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."
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 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.