No more family vacations. Never again, Patricia Phillips vowed, after enduring a disastrous weekend excursion to the Grand Canyon 12 years ago with her sons, Brian and Kevin Williams. Brian, then 21, was a basketball star at Arizona, soon to begin an eight-year NBA career; Kevin, 23, was a computer operator in Palo Alto, Calif. "Those two fought the entire day like little kids, getting into these one-upmanship battles," their mother would say years later. "When I got back to Phoenix I was so ready to have them out of the car, out of my hair. So I never tried any more of those trips."
Her sons failed to heed her example. They occasionally traveled together in the years that followed, and on July 7, Miles Dabord (formerly Kevin Williams) and Bison Dele (formerly Brian Williams) boarded Dele's 55-foot catamaran, the Hakuna Matata, in Tahiti, bound for Hawaii with two others on board. Exactly what happened after that remains a mystery, but the outcome was tragic. As of Monday, Dabord was lying comatose in a Chula Vista, Calif., hospital, the victim of an apparent suicide attempt and the only suspect in what authorities believe to be the murders at sea of Dele, 33; Dele's girlfriend, Serena Karlan, 30; and the captain, Bertrand Saldo, 32.
If Dele has indeed died, the sports world has lost one of its most enigmatic—and life-affirming—figures. Dele vanished once before, in 1999, when he walked away from the five years and $36 million remaining on his contract with the Detroit Pistons and embarked on an odyssey worthy of Jules Verne; had he reached Hawaii, it would have been his first time on U.S. soil in three years. Investigators in Tahiti now believe that his body, and those of Karlan and Saldo, are somewhere in the waters of the South Pacific. "I always figured there were two ways to go," Williams told SI in '98, not long before he changed his name to honor his Cherokee and African ancestry. "You can die from living or you can just die from dying. So many people try to play it safe."
Dele never did. He defied a State Department ban in 1989 and journeyed to Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. A certified pilot with his own four-seat plane, he explored the globe during his NBA off-seasons. He ran with the bulls in Pamplona, rode camels in the desert near Cairo, gambled in Monaco casinos, danced half naked in the streets of Havana and roamed the bazaars of Istanbul. Dele was a latter-day Jack Kerouac, a connoisseur of the Beats whose own poetry revealed more depth than the typical jock verse. One of his poems, Fille du Glace, began: "Girl frigid chosen to be frozen frost bitten kitten no mittens smitten with the notion of a love potion lotion."
The son of a soul man—his father, Gene Williams, was a member of the Platters-Dele played the sax, trumpet and bass, and he read everything from Nietzsche to Nin. "He was quite taken with William Blake," says longtime friend Patrick Byrne, the CEO of an e-tail company. "Blake's art was very Brian-like, in the way it combined elements of the mundane with the dramatic and spiritual."
The 6'11", 260-pound Dele, however, never showed a sustained passion for basketball. He was sidelined for most of his 1992-93 season with the Orlando Magic with clinical depression, swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills on one occasion and crashing a car into a pole on another. Late in the 1996-97 season he joined the Chicago Bulls and helped them win an NBA title, the only time, his friends say, that he was happy in the league. He signed as a free agent with the Pistons, but after two solid seasons in Detroit, where Dele tried to escape the winter doldrums by snorkeling in his wall-sized home aquarium, he suddenly quit the sport.
"He told me—and these were his exact words—that he felt like an organ-grinder's performing monkey," says Byrne. "Every time he thought it was a game, people told him it was a business. And every time he treated it as a job, they told him he didn't have any team spirit."
Dele found peace in, of all places, Beirut. For four months after his '99 retirement, he lived with Ahmad ElHusseini, a Beirut businessman and one of his closest friends since their days as students at Arizona. Dele Jet-Skied in the Mediterranean, deejayed at his favorite club, B18, and trekked with ElHusseini deep into the Bekaa Valley, where they shot off bazookas and AK-47s. "We were having an incredible time," recalls ElHusseini, whose father is a former head of the Lebanese parliament. "But after four months I realized I hadn't worked more than three days total. In a friendly manner, I said, 'Why don't you just go somewhere for a month and come back?' I'm very regretful about that. I never saw him in Beirut again."
ElHusseini says Dele misinterpreted that comment and others as attempts to nudge him back to the NBA. While Dele was in Beirut, ElHusseini received calls from Pistons owner Bill Davidson; an associate of Phil Jackson, Dele's former coach with the Bulls; and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, phoning at the behest of Dele's agent, Dwight Manley. ( Manley also spoke to the Los Angeles Lakers earlier this month about Dele's possible return to hoops.)
And so Dele disappeared again, heading east, ElHusseini says, on a monthslong jag through Indonesia, the Philippines, New Zealand and Australia, where ElHusseini joined him for two weeks in 2000. "When he picked me up at the Sydney airport, he was driving a huge truck, almost like a naval truck," ElHusseini says. "It was big enough to carry two motorcycles, two mattresses, and a boat on top. He was living in it. It had a minikitchen, and he had only the most basic of material needs. He tried to convince me to go into the wilderness with him." ElHusseini told Dele he had no desire to visit the Outback, and so they spent the fortnight reveling in Sydney as the city braced for the Summer Olympics.