Presumed Dead

by Malcolm Macdonald, May 10, 2017

We are deep into the National Basketball Association (NBA) 2017 playoffs. Every once in awhile when I watch Klay Thompson or Steph Curry swish another three-pointer I'm reminded of the ABA. Yes, millenials, there once dribbled and dunked another professional basketball league known as the American Basketball Association. Without it, who knows if the NBA would ever have evolved to the game it is today. Much of the modern, faster paced style of play stems from the influence of Julius Erving (Dr. J), a star at the Unversity of Massachusetts from 1968 through '71, whom the sedate, established NBA saw fit to take a pass on. The ABA not only drafted Erving, but  introduced the three point shot eleven years before the NBA capitulated to its popularity.

The ABA being the upstart league, it saw its share of characters run up and down the hardwood. Perhaps none was more intriguing than John Brisker. He was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1947 and raised there, playing much of his childhood ball on outdoor courts situated between Hamtrack High School and Highland Park. Years later the playground would be named for Brisker. That's how good he was at Hamtrack High, the University of Toledo (where he also played the tuba in the marching band) and the Pittsburgh Condors of the ABA. At six feet five inches, Brisker's outside shot made him an ideal threat at the small forward position, but he drove to the hoop for layups with such ferocity that he often played more like a power forward.

Runner-up for ABA Rookie of the Year honors in the 1969-70 season, Brisker averaged more than 26 points per game in his three year ABA career. One sportswriter dubbed Brisker “Heavyweight Champion of the ABA” after he punched out multiple opposing players. At least two of his victims required facial reconstructive surgery after on court fisticuff sessions. A ring promoter supposedly offered him a contract to switch sports and become a boxer.

Instead, Brisker switched leagues. When the ABA's Pittsburgh franchise folded Brisker signed with the NBA's Seattle Supersonics. He clashed with head coach and NBA legend Bill Russell, but put in four respectable seasons in the NBA, averaging double figures in points per game. Nevertheless, the Sonics cut Brisker from their roster before the start of the 1975-76 season.

Opinions on Brisker's personality vary widely.

Marty Blake, general manager with the Pittsburgh team called Brisker, “a helluva competitor,” and “the best player I ever had.” Blake added, “I never had a problem with him.”

A Pittsburgh teammate, Charlie Williams said, “He was an excellent player, but say something wrong to the guy and you had this feeling he would reach into his bag, take out a gun, and shoot you.” The Pittsburgh Condors front office used that image to sell tickets. Brisker was featured in promotional photos and posters wearing a holster with twin six-guns.

After the Sonics released him Brisker's whereabouts grew murky. The most reliable story puts him on a flight to the African continent in 1978. One long distance phone call was the last his stateside relatives ever heard from him. The most likely scenario of what happened to John Brisker involves Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. The strongman followed pro basketball more closely than your average overseas dictator. Brisker may have gained employ as a basketball coach and part time bodyguard or mercenary in Uganda. Unfortunately for Ugandan hoops, Amin was overthrown in 1979 and Brisker seemingly disappeared from the face of the earth.

John Brisker was declared officially deceased in 1985; however, there are those who believe he is still alive, that he simply chose to start his life anew. No official documents exist to connect him to the Amin government and his body has never been found.

The recently released film, The Lost City of Z, offers up another fascinating account of a well known man gone missing. Percy Fawcett disappeared in the Brazil jungle in 1925 along with his eldest son and the son's closest friend.

Percy Fawcett, born in 1867, was a British archeologist, mapmaker, artillery officer, geographer and complete exploration junkie who, in 1920, allegedly found an 18th century set of papers in Brazil's National Library that described how a Portuguese explorer had found an ancient walled city in the jungle, a city whose architecture resembled that of ancient Greece.

An expedition that year was cut short by illnesses and companions unwilling to bear up under the jungle's blood-sucking bats, poisonous snakes, aggressive insects, and constantly tangling undergrowth. In 1925 The Royal Geographic Society helped fund Fawcett's march from the town of Cuyaba, accompanied by his son Jack, Jack's eighteen-year-old friend, Raleigh Rimell, as well as two Mufuquas Indians, who appear to have left the party some months into the adventure.

Fawcett was never seen in the so-called civilized world again. Three years after the Fawcetts and Rimell set forth, a search party found a trunk full of their belongings, but no other trace of the three Englishmen. Two years hence, in 1930, reporter Albert deWinton disappeared while trying to locate Fawcett's trail. About a year afterward a Swiss trapper named Stefan Rattin came out of the jungle with a tale about encountering Indians who kept an Englishman in a relatively benign state of capture. Rattin soon returned to the same area in hopes of rescuing the person he believed to be Perry Fawcett. Rattin, too, was never heard from or seen again.

Letters and papers held by the Fawcett family came to light decades later. These contained writings by Fawcett that indicated the explorer had no intention of returning to England. Rather,  he planned to establish a secret community within the South American jungle once he found the fabled city of Z. The commune residents would be required to worship Jack Fawcett as a part of a theosophy. Theosophy was a semi-popular belief system of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The root words being God and wisdom, the essence of theosophy appealed to many educated folk in the age of Darwin as a religo-philosophy. In his writings Percy Fawcett referred to his planned community as the “Grand Scheme.”

As with John Brisker, no one has ever confirmed the final fate of the Fawcetts and Rimmel. Side notes to the Fawcett mystery include: In 1932 Peter Fleming, the older brother of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, took part in a search for Percy Fawcett. The search party split into two competing entities with Fleming traveling up the Tapirape River to Sao Domingo then overland with a pair of local guides toward the last reported whereabouts of Fawcett. Fleming's account of the expedition, Brazilian Adventure, is still in print, though he, too, failed to find any trace of either Fawcett or Rimmel.

Fawcett's elder brother, Edward Douglas Fawcett, lived well into his nineties despite a life equally adventurous as his disappeared sibling. Edward Douglas climbed the Matterhorn numerous times, including one ascent interrupted by a heart attack (at age 66) and a night spent exposed on the mountain. Fawcett recovered enough the following day to complete the climb to the top and a safe descent.

The New York Times gave the film The Lost City of Z its coveted “critic's pick” designation in April.

(Missing persons can sometimes be found at malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com.)

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