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The mysterious life and death of former NBA player John Brisker

Seattle Times file photo From left, Jim Fox, Butch Beard, John Brisker and Seattle coach Tom Nissalke talk before the 1972-73 season.

"Sometimes, people say fate has a lot to do with what happens to somebody. I don't buy that."

—John Brisker to the Courier-Journal in 1972

John Brisker gritted his teeth and glared menacingly at his coach, Bill Russell. After one of the most dramatic wins in the Seattle SuperSonics' young history, the tension in the locker room was so charged, Slick Watts remembers, the walls could have cracked.

"I thought he was gonna kill him," Watts says. "That (expletive), you could see water in his eyes. Intimidation. That (expletive) was ready to attack."

It was not unusual for Brisker, a talented but volatile forward, to clash with Russell, the single-minded coach. By 1975, Brisker was firmly in Russell's doghouse and played sparingly. In fact, the previous day, Brisker had grumbled to reporters, "They've done everything possible to demean me." But the scene in the locker room was visceral.

On Jan. 31, 1975, Brisker scored 28 points, by far the most on the team, to rally the Sonics from a huge fourth-quarter hole against the Portland Trail Blazers. After the game, years of tension nearly exploded. Brisker sat inside the locker room at the old Coliseum and glared at Russell with the look teammates and opponents learned to fear.

"All of us were scared," Watts says, shaking his famously shiny head. "He wasn't coming at us. He wanted Coach."

Brisker played eight more games that season. On Feb. 14, 1975, he scored seven points in 14 minutes during a lethargic loss in Portland. It was the last game he ever played.

By 1978, he had been out of the NBA for three years and faced new responsibilities. Brisker and his girlfriend had a daughter in February of that year, and he sought stability after a string of failed ventures. In March, according to King County court documents, he traveled to Africa and intended to launch an "import-export business." On April 11, he called his girlfriend in Seattle. That was the last anyone heard from John Brisker.

In the years since his disappearance, the lack of clarity has created a void for sensational, dramatic and downright crazy stories, all of which only generate more uncertainty.

"I always wondered what happened," former teammate Spencer Haywood says, "and then people put the rumors out that he was caught up in that coup in Uganda."

"He went to Uganda and it was as a mercenary and he was fighting over there," former teammate Tom Burleson says. "His wife went with him, and he was captured by Idi Amin's men. And Idi Amin had him prepared and they served him and his wife banquet style."

"They said he was sitting at a table with one of those kings over there, and they had an argument, and Brisker wouldn't relate to the argument or agree with it," Watts says. "In that country, you don't dishonor the king. And Brisker had one of those grrrrr moments, and they said the guy had his gun covered up like a turkey was in it. He moved it and pew. Shot him. That's the legend anyway."

In truth no one knows what happened. The King County Medical Examiner officially declared Brisker dead in May 1985 for the purpose of settling his estate, but the State Department could not confirm that Brisker had even gone to Africa. James Callahan, a spokesman for the State Department in the '80s, was quoted at the time as saying, "Essentially, we don't consider him dead." A spokesperson for the FBI's Seattle office wrote in a recent email, "We cannot conclusively say if the FBI was involved or not."

Brisker exists today as a memory, a lost talent who could've been a star, and as Seattle's most puzzling sports mystery.

"Often, in the quiet moments of my life, when I think about my teammates, I think about him," Watts says. "I wonder, 'Is John really dead?' "

Brisker had anger problem

Watts met Brisker in 1973 as the Sonics prepared to leave for training camp in Port Angeles. Watts, an undrafted rookie from Mississippi who played at a small college in Louisiana, remembers Brisker pulling up in a long, black Mercedes. To Watts, Brisker was a "big dog," a title he also bestowed on Spencer Haywood and Jim McDaniels. Watts called the three "Million Dollar People" because of their contracts.

Watts knew Brisker by reputation even before they met. Brisker was a two-time ABA All-Star and a nightly threat to score 50 points. He could shoot, rebound and fight, and not always in that order.

In Terry Pluto's book, "Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association," Pluto wrote, "In a league filled with tough guys and fighters, two stood out." One was John Brisker.

"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," Charlie Williams told Pluto.

