Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

The Timeless Legacy of Bison Dele

In the October 21st issue of Sports Illustrated, the one with Kobe on the cover, the always professional, crisp-writing Chris Ballard wrote a thoroughly-researched and touching piece about the life and disappearance of Bison Dele; a former NBA player formerly known as Brian Williams. If you’re unfamiliar with Dele’s story, I’d highly recommend Ballard’s piece. In lieu of its online availability; here’s a quick, far-too-brief summary (Ballard’s piece as posted online after I wrote this and can be found here):

Williams was a curious, artistic man with world class basketball ability. He reached the Mount Olympus of basketball achievements – an NBA title. And at the age of 29, Dele walked away from the game. He traveled the world – Lebanon, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and had intended to sail all the way to Hawaii from Tahiti. The final trip was made with his brother, Miles Dabord (formerly Kevin Williams), his girlfriend Serena Karlan, and the captain, Bertran Saldo. Somewhere along the way, Dele, Karlan, and Saldo disappeared. Dabord later surfaced in Phoenix, was seen in Mexico and died in a San Diego hospital a few months after Dele’s catamaran set sail. Dabord’s death was ruled a suicide while the bodies of the other three were never found. While no evidence exists, it no longer appears Dele & Company are with us.

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This happened back in July of 2002; somehow over ten years have passed. I was 21 at the time, in college and followed the story from afar. That Dele had changed his name was peculiar enough in a league where a follow-the-leader mentality is so strong. I remember him as a very good player; one of the better bigs the Bulls had during any of the championship seasons. I remember him being very intense on the court with those piercing green eyes that added to the mystery of his person and intensity of his play. At the time of his disappearance, which was even more confusing because Dele and his brother had both changed their names so news stories often mentioned multiple names and made it seem like more people were involved than there actually were, details kept trickling out that increased my intrigue in Dele. Keep in mind, I was 21 going on 22 at the time; heading into my fourth year of college, still attracted to the romance of the alternative Beatnik lifestyle and Dele, in all his willingness to step away from the golden handcuffs an NBA contract affords, was a fascinating and tragic story.

All these years, Dele’s story has sustained my interest. If someone drops a Dele reference, I try and insert myself into the conversation. The topic excites me, it invigorate me. And as I read Ballard’s SI piece, which so elegantly did justice in profiling the man Dele was and how he became that man, I started to make the connections to the magnetism of Dele’s story and my own experiences. If you’ve read Dancing with Noah with any regularity, you’ve likely picked up on themes of pain, loss, the intrigue of lost potential. Whereas my focus here has always been about who or what a player could’ve become if he’d stayed healthy; how the NBA landscape would’ve changed if Greg Oden and Brandon Roy were healthy; how these painful splashes reverberate out and change the basketball panorama overtime. Well, Dele’s disappearance didn’t have much of an impact on the NBA’s future. For me, the allure of Dele was his maverick eccentricity. The strength of his individuality to step away from a $36-million contract is a courageous and enviable trait for me (and some might call it a stupid or poor decision – hence the courage to make it). Furthermore, there are elements of Dele’s spirit in this blog’s namesake, Joakim Noah. Both players have partaken in rich, vibrant existences off the court where music, art, and individual celebration are mutual themes. It only makes sense that the ethos that attracted me to Noah attract me to Dele as well.

In Ballard’s piece, he recounts a story of Dele reading a biography of Miles Davis and tearing up during the reading. A teammate asked him why he was crying and Dele responded, “I just wish I had the same passion for basketball that Miles had for music.” Dele was more comfortable financially than most of us can ever wish to be so I don’t want to go overboard in honoring him for walking away from a job he didn’t love when he was in the rare financial position to not be dependent on a career, but in a modernity where many of us feel trapped in soulless, thankless careers, Dele offered a hopeful alternative of escape; the pursuit of self through travel and adventure.

Bison Dele was a beautiful, open human being who wrestled with his own monsters like so many of us do. He had a troubling childhood and a problematic relationship with his family that drove him halfway across the world. He was willing to walk away from the material world our culture values and explore his own need for meaning. While doubtful it was his intent, the echoes of Dele’s spirit can still be heard, over ten years after his disappearance and will continue to be both a tragic and hopeful tale for anyone willing explore it.

 

*Note: I don’t write this to mythologize or hold Dele up on a pedestal of any sort. Rather, to communicate my experience with Dele’s free-spirited decision to break away from what has the appearance of being a dream life full of money, security, women, competition, friendships and games. As Dele’s and Dabord’s own mother put it, “Brian was not a saint, and Miles was not the monster he’s been made out to be.” Dele was far from perfect, but within that imperfection was fully and complexly human.

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