Recently, I was contacted by producer John O’Connor from NBA-TV’s “Beyond the Paint” basketball docuseries. The inquiry stemmed from a two-part article I had written awhile back about John Brisker. Known as the “Heavyweight Champion of the ABA,” Brisker stood out in a league full of standouts. Brisker, a 6’5” 210 lb. power forward from Detroit, averaged 26.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. He was runner-up for ABA Rookie of the Year his first season and a two-time ABA All-Star for the next two seasons. He played three seasons for for the Pittsburgh Pipers/Condors before jumping to the NBA Seattle Supersonics in 1972. But it was those three seasons spent in the ABA that Brisker is most remembered for today.
Well, that and the fact that John Brisker would fight at the drop of a hat, and sometimes you didn’t even have to drop the hat. It is believed that Brisker was ejected for fighting more times than any other player in the league. Even in a league defined by a multi-colored ball, three-point shots and on-court fist fights without suspensions or fines, Brisker’s transgressions stood out. His own teammates were afraid to guard him in practice and it was a well-known fact that Brisker carried a loaded gun in his gym bag and was not afraid to let everyone know it. Brisker once scored 56 points in a game without shooting a single free throw! NO-ONE wanted to guard John Brisker.
His time spent in the ABA was enough to make him a league legend but what interests many basketball fans today is what happened to him after his playing career was over. The Supersonics released Brisker prior to the 1975-76 season. No other teams showed interest in signing him, leading many to believe Brisker had been blackballed by professional basketball. A couple years later in 1978, John Brisker boarded a flight to Africa and was never seen again. Rumors swirled that he flew to Idi Amin’s Uganda to fight, and die, as a mercenary soldier. Or that he died in the Jonestown massacre orchestrated by cult leader (and Hoosier) Jim Jones. Or that he is alive and well living a quiet, normal life somewhere incognito. John Brisker’s “Dead or Alive?” legend quickly joined other 70s icons like Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison and D.B. Cooper.
The NBA-TV producers contacted me, I suppose, for perspective on Brisker’s career as seen from the eyes of a typical child fan. I have recalled in past columns how my parents would indulge my fanboy obsession with the ABA Pacers by dropping me off at the player’s entrance (located on the east side of the Coliseum under the breezeway) while they went the short distance to the old Tee-Pee restaurant for coffee and pie. There I would place my 10-year-old self in a position to meet and ask politely for autographs as players arrived. I was a familiar face at home games and often would be asked (or sneaked) into the Coliseum to watch the action.
When Matt Gaynes, NBA-TV director of photography, asked for a suitable location to do the interview segments, I could think of no better place than the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum. Thanks to Coliseum General Manager Bruce Sigmon and State Fair Director of Marketing Anna Whelchel, we were allowed to film in the hallowed halls where the ABA Pacers were undisputed kings of the court. Though the Coliseum has been beautifully restored and many of the ABA features have vanished, Bruce dutifully toured me around the facility pointing out the shadows of ABA ghosts from the past — the footprints of the old ticket booths, the iconic banks of windows at either end of the building and the shadows of the old apartments in the upper environs. Who knew there were apartments in the Coliseum?
Our Indiana Pacers were unquestionably the cream of the ABA crop, with five championship finals appearances and three league titles in the nine seasons of the ABA from 1967 to 1976. They made the playoffs all nine years. For their first seven years, they played in the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum. In 1974, they moved to the new Market Square Arena. John Brisker never played for the Pacers, but he first shot to prominence here as a rookie during a game where he replaced injured veteran Tom “Trooper” Washington in the line-up, scoring 42 points, while grabbing 12 rebounds. So what better place to reminisce about the ABA than the Coliseum?
I can never walk into that building without thinking about the time I spent in the upper concourses as a kid. You could smoke back in those days and I can still remember when the court was viewed from the upper level, by the second half, a cloud of smoke seemed to hang about 15 feet above the hardwood. When gifted outside shooters like Roger Brown, Billy Keller, Rick Mount, Freddie Lewis or even John Brisker himself launched their arcing shots towards the hoop, that ole’ red, white and blue basketball would disappear into the clouds for a second or two only to emerge and descend into the hoop. It was a heavenly sight to be sure.
As for my recollections, despite his fearsome reputation, John Brisker was always gracious and kind to me. I was fortunate enough to interact with Mr. Brisker several times and he always stopped and talked with me and any of the other gym rats that were hanging around. He signed every autograph and shook every hand. I feel certain that had we had smart phones back then, Brisker would have taken selfie after selfie with all of us. I was a 10-year-old-kid with buck teeth and a Hollywood Burr haircut, but John Brisker treated me like a king.
When the NBA-TV producers informed me that they wanted to travel all the way from Atlanta, Georgia to interview me, I suggested that we bring an ABA Pacer’s legend into the mix. Bob Netolicky, a friend for 20 years or more, graciously agreed to join us. My memories of Brisker are from the perspective of a little kid, Bob’s are as a peer. As usual, Neto stole the show and was far more colorful and interesting than me. When Bob was asked if the ABA was a rough league where fights erupted, Neto replied absolutely. However, he was quick to note that he and his fellow Pacers never had a problem with Brisker or his rough style of play.
Bob recalled, “It was a rough league. In 1968-69, we played 95 games, we had 95 fights and Mel (Daniels) started all of them. That’s just the way we played.” Neto remarked, “There was really only one person everyone in the League was scared of and that was Wilt (Chamberlain).” Bob also noted that Tom Hoover (6’9”, 230 lbs) was also someone you didn’t want to mess with. “Hoover was a former sparring partner with Muhammad Ali. He and Mel had some legendary match-ups.” said Neto.
Netolicky remembered one game in particular with fights on the court, fights in the stands, police being called and arrests being made. “You know, not one technical foul was called and no-one was ejected. Back then it a fight was a $25 fine, so who cared?” Although Neto is among only a handful of players to have played all nine seasons of the ABA and he only averaged 0.3 steals per game over his career, today, he steals every scene.
The John Brisker documentary is set to air on April 14th at 10:00 pm on NBA-TV as one of their popular “Beyond the Paint” segments. However it will continue to air several times throughout the month and may get some play on CNN as well. Check the Web at www.nba.com/video/beyond-the-paint for details. NBA-TV prodcuer John O’Connor tells me that along with Neto, the show will feature Hall of Famers Julius Erving, Spencer Haywood, and Rick Barry alongside NBA star Rudy Tomjanovich, Condors teammate Walt Szczerbiak, former Pacer Art Becker, ABA All-Star Mack Calvin and me. Yes, me, the thorn among roses.
Al Hunter is the author of the “Haunted Indianapolis” and co-author of the “Haunted Irvington” and “Indiana National Road” book series. His newest books are “Bumps in the Night. Stories from the Weekly View.” and “Irvington Haunts. The Tour Guide.” Contact Al directly at Huntvault@aol.com or become a friend on Facebook.