Where is John Brisker?
According to the King County, Washington Medical Examiner’s Office, he is deceased. They declared Brisker dead in 1985.
But is he dead? That’s the aura of Brisker. No one can say definitively. With Brisker, there is always uncertainty.
Were he alive, Brisker would have celebrated his 73rd birthday a little over a month ago. What is known for certain is that Brisker was last heard from on April 11, 1978 in Uganda.
What was he doing there? Again, there is uncertainty.
Some say he was there as a guest of Ugandan leader Idi Amin, perhaps even serving as a member of Amin’s security detail. Other tales suggest that it was work as a mercenary which brought Brisker to Kampala.
What really happened? As with any unsolved mystery, it’s always best to start at the beginning.
A Volatile Entrance
Brisker was raised in the Detroit projects, where life was cheap and you either grew tough or you didn’t get the chance to grow old.
“In Detroit, if you’re tough enough,” Brisker once told a reporter, “they name playgrounds for you.” As a kid, Brisker played basketball at a playground located between Hamtramck High School and Highland Park. Years later, that playground was named in Brisker’s honor.
Brisker dabbled in boxing but found his calling on the hardwood, even though his path always seemed to be taken over a bumpy road.
“I never heard too much about his background,” future NBA teammate Slick Watts told the Seattle Times of Brisker. “His mom and dad, his brothers and sisters. He never went into that.”
In University with the Toledo Rockets, where he also played the tuba in the marching band, Brisker flunked out of school as a senior.
Brisker averaged 14.1 points per game with the Rockets. At 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, he was a smooth package of sturdy muscle, blazing speed and pure, natural talent.
In 1969, he was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA Draft and the Pittsburgh Pipers in the ABA Draft.
For perhaps the first time in his life, Brisker was a man with good options. Either team was going to be a good bet for him. The Sixers were NBA champs in 1966-67. The Pipers were reigning ABA champions.
Heavyweight Champion Of The ABA
Brisker chose the ABA and it seemed a good decision. He was an All-ABA selection in two of his first three seasons. He scored 53 points in a game. But there was always that undertone with Brisker, the persistent uncertainty, the days when his rage took over and controlled him.
The moments when, as one of his teammates explained, “John’s in his Dracula bag.”
Brisker had three three talents – shooting, rebounding and fighting. No one ever knew in which order they’d appear from day to day. Former teammate Spencer Haywood described Brisker as “LeBron James with anger issues.”
Tales of Brisker spread like wildfire. There was the story that he once ran onto the court during practice, waving a gun. Utah held a “John Brisker Intimidation Night,” sitting professional boxers on the bench. Tom Nissalke, a former ABA and Sonics coach, put a $500 bounty on Brisker before a game.
“He just scared me,” former player Billy Knight told author Terry Pluto.
“Say something wrong to the guy – or at least he thought was wrong – and you had this feeling that John would reach into his bag, take out a gun and shoot you,” ex-player Charlie Williams said.
After attending a game at the 1971 World Series in Pittsburgh, Brisker got into a fist fight with another man over a cab. Police intervened and Brisker fought them as well, sending two officers to hospital. He was arrested.
A SuperSonic Launch
Brisker moved to the NBA in 1972, joining the Seattle SuperSonics. Although he had his moments, including a 47-point game, Brisker was never as effective a performer in the NBA.
In training camp in 1973, Brisker fought teammate Joby Wright, shattering Wright’s jaw and knocking out four of his teeth. Seattle coach Bill Russell, the Boston Celtics legend, grew weary of Brisker’s antics and demoted him to the Eastern League.
Even Brisker seemed to realize that he might be out of chances.
“I gotta grow up, I know that now,” Brisker told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Attitude is very important to me. I’m gonna turn my whole life around. I been carryin’ a big chip, felt it was me ’gainst the world. I got a bad rep, but I’m gonna live it down.”
Brisker never made it back to the NBA.
Shortly after leaving basketball, Brisker began making trips to Africa. He told his girlfriend that he was getting into the import-export business. Was that code to cover for something more sinister?
Haywood recalled Brisker visiting him in New York in the mid-1970s and thinks he showed him a photo taken with Amin, but isn’t 100% certain on that.
Everyone has their theories on what happened to him.
“He went to Uganda and it was as a mercenary and he was fighting over there,” former teammate Tom Burleson said.
“People put the rumors out that he was caught up in that coup in Uganda,” Haywood said.
Even the medical examiner’s office isn’t certain he’s deceased.
“Essentially, we don’t consider him dead,” spokesperson James Callahan said. They only declared Brisker dead to settle his estate.
About the only certainty is that no one has seen Brisker in over 40 years.