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The Mysterious Case of Bison Dele The eccentric, thrill-seeking former NBA center set sail in the South Pacific with his girlfriend and his brother, then disappeared. What happened?

Sept. 30, 2002
Sept. 30, 2002

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Sept. 30, 2002

The Mysterious Case of Bison Dele The eccentric, thrill-seeking former NBA center set sail in the South Pacific with his girlfriend and his brother, then disappeared. What happened?

By Grant Wahl With Special Reporting By John Ed Bradley and George Dohrmann

No more family vacations. Never again, Patricia Phillips vowed,
after enduring a disastrous weekend excursion to the Grand
Canyon 12 years ago with her sons, Brian and Kevin Williams.
Brian, then 21, was a basketball star at Arizona, soon to begin
an eight-year NBA career; Kevin, 23, was a computer operator in
Palo Alto, Calif. "Those two fought the entire day like little
kids, getting into these one-upmanship battles," their mother
would say years later. "When I got back to Phoenix I was so
ready to have them out of the car, out of my hair. So I never
tried any more of those trips."

This is an article from the Sept. 30, 2002 issue Original Layout

Her sons failed to heed her example. They occasionally traveled
together in the years that followed, and on July 7, Miles Dabord
(formerly Kevin Williams) and Bison Dele (formerly Brian
Williams) boarded Dele's 55-foot catamaran, the Hakuna Matata, in
Tahiti, bound for Hawaii with two others on board. Exactly what
happened after that remains a mystery, but the outcome was
tragic. As of Monday, Dabord was lying comatose in a Chula Vista,
Calif., hospital, the victim of an apparent suicide attempt and
the only suspect in what authorities believe to be the murders at
sea of Dele, 33; Dele's girlfriend, Serena Karlan, 30; and the
captain, Bertrand Saldo, 32.

If Dele has indeed died, the sports world has lost one of its
most enigmatic--and life-affirming--figures. Dele vanished once
before, in 1999, when he walked away from the five years and $36
million remaining on his contract with the Detroit Pistons and
embarked on an odyssey worthy of Jules Verne; had he reached
Hawaii, it would have been his first time on U.S. soil in three
years. Investigators in Tahiti now believe that his body, and
those of Karlan and Saldo, are somewhere in the waters of the
South Pacific. "I always figured there were two ways to go,"
Williams told SI in '98, not long before he changed his name to
honor his Cherokee and African ancestry. "You can die from living
or you can just die from dying. So many people try to play it
safe."

Dele never did. He defied a State Department ban in 1989 and
journeyed to Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. A certified
pilot with his own four-seat plane, he explored the globe during
his NBA off-seasons. He ran with the bulls in Pamplona, rode
camels in the desert near Cairo, gambled in Monaco casinos,
danced half naked in the streets of Havana and roamed the bazaars
of Istanbul. Dele was a latter-day Jack Kerouac, a connoisseur of
the Beats whose own poetry revealed more depth than the typical
jock verse. One of his poems, Fille du Glace, began: "Girl frigid
chosen to be frozen frost bitten kitten no mittens smitten with
the notion of a love potion lotion."

The son of a soul man--his father, Gene Williams, was a member of
the Platters--Dele played the sax, trumpet and bass, and he read
everything from Nietzsche to Nin. "He was quite taken with
William Blake," says longtime friend Patrick Byrne, the CEO of an
e-tail company. "Blake's art was very Brian-like, in the way it
combined elements of the mundane with the dramatic and
spiritual."

The 6'11", 260-pound Dele, however, never showed a sustained
passion for basketball. He was sidelined for most of his 1992-93
season with the Orlando Magic with clinical depression,
swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills on one occasion and
crashing a car into a pole on another. Late in the 1996-97 season
he joined the Chicago Bulls and helped them win an NBA title, the
only time, his friends say, that he was happy in the league. He
signed as a free agent with the Pistons, but after two solid
seasons in Detroit, where Dele tried to escape the winter
doldrums by snorkeling in his wall-sized home aquarium, he
suddenly quit the sport.

