What Happened to the NBA's Brian Willams, aka Bison Dele?
The history of professional sports is not without its own batch of terrifying, unsolved mysteries, and tops among them might be the disappearance of former NBA center Bison Dele, who played most of his career as Brian Williams. Dele disappeared while sailing in the South Pacific Ocean along with his girlfriend, Serena Karlan, and boat captain Bertrand Saldo in 2002.
Williams was a well-known, well-respected player during his NBA career — never a star but a bona fide role player who won an NBA championship alongside Michael Jordan on the Chicago Bulls in 1997.
We wanted to take a look at the life and mysterious disappearance of Bison Dele and explore the fascination with it that still continues 20 years later.
From Fresno to Basketball Stardom
Bison Dele was born as Brian Williams on April 9, 1969, in Fresno, California — Easter Sunday — and was the second son to Patricia Phillips and Geno Williams, who was a professional singer and performed with The Platters in the 1970s. Dele was raised with his older brother, Kevin Williams.
At 6-foot-11, Dele was a high school basketball star in two different states, first at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas as a junior and then at Santa Monica Catholic High School in Santa Monica, California, where he averaged 17.3 points, 12.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.5 steals and 9.1 rebounds as a senior.
Dele signed with the University of Maryland but came to campus in the wake of the death of Len Bias and left soon after, transferring back to the West Coast and the University of Arizona.
From Tucson to the NBA
Dele blossomed at the University of Arizona under legendary head coach Lute Olson, where he averaged 12.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks over two seasons and was an All-Pac-10 selection as a senior in 1991.
Someone as big and as skilled as Dele was bound to have NBA teams welcome him with open arms. Not surprisingly, he was selected by the Orlando Magic as the No. 10 overall pick in the 1991 NBA Draft.
NBA Vagabond Wins World Championship
Dele's NBA career was marked by his constant movement between teams — and his productivity.
He played two seasons for the Orlando Magic and two seasons for the Denver Nuggets before playing one season for the Los Angeles Clippers in 1995-96, where he averaged career highs of 15.8 points and 7.6 rebounds. A contract dispute forced him to miss most of the 1996-97 season before he was signed by the Chicago Bulls and became a key backup player on the way to the franchise winning its fifth NBA championship.
Retiring in His Prime
His short time with the Chicago Bulls made Bison Dele a hot commodity as an NBA free agent, and he took a big-money offer with the Detroit Pistons — a whopping, seven-year, $45 million contract.
Dele wasn't without problems during his career. He was diagnosed with clinical depression and attempted suicide in 1992, but treatment and therapy helped keep his mental health issues in check. Still, teammates reported several disturbing incidents, including one time on a team flight where Dele insinuated he was going to pull the emergency door on the plane mid-flight.
Dele changed his name from Brian Williams before the 1998-99 season and retired before the start of the 1999-2000 season at 30 years old, still in his prime and with five years and $36.45 million left on his contract.
Sailing Off Into the Sunset
While Dele may have left almost $40 million in NBA earnings on the table, he was already set financially for the rest of his life. In just eight seasons in the NBA, he made an estimated $20 million — he also lived a lifestyle that wasn't really comparable to most of his NBA teammates.
"He drove the same, old car the whole time, he didn't wear jewelry, and I don't think he even owned a suit," said former teammate Shaquille O'Neal in the TNT documentary series Rich & Shameless. "I think I realized at one point 'Oh, OK, you're saving your money … you're going to be one of those guys that lives in a house by the beach for the rest of your life.'"
Hakuna Matata … What a Wonderful Boat
Dele's plans for retirement were definitely to be on the water … although not necessarily living in a house by the beach.
He spent a few years traveling the world after his retirement and exploring his interests outside of basketball. He was a trained saxophonist and also played the violin and trumpet. He earned his pilot's license and, in concert with his NBA career, traveled from exotic location to exotic location, living in Lebanon, the Mediterranean and the Australian outback.
In the beginning of 2002, Dele began a step toward something that would establish roots for himself — sort of — when he learned to sail and purchased a catamaran he named the "Hakuna Matata" in Tahiti and began exploring the South Pacific.
Who Was Serena Karlan?
Serena Karlan was a Berkeley, California, native who had an on-again, off-again relationship with Dele in the years following the end of the career. She took up his invitation to come sail the South Pacific Ocean in October 2001 after she lost her job in New York City following 9/11.
Both Dele and Karlan kept up steady contact with their families, friends and banks as they lived together and sailed together over the next year.
Once, Karlan's mother said she talked to her and was concerned about Dele's "mood swings" in April 2002, but the interactions were mostly described as positive.
Red Flags for Family and Friends
Karlan's mother began to raise red flags about her daughter's whereabouts in July 2002 when she didn't receive a call from her daughter on her birthday. Around the same time, Dele's friends and family began to wonder about his whereabouts as well.
Within weeks, Dele's longtime assistant and friend, Kevin Porter, obtained access to his financial records and noticed one big discrepancy — a check for $152,000 from Dele issued to Certified Mint Inc. in Phoenix, Arizona, with a phone number on the back.
Porter called the number, and a voice identified himself as "B" — Bison Dele — but Porter knew it wasn't Dele's voice. In fact, he knew exactly who the voice belonged to.
Who Was Miles Dabord?
Porter recognized the voice pretending to be Dele on the phone as Dele's brother, Miles Dabord, previously known as Kevin Williams.
Dabord, who also had a long history of mental illness and clinical depression, had been financially dependent on his brother for a long period of time. However, in recent years, he had been cut off after several businesses Dabord thought up and Dele funded had fallen flat.
Phoenix authorities set up a sting to nab Dabord as he tried to cash the check, and they arrested him on Sept. 6, 2002 when he tried to sign the check as Dele.
But Dabord had a wild story to tell.
Getting Away With Murder?
While Dabord denied any involvement in his brother's death to authorities, he allegedly told a different story to his attorney, Paul White.
Dabord told White that it was Dele who killed both Karlan and the boat's captain, Bertrand Saldo, during a scuffle on the boat. Then, Dabord killed Dele in self defense and dumped the bodies over the edge of the boat in the ocean around July 7, 2002. Dabord then brought back the boat to Tahiti on his own.
With a lack of evidence, Dabord was released by the Phoenix authorities. He was found one week later at the Tijuana border crossing near San Diego, unconscious and overdosed on insulin. Dabord was in a coma for several weeks before he was taken off life support and died on Sept. 26, 2002, at 35 years old.
Will the Mystery of Bison Dele’s Disappearance Ever Be Solved?
The FBI, Phoenix authorities and French authorities all believe the same thing — that Miles Dabord killed his brother, Serena Karlan and Bertrand Salto, dumped their bodies in the ocean and tried to cover up the murders.
Dele's boat, the Hakuna Matata, was later found abandoned in Tahiti, with its name painted over and with bullet holes covered up on deck — it was eventually sold by Dele's mother, Patricia Philips. The sad truth? The chance of the disappearance of Dele, Karlan and Salto ever being solved likely died with Dabord — one of the main reasons it remains one of the most intriguing cold cases in professional sports history.