From 1991-99 Bison Dele played basketball for five NBA teams. In 1997, Dele, who was known as Brian Williams before changing his name, helped the Chicago Bulls win a championship. After walking away from his basketball career, Dele disappeared during a sailing trip from Tahiti to Hawaii. In the October 21 issue of Sports Illustrated, Chris Ballard examines the mystery of Bison Dele. Ballard joined Bill Littlefield.
BL: Perhaps you can remind us of who Bison Dele was by talking a little bit about why he walked way from a contract worth several million dollars for life on a series of islands and a boat.CB: He grew up and was a great track and field runner, came into a growth spurt that pushed him towards basketball, played at University of Arizona, ended up getting drafted in the first round lottery pick by the Orlando Magic, but he didn’t ever really truly love basketball. There was one point during his career where he was reading a biography of Miles Davis and he began crying. Tom Tolbert was his teammate at the time and he asked him why and he said, ‘I just wish I had the passion for basketball that Miles has for music.’
So, I think he was one of those guys that as a near 7-footer was expected to play basketball, and it’s weird to say this of someone making that much money doing something a lot of us would love to do, but I think he felt trapped by what was expected of him to a certain extent. So, when it came time and I think he had made enough that he felt he could explore the world with it — about $16 million by the time he left — I think he decided he wanted to go find his happiness in other places, and that it wasn’t in basketball.
BL: Bison Dele battled with depression and apparently there was a suicide attempt as well. Were his voyages a way to try and heal himself?
CB: Yeah, and [according] to people who knew him, he’d had a tough time with his family and what he’d wanted to do was create some distance physically as well as emotionally. He’s writing poetry, he’s sailing to remote islands, maybe trying to find a purpose, and you know, that’s the sense I got.
BL: You referred very briefly to family issues maybe that had something to do with Brian Williams becoming Bison Dele, and he had a brother who also changed his name and, I gathered, had some very serious mental health issues.
CB: Yeah, both of them ended up changing their names and they had a childhood in which their birth father and mother divorced very early on. And then they had a stepfather, and from everything that I heard it was just a rough upbringing. Clearly something happened that they were trying to overcome later in life. Kevin Williams, the older brother, had suicide attempts as well; he struggled with alcoholism and he had some stints in the ER related to that.
BL: One of your sources was a man named Tava, who you tracked down at a bar on the beach in Tahiti, and he told you that he and Bison Dele were like brothers. Originally he wanted $100 for his story, but I gather that eventually he spoke to you without compensation. What did you learn from him?
CB: He was fascinating. He had been on the beach working at this hotel where Bison was the last three weeks of his life with Serena Karlan, his girlfriend. The sense I got from him was here was a man who had found whatever it was he was looking for, and [Tava] felt like he was seeing them finding this — the way he put it was — the beginning of a love story. To me it was this nice, in an overall very sad story, a nice little moment that maybe they had found in each other something and in that place something.
Tava didn’t go on that final voyage. He was asked to and his boss wouldn’t let him, and he feels a little bit of guilt about that. Maybe he could have saved them in some way, and at the same time, he feels he was saved. Maybe he would have perished as well.
BL: You heard various theories about Bison Dele’s disappearance in 2002, including one from the FBI. All the theories included his brother who was on the boat when Dele disappeared. Did you come away from your research with a clear idea of what happened?
CB: It’s pretty clear that in any circumstance that Kevin killed his brother, Serena Karlan — the girlfriend, [and] the captain — Bertrand Saldo, on the boat. The question is: after killing them did he then put their bodies overboard and sink them using body building weights or — this is the theory of the FBI agent — did he walk them off the boat and leave them drifting in these shark-infested waters?
His mother believes there must have been someone else involved and feels that Kevin Williams wasn’t equipped to have piloted this catamaran back by himself. But as far as what happened, it sounds like a brother trying to take his identity and something happened to create this flash point, and he killed Bison on that boat.
Due to an error by the Only A Game staff, this post previously stated that Bison Dele’s brother Kevin Williams, a.k.a. Miles Dabord, was presumed dead. As Ballard notes in his reporting for Sports Illustrated, Dabord died in a California hospital in September 2002 after being found unconscious on a beach in Tijuana.