of State for files relating to the investigation of Brisker's disappearance. Excerpts from those declassified and redacted communications are included in this story, along with information from interviews of those who knew Brisker. This is Joyce's first piece of published fiction.

Gare Joyce is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.