Cohen: An Unsolved Mystery
By Josh Cohen
ORLANDO -- He was once the king of the court at his California high school.
He was once the highest paid player on his NBA team.
He was once a man of recurrent renovation – transferring colleges, bouncing from team to team, retiring prematurely and making drastic life revisions.
He was once Brian Williams.
He was once Bison Dele.
He was once the victim of a suspected murder at sea by his own brother.
He remains, incontrovertibly, an unsolved mystery.
Years before he decided to change his name to honor his Native American and African ancestry, Bison Dele was, by and large, born to be at the forefront of headlines.
His father was Eugene Williams of the musical group The Platters and there was little doubt that he would develop into a premier basketball star.
After flourishing at Santa Monica Catholic High School, Dele opted to move across the country and play for the Maryland Terrapins. Not before long, he returned to the West when he transferred to the University of Arizona.
Soon, the public would begin to recognize the puzzling nature of this extraordinarily skilled big man.
From the onset of his arrival into the NBA until his precipitate retirement eight years later, Dele was primarily deemed as eccentric yet with unbounded potential.
It was reported early on in his professional career that he suffered from clinical depression. His agent, Dwight Manley, once told The New York Times that “he wore funky clothes, funky glasses – very avant-garde, anti-authority and counterculture.”
After a two-year stay in Orlando with the franchise that drafted him 10th overall in the 1991 NBA Draft and following two subsequent seasons in Denver, it became apparent that basketball may have been a secondary interest to Dele.
While he began to blossom in the NBA as a member of the L.A. Clippers during the 1995-96 season, Dele had developed a reputation for desiring a different kind of spotlight.
Aside from any hoops dreams he may have had, it seemed evident that Dele’s vision of success stretched much further away from NBA arenas.
He allegedly at one point dated music icon Madonna and, according to a 2002 report by Sports Illustrated, ran with the bulls in Pamplona, met with the Dali Lama, rode camels in the desert near Cairo, danced half naked in the streets of Havana and roamed the bazaars of Istanbul.
While basketball may not have been his sole priority, Dele always acquired the attention of NBA general managers and coaches.
After contract disputes reportedly denied him from signing long term with the Clippers, the 6'10 burly big man decided to sit out nearly all of the 1996-97 season until the defending NBA champion Chicago Bulls came calling.
With Michael Jordan craving some assistance on his front line, Chicago decided to sign Dele nine games prior to the conclusion of the regular season. This short-term move would prove to be extremely beneficial for the Bulls.
After a surprising defeat at home in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Atlanta Hawks, Head Coach Phil Jackson opted to allot Dele extended playing time off the bench. It was, undoubtedly, a brilliant decision.
In spite of having to learn Jackson’s tactics and strategies on the fly, Dele delivered outstanding performances the rest of the series, including posting 14 points in Game 3 and a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) in a series-clinching Game 5.
Though foul trouble was his doom, Dele’s contributions in the NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz were significant as he helped the Bulls capture their fifth NBA championship.
Viewed as an asset to teams with deficiencies in the paint, Dele seemed to have found a long-term home when he agreed to sign a seven-year, $50 million deal with the Pistons.
Considering Dele had never really established himself as a consistent force, it was very peculiar that an organization was willing to offer him more money than any other player in their franchise’s history at that time.
However, in his first season in Detroit, Dele proved the naysayers wrong – averaging 16.2 points and 8.9 rebounds in 1997-98.
That early success, conversely, was not a sign of things to come.
Aside from basketball troubles, there were reports at that time that Dele’s eccentric behavior had become beyond bewildering. By all accounts, for instance, Dele had once traumatized his Detroit teammates by trying to pull the emergency-exit hatch of the team's charter jet at 30,000 feet.
After playing in just 49 games in 1998-99 and with his statistics plummeting, Dele made a very sudden and, considering his relatively young age (30) and remaining dollars on his contract, very baffling decision.
Dele announced his retirement from the NBA prior to the start of the 1999-2000 season. He, as a result, walked away from the remaining five years and $35 million on his contract.
It wouldn’t be long after his retirement that Dele’s name would be restored.
However, it had nothing to do with basketball or newfound glory.
A life packed with bizarre behaviors, atypical decisions, strained relationships and psychological disturbance, Dele’s next, and decisive, saga would become one of mystification.
While sailing along the South Pacific Ocean in July of 2002 with an intimate friend, Serena Karlan, and boat captain Betrand Saido on a catamaran, Dele seemed to be at peace. He was doing exactly what he yearned for: Exploring the world and living an adventurous and free-spirited life.
However, it wasn’t before long that the tranquility and splendor of navigating at sea between Tahiti and Honolulu would develop into an implausible and fatal disaster.
With underprovided evidence to support the actual events that transpired, it is believed that Dele’s brother, Miles Dabord, who like his sibling had also changed his name from Kevin Williams, may have murdered Bison and the two others aboard the boat.
There were very murky reports from the onset of Dele, Karlan and Saido’s disappearance. But, investigators suspected foul play when Dabord piloted the 55-foot catamaran, which was named The Hakuna Matata, back to the marina along Tahiti’s southeastern shore without anyone else aboard.
Less than two months later, police in Phoenix, Arizona detained Dabord after he had forged his brother’s signature on a purchase for posh gold.
After further inspection, authorites discovered what appeared to be bullet holes on the catamaran and suspicion grew immensely that Dabord likely killed his brother, his brother’s girlfriend and boat skipper.
Before he could reveal any secrets about what may have happened in mid-July at sea, Dabord overdosed on insulin and subsequently slipped into a coma.
The elder brother of Bison would ultimately die in late September of 2002 – short of three months before the former NBA star was last seen.
No bodies were ever found between Tahiti and Honolulu. Thus, Dele, 33, Karlan, 30 and Saido, 32, were presumed dead as victims of a likely slay.
While many questions continue to be raised about what happened in July of 2002 and why it may have occurred, many of those who knew the Williams brothers have stated since their deaths that it’s possible jealousy and resentment may have played a role.
It’s not far-fetched to suggest that the vanishing of Dele along with his puzzling NBA career is one of the most bizarre sports-related tales in world history.
Nevertheless, it’s very possible based on the limited amount of information available to authorities; the story behind Dele and his presumed death will always remain an unsolved mystery.
We already know his basketball days are an unsolved mystery. Just ask anyone who ever played with him or coached him.
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