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Thursday, October 3, 2002
Updated: October 7, 1:52 AM ET
Paradise Lost

By By Tim Keown


In February 2000, Bison Dele and a friend were living along the coast of the Australian Outback, sleeping in the bed of a pick-up, spending their days backpacking and surfing and diving. This was the life Dele had dreamed of, away from the glamour and pressure of the NBA, free of statistical calculations of self-worth. He was out there, in a far-flung somewhere of his own choosing, with the curiosity to explore and the money to do it. In response to my asking for permission to visit him in the Outback to do a story about his life, Dele declined via e-mail: "Thanks for the interest," he wrote, "but a life lived is a life explained."

Bison Dele
 
Dele wasn't fond of public explanations. For one, nobody could get it right. All those people in all those places, from Maryland to Arizona to Orlando to Denver to LA to Chicago to Detroit -- none of them could agree. They labeled him different or weird or unreachable, haughty or aloof or unmotivated.

Judgments were plentiful, explanations scarce. He walked away from the NBA in 1999 to seek adventure, leaving behind more than $30 million on his Pistons contract. But he also left to escape the judgments and sidestep the labels. He did not set out to prove his iconoclastic nature, only to release it. It's no wonder he didn't invite along outsiders and their conventional interpretations.

He declined my request with some thought, though, and with a characteristically cryptic and elusive response. Every so often I would send out another e-mail -- his handle was zobilove -- to see if he had changed his mind. "Just pass along your coordinates," I'd write, "and we'll find you."

The only other communication I received came about a year after the first, in the form of a blank e-mail reply. Given what I knew of Dele's depth of thought, I joked that the blank field symbolized the wide chasm between my desire to bring his story to the world and his desire to have it told. It was deeply deconstructionist. Either that, or it was simply a blank e-mail field.

His story nagged at me, though, sitting there on The Magazine's assignment list, an unsolved case for almost three years. Whenever I spoke to someone who might have known Dele, regardless of the topic at hand, I would ask about him. I went about compiling a mental dossier I never thought I'd use.

So when a vague and confusing news report first appeared in early September, stating that Dele had been missing for close to a month off the coast of Tahiti along with two other members of his boating party, I started remembering those stories. Despite the antiseptic neutrality of the news reports, there was something dire in the tone. No communication for more than a month ... Three people missing ... Dele's brother the lone survivor. It added up to one word: tragedy. Still, from what I knew of Dele's nature, I picked up my own search with a logical first step: I wrote to zobilove, all the while envisioning a large man living in some unconventional way on an untouched land, palms swaying in a gentle breeze. I wanted to write that story.

Needless to say, I never heard back. Dele is presumed dead at age 33, along with his girlfriend, Serena Karlan, 30, and the boat's captain, French-man Bertrand Saldo, 32. Dele's brother, 35-year-old Miles Dabord, died Sept.27 in a Southern California hospital after an apparent insulin overdose taken in Mexico while on the run from authorities. Dabord is suspected of killing the three during a struggle on the boat, but no charges were ever filed, and no other witnesses have come forward.

With those spare facts, and the near-certainty that the case will never reach a satisfactory resolution, I resumed the search for Dele. If I couldn't decipher him in life, maybe I could reconstruct him in death. I set out to fill in that blank field.

***

I started with a phone call to the person who had told me some of the best stories. Clippers equipment manager Pete Serrano is a slight, enthusiastic man who became a close friend and partner in curiosity during Dele's one year with L.A. Serrano can go on forever with his stories -- they're Brian Williams or B-Dub stories to anyone who entered the picture before '98 -- but his favorite concerns an afternoon in Dallas on an off-day during that '95-96 season.

Serrano remembers the phone in his hotel room ringing that day and Dele saying to meet him in the lobby. When Serrano got there, he saw a helicopter in the parking lot. He also saw Williams putting the hard sell on teammate Malik Sealy, who finally relented: Okay, Sealy said, I'll take a ride in the helicopter. (Sealy would die in a tragic car accident in May 2000.)

The three of them, along with the pilot, spent nearly five hours inspecting much of Texas from the air. "It was incredible," Serrano says. "B wasn't going to spend the day in his room. He needed to see things. He had to get out there."

Another time during that season, Williams and Serrano walked through a museum in Philadelphia. Williams took note of all the people staring slack-jawed at his 6'11", 270-pound body. "So he says to me, 'Pete, I know people think I'm crazy,'" Serrano says. "'But the thing about life is, the s-- doesn't come to you. You've got to go ... to ... it.'"

