In 1978, controversial basketball star John Brisker disappeared in Uganda. The six-foot-five African American athlete was known, over the course of his six seasons as a player in the American and National basketball associations, as much for winning games (he averaged a career 20.7 points per game) as for his volatile personality. Brisker was frequently ejected from play for fighting and instilled genuine fear in his teammates. It’s still unknown why he travelled to Uganda, but the most popular theories for his disappearance suggest he’d become a mercenary for hire, or was a guest of Idi Amin and was executed by firing squad after the Ugandan president was removed from power in 1979. The CIA investigated Brisker’s disappearance for years, but never solved the case. Brisker was declared legally dead in 1985.
Gare Joyce, a journalist and novelist with a fondness for sports, spent years investigating Brisker’s story, interviewing family members, teammates, and former CIA agents who were in Africa at the time Brisker disappeared. He also obtained, through Freedom of Information applications, a number of CIA documents related to the case, but “hit absolute dead ends. I had talked to missionaries in Uganda, I had talked to private investigators and government officials. Finally, I decided, if the CIA can’t find him, I can’t find him.”
Now, Joyce has found an unusual way to tell Brisker’s unusual story. In early December, he began releasing instalments of Detroit Mercy: The Hard Life and Mysterious Death of John Brisker, a fictionalized account of the athlete’s disappearance, on Sportsnet.ca, the online platform for the cable sports network and monthly magazine, where Joyce works as a features editor. Joyce first decided fiction might be the best way to tell Brisker’s tale in 2007 when, while working for ESPN magazine, he was invited to submit a short story to a sports-themed fiction anthology ESPN was publishing in association with McSweeney’s publisher Dave Eggers. Joyce had never written fiction, but “John Brisker’s Greatest Game” was selected for inclusion. Since then, Joyce has published two mystery novels, The Code and The Black Ace, with Penguin – the former of which is being adapted for television this fall as a series starring Jason Priestley – but always wanted to expand his original short story. Joyce is a student of long-form magazine journalism, and was inspired by Tom Wolfe’s 1980s serialization of The Bonfire of the Vanities in Rolling Stone, which itself was inspired by the 19th-century serialized novels of Dickens and Thackeray. “It’s something I wanted to do and a way to motivate myself to get it done,” he says. “There’s noting like having a deadline to get a segment in.”
Joyce will draw on his early research to complete the novel, which he says should wrap up in the spring. “I’ve got the first 30,000 words written and the last 10,000,” he says. “Right now I’m a couple of months ahead of the game, and I know how I’m getting out. I’m trying to work though the in between. I’m not trying to write a perfect book. I would be polishing and cutting. It’s a different process.”