Stories about Brisker were legendary. One goes that he ran onto the court during practice, waving a gun. Utah hosted a "John Brisker Intimidation Night" and had professional boxers on the bench. Tom Nissalke, a former ABA and Sonics coach, put a $500 bounty on Brisker before a game, then watched Brisker get flattened (When Nissalke later coached Brisker with the Sonics, Brisker smiled and said, "That was a pretty good move, Coach").

Brisker was arrested in 1971 after a fight outside of Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. He had attended a World Series game, left early and fought with several police officers over a cab. Two officers went to the hospital.

Even to teammates, Brisker was deeply complicated. Rod Derline remembers Brisker giving him advice on the bench during Derline's rookie season, and more than once Brisker rushed to Burleson's side during a skirmish. "Brisk saved me a lot of headaches and bloody noses," Burleson says. "Every time I'd get in trouble, he'd come to my rescue. I could tell when he was coming because people would start backpedaling and you could see their eyes getting big as half dollars."

Burleson loved him. Watts loved him. Haywood loved him. Talvin Skinner loved him. But Brisker could flip without warning. He'd grind his teeth and glare, and his anger would consume him.

"That is the driving force," Haywood says. "That is the problem with it all. Right there."

Teams weren't structured to handle complicated issues off the court. At the time, the Sonics had two coaches and no support staff. "John was the kind of guy who if you talk about that kind of thing, 'Let's have a roundtable talking it out,' shoot, we might have to fight John ourselves," Haywood says.

"I had a taste of fear with him," Watts says, "but I respected him because he always took time with me."

Others were less forgiving. "I think John had a lot of mean bones," Nissalke, his former coach, said years ago. Another former coach, Jack McMahon, once said depending on Brisker's mood, one of his players would warn him, "John's in his Dracula bag."

By 1972, Brisker wanted a big new contract. The Sonics pursued him despite warnings from the NBA commissioner not to do so. Philadelphia had drafted Brisker in 1969 and still owned his NBA negotiating rights. Sonics owner Sam Schulman signed Brisker to a six-year, $1 million contract anyway. (The NBA later fined the Sonics.)

Brisker scored 30 points four times in his first season, but when Watts met Brisker, before the 1973-74 season, the organization was in flux. Bill Russell, the Hall of Fame player, was hired that year as coach and team president.

Within days of meeting Brisker, Watts saw Brisker's reputation brought to life. "That's another story," Watts says. "We always remember Brisker for the broken jaw."

In September 1973, just four days into training camp, Brisker and 6-foot-8 forward Joby Wright were pushing and shoving near the basket. There are various versions of what happened next — some teammates remember Wright throwing the first punch, others say it was Brisker — but all agree on the end result. Brisker broke Wright's jaw and knocked out four teeth.

"Hit the ground like a bag of potatoes," Watts remembers. "Brisker walked off. Ain't nobody say (expletive). The gym was like a funeral. Ambulance came. Russell told everyone to go home."

"His teeth fell out on the floor," Haywood says. "I was like, 'Oh, (expletive)!' Russell said, 'All right, we have to tone John down.' "

Ran afoul of Russell

Brisker grew up in the city of Hamtramck just outside of Detroit with his mom, brother and two sisters. "In Detroit," Brisker once said, "if you're tough enough, they name playgrounds after you."

He told reporters his mother had a stroke when he was young, leaving half her body paralyzed. "The government wanted to take us kids away from her," he said. "But she went to work and raised us."

Brisker hung with future NBA players Rudy Tomjanovich and Haywood. They used to drive by a Buick dealership and boast about buying a Buick Electra "deuce and a quarter" when they turned pro.

"We had to fight our way throughout Detroit," Haywood says.

There was no denying Brisker's talent. He scored 47 points in a game with the Sonics, and many of his teammates think he could have been a star. "LeBron James with more skills," Watts says. "Before his time. They weren't ready for that type of personality."

Watts' comparison to James may seem nostalgic, except Haywood made the same one. "John was a LeBron James with the anger," Haywood says.

The problem was that Russell didn't see Brisker that way. Russell won 11 NBA titles in Boston, and by the time he arrived in Seattle, he knew what he wanted from his players. Brisker could score, but Russell didn't think he played team basketball, so he spent a lot of time on the bench, or worse.