***

Since his retirement, Dele lived that mantra full-time. He spent several months in Beirut, where he owned a piece of a friend's water-purification plant. He went to Europe with just a backpack. He ran with the bulls in Pamplona. He traveled extensively, and alone, in Indonesia and India. He dated Madonna. He once said the Earth was his home, and he its king. He was an adventurer, a huge man with startling green eyes, no fixed home and few obligations.

In the world of pro sports, where reading the front section of a newspaper can be considered quirky intellectualism, Dele existed on the margins. He once read a biography of jazz great Miles Davis and told Orlando teammate Tom Tolbert, "I wish I had the passion for basketball that he did for music."

He could ride his bicycle from Tucson to Denver (or Phoenix to Salt Lake City, depending on who's telling the story) with only a credit card. He could buzz the Pistons' practice facility in his own plane, then call an assistant coach minutes later, laughing his ass off, asking him if he enjoyed it.

He could tell the Pistons to divide his playoff share among the ballboys, trainers and janitors. He could show up at his apartment complex in Tucson during his junior year at Arizona in a full polo outfit, helmet in hand, to the astonishment of the folks sitting by the pool.

He could play, too. He could run the floor like a point guard and toss in a baseline jump hook with buttery smoothness. He was getting better every year, but his desire never matched the effort needed to truly excel. "He knew he could have been one of the best players in the past 10 or 15 years," former UA teammate Matt Muehlebach tells me. "And he knew if he had had a passion for the game 24 hours a day, maybe he would have been one of the best."

No one could really understand that part, and Dele grew tired of the effort needed to explain it. He was who he was. So he left for good, roaming the land before making the South Pacific and his catamaran his de facto home.

Bison Dele
Bison Dele died as he lived -- in a cloud of mystery.
Where does the search go from here? How do we pick up Dele's life after his death? It seems cruel that Dele, who believed his life needed no elucidation, would suffer a death so wickedly inexplicable. The search leads to a twisted, sad tale mixing elements of the Old Testament's Cain and Abel with the unique stresses of the modern-day athlete. It seems almost reflexive to pick up the Bible and find the story of the first brothers, but there are two passages from very different places to consider:

And in the process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the Lord.

And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering:

But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.

--Genesis 4:3-5

***

People always gravitated to Brian, even before he became a celebrity. Miles is studious and quiet. He grew up in his brother's shadow. Everything that happened to Brian was so much bigger than what happened in Miles' life. I think that manifested in Miles to the point where he was telling himself, "My mother doesn't love me, and she never will."
--Patricia Phillips, mother of Miles Dabord and Bison Dele, Los Angeles Times, Sept. 12, 2002

The sibling rivalry seemed unavoidable. While being held in Phoenix on Sept. 5 after using his brother's identification -- and his money -- in an attempt to buy $152,000 in gold coins, Dabord reportedly admitted his true identity by saying, "Brian got all the talent and luck in the family."

Bison was strong and athletic, fluent in sports and music. Miles was a deep-thinking loner, a huge man (6'8", 260) whose severe asthma turned him toward books and chess. Miles lived with the twin pressures of being the brother of a pro basketball player and the son of a well-known entertainer (Eugene Williams, a second-generation member of the Platters). Miles was caught between America's two great passions: sports and show business.

Was Dele's demise shocking or inevitable? Was Dabord a cold-blooded killer or himself a victim of an incident he couldn't possibly explain? Did the shadow of his brother -- the fame, the wealth -- make him believe no one would buy a story that included Bison as a villain?

This much seems clear: Dele and Dabord were on parallel paths, both gradually seceding from society. They had been estranged from their mother for more than three years. As the years passed, they kept in touch with fewer and fewer people. Dele jumped from country to country, trip to trip. Dabord hopped from job to job, apartment to apartment. Dele changed his name to honor his family's Cherokee heritage and the first slave on his mother's side. Dabord then changed his name from Kevin Williams to honor Miles Davis and an ancestor.

Dabord left his job as a freelance computer operator and spent the better part of the past six months with his brother. He had a history of reappearing in his brother's life when his financial conditions demanded it.

Take this search back for a moment, back to Auckland, New Zealand, February 2002. Miles shows up unannounced on the dock. Dele and Karlan are aboard the Hakuna Matata, Bison's 55-foot catarmaran. He finds them. They look up and see ...

Miles.

Were they happy to see him? Were there hugs and backslaps and eager introductions? Or was this the beginning of the end?

