- The Washington Times - Friday, September 20, 2002

The story of Bison Dele's disappearance and presumed murder is strange, shocking and tragic, but not entirely without precedent. Years ago, another former pro basketball player seemingly vanished into thin air.

John Brisker was never heard from again, a fate apparently shared by Dele.

Dele, formerly known as Brian Williams, attended the University of Maryland for one year before transferring to Arizona and played for five NBA teams from 1991 through 1999. He has been missing since July4, when he set sail from Tahiti's capital city of Papeete. Tahitian officials believe Dele and two others on the boat were murdered, and his brother is a prime suspect. It is believed Dele's body is lying somewhere at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Brisker, who played in the American Basketball Association and NBA from 1969 through 1975, disappeared after moving to Liberia, reportedly to start an import-export business. He ended up in Uganda, where he was presumably killed, and was declared legally dead in 1985. His body was never found.

In addition to the sordid nature of their vanishings, Dele and Brisker possessed character traits that stood out. Each was known for their unique personalities. "Here were two guys who were different from the norm," said Tom Nissalke, who coached them both.

A veteran NBA head coach and assistant, Nissalke was a member of the Denver staff when Brian Williams played for the Nuggets, and he still refers to Dele by his old nickname, "B-dub." Years before, Nissalke was head coach of the Dallas Chaparrals of the ABA, and his teams faced Brisker's Pittsburgh Condors. Later, Nissalke became head coach of the NBA Seattle SuperSonics, and had Brisker on his squad.

"It's an interesting parallel," said Nissalke, who now works as a radio commentator for the Utah Jazz. "Both were very private guys. Nobody seemed to know much about them off the court, where they went, what they did. Both were players of tremendous potential. Both didn't realize their potential."

But not only were the players different from their teammates, Nissalke said they could not have been more different from each other. Brisker, a Hamtramck, Mich., high school teammate of Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich, was intelligent and well-read, but also was known as a violent, angry person who carried a gun. Supposedly after being kicked out of practice, Brisker returned 20 minutes later brandishing a pistol. "Practice is over," declared the coach, Jack McMahon.

"If you said something to him, you didn't know what was gonna happen," Nissalke said. "He was very race-conscious. He had a lot of hatred of whites. Brian was always very nice, always interested in how your family was, how you were doing.

"But both marched to different drummers. Nothing that Brisker would do would surprise me. And nothing Brian would do would surprise me. But I could see Brisker doing something that might hurt somebody. Brian never would. Brisker had a very mean streak, a streak that was almost foreboding. I never saw that with Brian."

Walt Szczerbiak, a former star at George Washington University who played briefly for the Condors, said practicing with Brisker was rather unpleasant.

"John Brisker was no fun for me," said Szczerbiak, who went on to a successful career in Europe and whose son, Wally, plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

"He was just a mean guy," Szczerbiak said. "For some reason, he didn't like me very much. I was just a rookie trying to play hard and practice hard and do the right things. Maybe he had a bad game the night before, maybe he didn't want to practice, but for some reason, he just went off on me."

It wasn't just Szczerbiak who felt Brisker's wrath. While playing in Seattle, Brisker knocked out the teeth of a teammate during practice.

Fred Cranwell, then the Condors' public relations director, said he saw a different side of Brisker.

"He had a tough-guy image, and he lived up to it, but he'd do anything I'd ask him to if kids were involved," Cranwell said. "I never had a problem with him."

Brisker joined Pittsburgh in 1969 after playing basketball and tuba in the school marching band at the University of Toledo. A 6-foot-5 guard, Brisker was a dazzling one-on-one player, a 20-points-a-game scorer, whose creativity with the ball and lack of concern for defense typified the wild, rebellious, run-and-gun ABA. "He was something else," Cranwell said. He also was one of the first professional athletes to have a known drug problem.

"He was a very handsome guy, very well-dressed," said Nissalke. "But you never knew what you were gonna get with him."

Nissalke said when he coached at Dallas, he often paid his players a bonus wrote a $100 check on the spot if they did something particularly noteworthy. Before game against the Condors, Nissalke put a bounty on Brisker. "I said, 'This guy is terrorizing everybody and we need to take care of him one way or another,'" Nissalke said.

Len Chappell, a former NBA player who was a Dallas reserve, told Nissalke he wanted to start. Nissalke said he didn't ask why, "but I knew he had something in mind."

As the official threw the ball up for the opening tip, Chappell cold-cocked Brisker and knocked him out. "He went out like a light," Nissalke said.

Chappell got his 100 bucks and drew no fine from the league. If the game was taped, and not all were, the play did not show up. "Nobody ever said a thing," said Nissalke.

The next year, Nissalke got the Seattle job. "And guess who's coming to dinner?" he asked, meaning Brisker, who jumped leagues. Said Nissalke, "At the first meeting, it was like, 'Hey, coach, how's everything going? I remember last year. That was pretty smart.'"

Brisker understood. He once collected $500 from his own team for taking out an opposing player. And after he was ejected from another game for fighting and was walking to the dressing room, he attacked an opponent standing at the foul line preparing to shoot a free throw.

Whether it was the drugs, the advanced level of competition or the fact that, according to Nissalke, "guys weren't afraid of him," Brisker had a short-lived NBA career. He was cut in 1975 and dropped out of sight. What happened next is a matter of conjecture, but it seems evident he wound up in Uganda, reportedly as an invited guest of the dictator Idi Amin, a big basketball fan. Later, Brisker apparently was killed, perhaps in the 1979 coup that deposed Amin. After he was declared legally dead, his ex-wife and at least one former girlfriend fought over his estate. There were many girlfriends.

"He was a high-liver," Cranwell recalled. "We'd go on the road, and he'd take three or four girls with him."

Brian Williams/Bison Dele was known as a generous person, as well, but in a different way. Nissalke remains touched that Williams sent him a note after he left the Nuggets, thanking him for his help.

"I couldn't believe it," Nissalke said. "Players just don't do that."

Nissalke also remembers a Nuggets' big win against the Washington Bullets at Capital Centre. Afterward, in a happy dressing room, no one could find Williams. Nissalke searched and finally found him, alone and crying. It seemed he had missed an important free throw, and then endured the taunts of the noted heckler, Robin Ficker.

"It was something that was very difficult for Brian to take," Nissalke said. "He was very sensitive to criticism. And Brisker was, too. But with Brisker, you didn't know if he'd pull a blackjack or a gun on you."


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