UP AND VANISHED
Bison Dele left behind $36 million and a lot of troubling
questions

How many times have you heard an athlete say, "It's not about
the money"? How many times have you believed him? Well, you can
take it to the bank in the case of 30-year-old Bison Dele, the
center formerly known as Brian Williams, who skipped training
camp with the Pistons, announced he was retiring and hopped a
plane to Beirut, jettisoning a guaranteed contract with five
years and $36.45 million left on it.

Want more proof? Dele's agent, Dwight Manley, structured his
client's contract so that the payment for the 1999-2000 season
was due up front, in a lump sum of $5.67 million. In other words
Dele could have shown up for a month, gone through the motions
and then flown the coop with his pockets full of cash, daring the
Pistons to retrieve it.

Instead, citing a lack of passion for basketball, Dele filed
retirement papers with the league office in mid-October. His
last confirmed location was on an island off the coast of
Africa, from which he E-mailed Manley on Monday to say that his
decision was final.

The Pistons were hardly shocked by Dele's retirement. He had
expressed ambivalence about playing as early as July, and in
September, Detroit signed free agent Terry Mills as a potential
replacement. Dele suffered through a torturous 1998-99 season in
which his commitment was continuously questioned by his coaches
and teammates. Still, he averaged 10.5 points and 5.6 rebounds a
game, looking nearly comatose one night and almost brilliant the
next.

The Pistons placed Dele on the suspended list, so if the
reluctant big man has a change of heart, they can plug him back
in the lineup--or trade him. Had they put him on the retired
list, he would have been unable to play for one year.

"If Bison changes his mind," says Rick Sund, the Pistons' vice
president of basketball operations, "we would gladly take him
back." A more realistic scenario would be for Detroit to trade
Dele. Team and league sources confirm interest from Portland,
Denver and the Lakers.

In a recent chat with reporters, L.A. coach Phil Jackson--who
coached Dele on the Bulls for 2 1/2 months during the 1996-97
season--made a not-so-subtle attempt to lure Dele back. "I had a
special relationship with Brian Williams," Jackson said. "I
don't know Bison Dele. I've never met him. Williams was one of
the best students I've ever had, and one of the brightest kids
I've ever had as a basketball player." The Pistons probably
would be willing to deal Dele to the Lakers if they could get
Glen Rice, as opposed to Robert Horry, whose cap number also
matches up with Dele's.

Detroit forward Christian Laettner said last month that the
erratic Dele was often a distraction to many of his teammates.
Yet a lack of chemistry doesn't satisfactorily explain Dele's
departure, since a clause in his contract would have enabled him
to become a free agent next summer.

It's easy to dismiss Dele as an oddball, but his stunning
decision may stem from a more sobering cause: depression, which
has plagued him all his life and nearly led him to retire in
1993, while he was with the Magic. Williams received counseling
and medication then, and he appeared to have righted his career;
in 1997-98, with Detroit, he averaged 16.2 points and 8.9 boards
a night. Yet sources close to Dele confirm he has not been on
medication for at least four years, and friends fear that
depression has overtaken him again.

The Pistons can afford to wait for Dele, but not forever. If
Detroit puts him on the retired list, the $5.67 million comes
off the team's cap. That's not an issue now, but the money could
come in handy next summer, when Grant Hill's contract is up and
the Pistons may have to make some roster moves.

"My gut feeling is that Bison won't come back this year," says
Detroit coach Alvin Gentry. "It would be one thing if he were
around here. Then he might start missing the game. But it's hard
to get fired up [about NBA basketball] when you are in Beirut."

Or in the depths of a depression that makes nothing--not even $36
million--seem very important.

Marion Leads New Wave
RISING SUNS AROUND THE NBA

Quick: Who was the leading preseason scorer for the Suns? The
answer may surprise you. It was rookie Shawn Marion, the
21-year-old small forward out of UNLV who has wowed everyone
with his hops, his court savvy and his refusal to adhere to the
wait-my-turn rookie mentality. While the more celebrated new
Sun, Penny Hardaway, has struggled with Phoenix's motion
offense, Marion looks as if he were born to it. Though he was
only the ninth pick in the draft, Marion has been named by some
coaches--Portland's Mike Dunleavy among them--as the early
front-runner for Rookie of the Year.

Marion isn't the only preseason revelation. Here are four others,
by position:

G--James Posey, Nuggets. Questions about Posey's shooting
ability accounted for some of his slippage to the 18th pick in
the draft. But with outstanding play at both ends of the floor,
he appears to have beaten out Chauncey Billups as the starting
two guard and to have knocked veteran Bryant Stith out of the
rotation.

G--Erick Strickland, Mavericks. Strickland was such a
disappointment last season that coach Don Nelson contemplated
dumping him for nothing. But the Mavericks were decimated by
injuries in the preseason, and Strickland, a career 37.7%
shooter, emerged from the pack, averaging 18.0 points and
shooting 48% from the floor. "Thank god for Strick," Nellie said
last week.

C--Kelvin Cato, Rockets. To the casual fan, Cato, who was
acquired from Portland in the Scottie Pippen deal, was merely a
throw-in to make that trade work capwise. In truth he was the
key to the deal. The big man showed vastly improved offensive
skills in camp, and his shot-blocking ability had some (perhaps
overexcited) Houston folk comparing him to the young Hakeem
Olajuwon. The 6'11" Cato had a triple double against Cleveland
on Oct. 15: 20 points, 13 rebounds, 12 blocks. Ten days later
the Rockets signed him to a four-year extension.

F--Bonzi Wells, Trail Blazers. The Blazers, deep at every
position save one, went into camp hoping to find a backup for
shooting guard Steve Smith. They found one in Wells, who had
only seven NBA games under his belt but meshed nicely with the
Trail Blazers' abundant talent.

For complete scores and stats, plus more from Phil Taylor and
Marty Burns, go to cnnsi.com/basketball.

COLOR PHOTO: NATHANIEL S. BUTLER/NBA PHOTOS Dele cited a lack of passion for the game; friends fear he's battling depression. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Suns rookie Marion shone in the preseason, leading all Phoenix scorers.

Around The Rim

When Stacey Augmon was traded from Portland to Houston in the
Scottie Pippen deal, he went to a team that needed perimeter
shooting at small forward. So Augmon, a defensive specialist who
can't knock down the 18-footer, was waived by the Rockets, who
are on the hook for his $3.6 million salary. He was then
re-signed by the Blazers. According to the new collective
bargaining agreement, Portland must pay him the veterans'
minimum of $500,000 this season, and the league must kick in an
additional $350,000. Thus Augmon will pocket an extra $850,000
for the inconvenience of having spent a week with the Rockets.
Not bad for a 10th man who returns to a team that could win it
all....

While the Wizards' incumbent shooting guard, Mitch Richmond,
missed most of the preseason with a strained right hamstring,
rookie Richard Hamilton proved he could fill it up with the big
boys. But, like Richmond, Hamilton can play only the two spot,
and new coach Gar Heard has said he will use the two players
together only late in a game, if the Wizards are down and need
scoring. "This is a learning year for Richard," says Heard. "He
has the offensive skills, but he has a long way to go
defensively."...

Bill Russell has signed on as a tutor for the Celtics' big men.
The Hall of Famer recently took forward Antoine Walker out for a
three-hour lunch to discuss, among other things, how Russell
dealt with racial tension in Boston and how Walker should handle
his role as team leader. Walker expected to pick up the check,
but, he says, "The minute we walked in the restaurant and they
saw Russell, we ate for free."

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