"He told me--and these were his exact words--that he felt like an
organ-grinder's performing monkey," says Byrne. "Every time he
thought it was a game, people told him it was a business. And
every time he treated it as a job, they told him he didn't have
any team spirit."

Dele found peace in, of all places, Beirut. For four months after
his '99 retirement, he lived with Ahmad ElHusseini, a Beirut
businessman and one of his closest friends since their days as
students at Arizona. Dele Jet-Skied in the Mediterranean,
deejayed at his favorite club, B18, and trekked with ElHusseini
deep into the Bekaa Valley, where they shot off bazookas and
AK-47s. "We were having an incredible time," recalls ElHusseini,
whose father is a former head of the Lebanese parliament. "But
after four months I realized I hadn't worked more than three days
total. In a friendly manner, I said, 'Why don't you just go
somewhere for a month and come back?' I'm very regretful about
that. I never saw him in Beirut again."

ElHusseini says Dele misinterpreted that comment and others as
attempts to nudge him back to the NBA. While Dele was in Beirut,
ElHusseini received calls from Pistons owner Bill Davidson; an
associate of Phil Jackson, Dele's former coach with the Bulls;
and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, phoning at the behest of Dele's
agent, Dwight Manley. (Manley also spoke to the Los Angeles
Lakers earlier this month about Dele's possible return to hoops.)

And so Dele disappeared again, heading east, ElHusseini says, on
a monthslong jag through Indonesia, the Philippines, New Zealand
and Australia, where ElHusseini joined him for two weeks in 2000.
"When he picked me up at the Sydney airport, he was driving a
huge truck, almost like a naval truck," ElHusseini says. "It was
big enough to carry two motorcycles, two mattresses, and a boat
on top. He was living in it. It had a minikitchen, and he had
only the most basic of material needs. He tried to convince me to
go into the wilderness with him." ElHusseini told Dele he had no
desire to visit the Outback, and so they spent the fortnight
reveling in Sydney as the city braced for the Summer Olympics.

It was the last time ElHusseini saw his dearest friend. Not long
after that visit Dele relocated to Perth, where he fulfilled a
lifelong dream by learning to sail. He bought the Hakuna Matata,
Swahili for No Worries, and explored the waters off western
Australia, all the while using his satellite phone and wireless
Internet connection to leave cryptic messages for his friends.
One of them, Lee Ann Jarvis, says she would often receive voice
mails in which Dele, never leaving his name, read haikus. Byrne
last heard from Dele last February, when he received an e-mail
that read simply, "Here i am, wasn't i?"

By that time Serena Karlan had joined Dele in Auckland, New
Zealand. They had dated off and on during the 1990s, and after
last Sept. 11 he called her in New York City, where Karlan had
begun work as a real estate agent. According to Scott Ohlgren,
Karlan's stepfather, Dele was concerned about her safety after
the terrorist attacks and invited her to meet him in Australia.
She spent five weeks there, three more than planned, then
returned home. When Dele asked her to come back and sail with him
full-time, Karlan resisted--she was concerned about the commitment
and fearful of falling into debt--until Dele sent her a $50,000
check with a note: "This is what I think of your financial
difficulties."

Witnesses in the South Pacific describe a couple that appeared to
be deeply in love. In New Zealand's Bay of Islands they snorkeled
and lounged on the deck of the catamaran, an immense turquoise
craft with tinted windows, a high-powered dinghy and a Jet Ski.
On Moorea, a French Polynesian island where jagged peaks rise
like sentries out of white-sand beaches, Dele and Karlan rented a
thatched over-water bungalow and spent their days tooling around
on a scooter.

In mid-June they were joined in Moorea by Dabord. The brothers
had a complex relationship. Dabord had completed a Microsoft
systems engineering course paid for by Dele, and yet, as Phillips
told Phoenix police two weeks ago, he "had always been jealous of
his brother, Brian, for being successful in the NBA. Miles was
also jealous of the money that Brian had and was always
requesting money from him.... Usually once Brian provides Miles
with money, [Miles] leave[s] and is not heard from until his next
financial blunder."