"Two big dogs in the same pen," Watts says.

As coach and president, Russell won every time. At one point Russell sent Brisker to the Eastern League, a public demotion. "I relaxed," Brisker admitted at the time. "I became a fat cat, not as hungry as I was years ago."

He scored 51 points in his first game after the demotion. Next time out, he had 58. Russell was not impressed, but Brisker's Eastern League coach was.

"He played like it was the last game of his life," he said.

In training camp before the 1974-75 season, Brisker barely made the roster, despite his pricey contract. Less than two months into the season, he was stuck on the bench. He didn't play for a month, played once, then didn't play for another month.

Brisker was furious. He thought Russell was damaging his reputation. According to reports, the Sonics tried to trade Brisker but couldn't find any takers. Brisker told reporters the Sonics also tried to buy out his remaining contract for "50 cents on the dollar."

"It hurts me," he said the day before he scored 28 points in the comeback against the Blazers. "Oh, how it hurts me."

His staredown with Russell in the locker room after that Portland game marked the end of Brisker's time in Seattle. "That game was the last drop," Watts says. "That was the last game he was going to be a star."

Brisker grew more cynical and distant. After that season, Brisker's club he owned, the New Heritage House on Empire Way, closed. Brisker owed more than $40,000 in rent, back taxes and insurance. Brisker loved music. He entertained teammates and out-of-town players and hosted well-known acts, including The Whispers.

In October 1975, at the start of another season, Brisker wandered into the Coliseum. He shook hands with Russell and assistant coach Bob Hopkins. He still had three years remaining on his contract, but he did not practice. When asked if Brisker would be offered a uniform, Russell flatly replied, "No."

Then Brisker went to Africa.

Death remains a mystery

Sometime in 1976 or maybe 1977, Haywood isn't sure, Brisker visited his friend and teammate in New York. Haywood had a brownstone, and he and Brisker told old stories about Hamtramck.

According to Haywood, Brisker had recently returned from Africa. Brisker always was interested in Africa and "going back to his roots," Haywood says. Teammates remember him borrowing books about Africa and wearing Dashikis. "We wondered if he had anything on underneath there," Watts says.

Haywood's weeklong reunion with Brisker should have been fun and pleasant, but it was neither. Brisker still held a deep grudge against Russell, and he planned on returning to Africa. Haywood says he attempted to take Brisker's passport.

"You don't need to go back over there," Haywood remembers saying. "You don't sound too healthy. And there's some anger you need to deal with. It's not Russell. It's you."

Haywood says he thought Brisker was getting involved in some "dark, shady places." He thinks Brisker showed him a picture of him with Ugandi dictator Idi Amin, although he isn't sure. Either way, Brisker didn't like Haywood's intrusion and left.

"I never did see him anymore," Haywood says.

Quickly, the rumors about Brisker's disappearance became contaminated with uncertainty and contradiction. The Associated Press wrote a story in 1980 that Brisker was missing and had been shot in Africa. But even in that story, Brisker's brother, Ralph, told the AP that Brisker had visited Africa in 1975. He said Brisker had purchased land in Nigeria, not Uganda.

Ralph said he had not seen his brother since 1976. His mom said she hadn't seen her son in three years. His wife, Michele, filed for divorce in 1977. She said Brisker abused her, leaving her deaf in her left ear. "He bounced me around the wall and threw me on the bed," she said in court documents, according to a 1985 article in the Pittsburgh Press. "He smothered me until I couldn't breathe."

Brisker left behind two young daughters, his house in Redmond and $29,000 in his bank account, plus years of court battles over his estate. All that's certain is that no one has heard from John Brisker in nearly 40 years.

Whenever Slick Watts watches "Shawshank Redemption," he thinks of Brisker. "I always think of him somewhere, kicking back and saying, 'I ain't dead,' " Watts says.

Haywood still has the conga drums Brisker left with him in New York. For years, he took those drums whenever he moved and thought of Brisker whenever he played them. "He was complicated more than most," Haywood says. "But, boy, did I love some John Brisker."

Then some time ago Haywood had to put Brisker's drums in storage, and they've remained there ever since, out of sight but not forgotten.

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