When Bison Dele walked away from the Detroit Pistons prior to the 2000-2001 season he left a lot of people scratching their heads. He was due to make more than $30 million over the remaining years of his contract, but he wasn’t interested in being a basketball player anymore.
But for Dele it was just one more decision that left those around him scratching their heads.
Born Brian Williams, Dele changed his name legally in 1998 to pay tribute to his Native American and African ancestry. For Dele it was a choice that was indicative of his free spirit, of being a non-conformist. In the NBA, where stars and wanna-be stars have entourages, rap records, and bling, Dele was an outcast. He was a thoughtful, insightful, cerebral man. He was unswayed by the temptations of fame, unchanged by the millions of dollars. He was unimpressed by the glare of the spotlight.
And he never really seemed to accept the fact that he was a big, strong athlete. He preferred to disappear into the background, wishing to live his life in anonymity. Basketball was a way to make a living, but even after he inked a contract for millions, he was not satisfied. Material things did not feed his soul.
After a college career at the University of Arizona, Dele was drafted in the first round by the Orlando Magic in 1991. At just a shade under 7 feet tall and 260 pounds, he was a big figure in the middle of the paint. He spent two seasons with Orlando, two more with the Denver Nuggets, and one with the Los Angeles Clippers. He was a decent NBA player, but not a star. In 1997 he came off the bench and was a key part of the Chicago Bulls NBA Championship team. That earned him a big payday from the Pistons, but he wasn’t so much interested in playing basketball by that time, despite averaging 16 points and 8 rebounds in his first season in Detroit.
“[He] was always different,” Chicago teammate Luc Longley said. “[We were] a team of eccentric characters, but Brian was off by himself.”
After retiring, Dele went off by himself literally, taking to the high seas on his sail boat. Accompanying him was a girlfriend, his brother Miles Dabord (the former Kevin Williams), and the captain of the boat. They departed in July of 2002, crisscrossing the Pacific Ocean, miles away from the pressures and demands of being a professional athlete. Miles away from civilization. For Dele, it was an opportunity to live life the way he always wanted it – on his own terms.
Late in July the boat arrived in Tahiti, but Dabord was the only person on board. No trace of Dele, the girlfriend, or the captain. In Tahiti and at further stops in the southern Pacific, Debord forged his brother’s name and used his brother’s passport, passing himself off as the former NBA player. When family didn’t hear from the missing members of the party, suspicions rose. In September, Dabord left the boat and flew back to the United States, he was detained in Phoenix and questioned. It was soon learned that he had purchased more than $150,000 in gold using money he stole from his brother’s bank account. Before he could be charged with any crime, Debord took an overdose of insulin, slipped into a coma, and died. Authorities speculated that Dele and his brother had engaged in an argument on the sailboat at some point in July, and Debord shot and killed Dele. He then killed the girlfriend and the captain, dumping all of the bodies overboard into the Pacific. There was no reason to believe that they would ever be found.
The Williams family suffered the shock of the loss of two of their sons, and the entire episode was a bizarre tragedy that ended the life of four people.
The reaction from the NBA and the Pistons was one of disbelief. The Pistons had never placed Dele on the retired list, a procedural move that left the possibility open that he may change his mind and return to the hard court.
“He was a part of this team,” Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars said, “his loss is felt by all who knew him, played with him, and against him.”