In the Phoenix police report Kevin Porter, Dele's business
manager, says Dele had tired of bailing out his brother and had
discussed "ceasing financial assistance to Miles" after Dabord
had showed up unexpectedly in New Zealand earlier this year.
Dabord sailed briefly with Dele and Karlan before returning home
to the Bay Area, then rejoined them in Moorea. Police in Tahiti
are still trying to determine what happened after they departed
for Hawaii on July 7, but on July 16 a man who witnesses say
matched the description of Dabord piloted a 55-foot catamaran
into the Phaeton Bay Marina in Taravao, on Tahiti's southeastern
shore. The vinyl letters spelling the boat's name had been
removed from its stern--the craft was reregistered as the Aria
Bella--Dele, Karlan and Saldo were nowhere to be seen, and police
later found blood traces and gunpowder residue aboard. "We
presume that the bodies of these people must be in the sea, the
ocean, and will probably never be found," Michel Marotte,
Tahiti's chief prosecutor, said last week.

A towering figure himself at 6'8" and 270 pounds, Dabord always
craved the attention Dele received, and on Sept. 5 he finally got
it. After arousing the suspicions of Porter and others by trying
to buy $152,000 in gold from Certified Mint, a Phoenix coin
dealer, through the mail with one of his brother's personal
checks, Dabord showed up at the dealership, where police were
waiting. He claimed to be Brian Williams and carried his
brother's passport and two of his credit cards. Dabord was
arrested on three counts of forgery. After Dabord admitted his
true identity, police say, an officer asked if he played
basketball. "No," Dabord replied. "Brian got all the luck and
talent in the family."

Patricia Phillips told police that Dabord was "capable of
extremely violent behavior when he doesn't get his way,"
attributing it to the steroids he took for chronic asthma.
Authorities in Phoenix released Dabord, however, citing a lack
of evidence. On Sept. 11, as news of Dele's disappearance began
to spread, Dabord reportedly called Phillips at her apartment in
Los Angeles. She told The New York Times that, before
threatening to kill himself, her son said, "I found something
and I tried to cover it up, but I didn't do what they're saying.
No one will believe me."

On Sept. 15 Mexican police found a large man on a beach not far
from the U.S. border, comatose and wearing nothing but a pair of
white tube socks. Four days later fingerprints taken at Scripps
Memorial Hospital in Chula Vista determined that the unidentified
patient was Dabord, who, according to his mother, had overdosed
on insulin.

From his home in Beirut, ElHusseini can't help but note the eerie
parallels between the presumed murder of Dele and the plot of one
of Dele's favorite movies. "It was Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man," he
says. "It tells the story about a dead man's journey, except the
dead man doesn't know he's dead." In the film, a sort of Western
noir, Johnny Depp plays a doomed seeker who, in the final scene,
drifts off peacefully into the Pacific, the victim of a fatal
gunshot wound. Depp's character is named, aptly enough, William
Blake. "If Brian had to choose the way he was going to die, he
would have loved the Shakespearean quality of this," says Jarvis.
"I don't think he would have wished it was by Miles's hand, but
he would have loved the drama."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFREY LOWE Last seen in Tahiti with his girlfriend and the captain of his 55-foot catamaran, the peripatetic Dele, shown here at his Detroit home in 1998, was planning his first visit to the U.S. in three years.COLOR PHOTOMONTAGE: DAVID E. KLUTHO (DELE IN ACTION); TAHITI PRESSE (BOAT)COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT GALLAGHER/PEOPLE LOST SOULS On Monday, Phillips (above) weighed whether to take her elder son off life support. Her younger son's passion for hoops waxed and waned, but his friendship with Karlan (above, left) lasted more than a decade.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF SCOTT OHLGREN[See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF PATRICIA PHILLIPS/NEW YORK TIMES SIBLING RIVALRY Though the brothers were often as close as they appear to be in this 1980 photo, the 35-year-old Dabord (left and above, left) was jealous of Dele's talent and frequently needed his financial assistance.COLOR PHOTO [See caption above]