The talented forward happily walked away from the game in his prime. Then just three years later was never seen again. The sad story of the former Detroit Pistons player.
When Bison Dele signed with the Detroit Pistons in 1997 for seven years and $50 million, the organization thought they had landed a versatile power forward/center entering his prime.
Nobody could have predicted that just five years later he would be dead.
Dele, born Brian Williams, changed his name in 1998 to honor his Cherokee and African ancestry.
He was a McDonald’s All-American in high school after only beginning to play basketball as a teenager. He went onto play three collegiate seasons, one with Maryland, and two with Arizona.
Then the collegiate All-American was taken with the 10th pick in the first round of the 1991 NBA Draft by the Orlando Magic.
In the video The Scary Truth About The NBA Player That Disappeared (NBA Insider on YouTube), in Dele’s first two seasons with the Magic he showed promise in limited playing time, but missed many games when he was diagnosed with clinical depression, making him one of the first athletes to publicly acknowledge their mental health struggles.
The unhappiness and depression led to a suicide attempt when he swallowed a handful of sleeping pills. He also purposely crashed his car into a pole.
Dele needed a change of scenery and went to the Denver Nuggets for two years and basically saw the same role as he had with the Magic.
In 1995 he signed with the Los Angeles Clippers where he finally received consistent playing time, averaging 33-minutes per game. The increased minutes led to career highs across the board including 15.8 points, 7.6 rebounds.
As a free agent the next season, Dele’s asking price was reportedly too high for GMs in the league. He sat out the majority of the 1996-1997 season before being signed by the Chicago Bulls with nine games remaining in the regular season.
He was pushed and motivated by Michael Jordan to get in shape and it proved to be a valuable signing as Dele gave the Bulls a legitimate frontcourt threat off the bench.
His play improved as the team went deeper into the playoffs. In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Hawks, Dele put up 12 points and 10 rebounds to help the Bulls advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Bulls went on to beat the Utah Jazz in the NBA Finals in six games. He gave the Bulls crucial minutes and another big body to throw at Karl Malone. In Game 3, Dele had 16 points and 6 rebounds. Chicago won the series and the fifth title of their dynasty.
Even during his short time in Chicago, Dele’s problems resurfaced. From the NBA Insider video, on one of the team’s flights, Dele reportedly tried to pull the emergency exit hatch while the plane was still 30,000 feet in the air.
That offseason he signed with the Detroit Pistons as a free agent, the same year he changed his name.
The $50 million contract brought high expectations for the enigmatic big man.
Dele delivered with averages of 16 points and 9 rebounds, although the team struggled, seeing head coach Doug Collins being replaced with Alvin Gentry.
After failing to come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement, the NBA owners began a lockout on July 1, 1998. It extended until January 20, 1999, forcing the season to be shortened to 50 games.
According to the article The Unique Life and Mysterious Death of Bison Dele by Jeff Goldberg (tiebreaker.com), during that season, Dele again tried to open the emergency hatch on the Pistons team charter.
His mental health could be correlated to his decreased quality of play as his numbers dipped to 10.5 points and 5.6 rebounds.
Then before the start of the 1999 season he retired, walking away from $36 million. He had been the highest paid player on a team that featured Grant Hill.
While to NBA fans and the outside world it seemed stunning that a 30-year-old player just beginning his prime would suddenly retire and walk away from from $36 million, those closest to him him were less surprised.
Bison Dele was always a reluctant basketball star whose clinical depression made it hard for him to enjoy his profession.
He didn’t start playing until high school when a growth spurt pushed him towards the game. There wasn’t an obsession with basketball like many of his peers. Dele was a natural who viewed basketball as a means to live a luxurious life.
He wanted to travel the world and seek for the meaning of life. With millions of dollars at his disposal, the newly retired Dele sought adventure. He could finally be happy.
According to the video The Scary Truth About The NBA Player That Disappeared by NBA Insider on YouTube, Dele spent several months in Beirut followed by visits to Europe, Indonesia, and India. He would DJ at nightclubs, he met the Dalai Lama, jet skied in the Mediterranean, ran with the bulls in Spain, rode camels in Cairo, watched sunsets in Havana, and roamed the bazaars of Istanbul.
He played the saxophone, violin, and trumpet. Then he earned a pilot’s license. It was the life Bison Dele always dreamed of.
He eventually learned how to sail and bought a 55-foot catamaran that he dubbed Hukuna Matata and sailed the South Pacific.
Dele’s girlfriend Serena Karlan had joined Bison for some of his expeditions. The two of them, along with captain Bertrand Saldo, were about to set sail from Tahiti when they had a surprise visitor.
His older brother Miles Dabord (born Kevin Williams) showed up to Tahiti unexpectedly. The brothers had a strained relationship throughout much of their life.
Dabord was socially awkward and an extremely sensitive person. He struggled to hold jobs and moved often while trying to find his place in the world. Most of the time he relied on his younger brother for money.
Dabord, like his brother, suffered from clinical depression and tried to commit suicide on multiple occasions. On top of that, he was an alcoholic and heavy steroid user.
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The older brother lived in Dele’s shadow which made for a complicated relationship that Dabord claimed he wanted to repair when he arrived in Tahiti.
On July 6, 2002, Dele, Dabord, Karlan, and Saldo set sail to Hawaii. It was the last time Dele, Karlan, and Saldo were seen alive.
On July 20, Dabord brought the boat back to Tahiti, he was the only one aboard. He then flew back to the United States.
In the article Lost Soul by Chris Ballard for Sports Illustrated, in August 2002, a man identifying himself as Brian Williams brokered a deal for $152,000 worth of gold coins in Phoenix, AZ. The check cleared and a date was set for the pick up.
Friends and family were alerted by Dele’s financial advisor of the purchase and check forgery. They set up a sting operation for the scheduled pick up day of September 5 and Dabord was detained.
Although he was questioned, law enforcement released Dabord.
Around this time, the Hukuna Matata was found off the coast of Tahiti with its name plate removed and what appeared to be patched up bullet holes. The boat had been re-registered under a different name.
Dabord phoned their mother and sounded suicidal and scared.
As the FBI and French authorities got further into their investigation, Dabord knew the walls were closing in on him. He intentionally overdosed on insulin and went into a coma. Shortly thereafter, on September 27, Dabord died.
Dabord had told his girlfriend his account of what happened on the boat when his brother, Karlan, and Saldo disappeared.
Dabord said he and his brother had fought, and that Karlan tried to intervene. She was accidentally hit and died when her head struck part of the boat. When Saldo wanted to report her death, a panicked Dele killed him; Dabord then shot his brother in self-defense, threw the bodies overboard and subsequently fled back to the U.S.
Whatever occurred will remain a mystery.
There was a memorial service for both brothers and a heartbroken mother who knew she would never know the exact truth of what happened between the two.
While finally on the path to happiness, Bison Dele’s journey was cut tragically short at just 33- years-old.
All stats via Basketball Reference
The Scary Truth About The NBA Player That Disappeared by NBA Insider on YouTube
The Unique Life and Mysterious Death of Bison Dele by Jeff Goldberg for tiebreaker.com
Lost Soul by Chris Ballard for Sports Illustrated