***

The movie version of this mystery would be shot from Kevin Porter's point of view. Dele and Porter met in college and became close friends; when Bison turned pro, Porter became his business manager. Porter knew Dabord, signing the checks that Bison approved to help out his brother. Porter says the brothers' relationship was friendly but often marked by "small verbal altercations ... They were always out to establish who was the alpha, who was the top dog."

It was Porter who discovered the check Dabord forged for the gold. He tracked a telephone number at which Dabord is heard on an answering recording posing as Bison. He arranged for the sting that brought Dabord into the custody of Phoenix police after he attempted to pick up the gold.

Porter's own search has occupied his life. His quest is fueled in large part by guilt. He introduced Dele and Karlan; he believes he could have defused any volatile situation between Dele and Dabord. Porter's equation -- his absence plus Dabord's presence equals four dead bodies -- is too horrible to consider. I tell him it is also irrational, and unfair to him. We're in a hotel room outside Detroit, and he is providing a linear, detailed account of his search. "I'm a troubled man," he says at one point. "I'm depressed by night and frustrated by day."

The night of Dabord's arrest and release (for lack of evidence, Phoenix police say, and how were we to know his brother didn't approve the transaction?), Porter spent over 10 hours interrogating Bison's hulking brother. Their wandering, sleepless night ended at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, where their discussions turned confrontational.

At roughly 5 a.m., they began to scuffle. Porter, a burly fireplug of a man, grabbed Dabord by the neck and screamed, "You have to start telling me something now! Where are they?"

"Come to Mexico with me," Dabord said.

When Porter asked why, he says Dabord told him, "We're in a state that carries the death penalty. I'm flying to a state [California] that carries the death penalty. In order for me to tell you anything I have to be in Mexico." Porter's tone, three weeks later, is still confused. He doesn't know what to believe.

***

No one in Serena Karlan's family had met Dele, but they encouraged their daughter to pursue this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Perhaps that is part of the reason why Scott Ohlgren, Serena's stepfather, has turned his home near Denver into a nerve center for any information -- news reports, e-mails generated through whereisbison.com -- he can find. A towering, intense man who writes nutritional books, Scott tells and retells the story, repeating the chronology as if through sheer repetition some forgotten clue will emerge and everything will make sense.

Serena's mother, Gael, walks quietly and speaks rarely. Her husband wants answers, and she wants peace. She makes lunch for the two of them, busying herself in the process. She is present but not here. "Up until a week ago I held out hope, but now ... " she says, shrugging while spreading something healthy on a tortilla. Her voice fades like smoke.

This is Bison Dele too, right here in this house. Here is the convincing, suave part of him, the part that could use his charm and his money (he gave Serena $50,000 after she complained of debt) to get this striking 30-year-old New York City real estate broker to drop her life and follow him. He may have removed himself from the NBA life, but he continued to partake of its favors.

***

Inexorably, my search led me to Erica Wiese, Dabord's girlfriend. She traveled to Tahiti on July 8, the day after the final communication from the boat, and stayed for one week. She says she never saw any member of the party except Dabord. "I didn't think it was unusual, because Miles told me they were on [the island of] Raiatea," she says. "I had no reason to think it wasn't true."

Wiese tells me Dabord's demeanor was "very normal," although the couple "got into some tiffs during that time. But you have to remember, we had been separated for about five months." It was not until she drove Dabord from Northern California to San Diego on Sept. 7 that Wiese learned of the deaths aboard the Hakuna Matata. Dabord told her there was a scuffle between him and Dele, which resulted in Karlan being knocked to the deck and killed instantly. Dele, fearing the captain would radio for help, killed Saldo with a wrench. When Bison threatened to turn the wrench on him, Dabord told her, he found Dele's handgun and shot his brother in self-defense.

"This has been so hard," Wiese says. "I didn't see anything. I didn't hear anything."

We're talking on the phone, and there's a pause. She laughs nervously and says she can't believe she's saying this much.

I ask her what she thought of Dabord's story.

There is another pause.

"I have so many questions," she says.

***

Questions are the only constant. Dele's life was seen as a headlong charge toward something -- a new book, a new adrenaline rush, a new land. But it seems he was running just as surely away from something -- a statistic, an expectation, a label. He was running away from those who paid him and coached him to have the passion he knew he'd never have. And he was running away from those who would insist on an explanation. He was running away from his gift, and maybe even from the brother who resented it.

Every step he took toward one destination was a step away from the last. And the whole time we were searching for Bison Dele, he was out there, somewhere, doing the exact same thing.

This article appears in the October 14 issue of ESPN The Magazine.