- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 24, 2002

Washington Wizards coach Doug Collins scrunched his face like a deflated basketball and shook his head so vigorously he looked as if he might snap a vertebrae.
Was it a blown defensive assignment? Did Michael Jordan grab his knee?
Nothing like that. A public relations staffer asked Collins if he would talk about Bison Dele, the former basketball player formerly known as Brian Williams, who recently made it known through his agent that he was pondering a return to the NBA.
The unusual name of Dele, an unusual person of great intellect and varied interests and more than a few quirks, apparently lives on in controversy, if not infamy. He seems to remain the kind of odd fellow people nervously glance at and whisper about when he enters the room, not knowing what, if anything, might happen.
Someone who goes 6-foot-11, 260 pounds and can run, rebound, pass and score a little probably could help a team or three in the big man-starved NBA. And news of Dele's prospective return did generate a rumble of intrigue. It also resulted in little action to date and even less public conversation. Collins was mum on the subject. Dwight Manley would not return several telephone calls even though he is the agent who put out the word about Dele. Detroit president Joe Dumars, a former teammate with the Pistons, for whom Dele last played and who still own his rights, also did not respond to inquiries.
Dele walked away from more than $36 million left on his contract after the 1998-99 season and … poof, he was gone, ending a career that was colorful at best, darker and more bizarre at worst. He must still be a touchy subject.
The ACC rookie of the year in 1988 after his one and only season at Maryland (as Brian Williams) before transferring to Arizona, Dele ran with the bulls in Pamplona and earned a pilot's license. He speaks foreign languages and enjoyed skydiving. He changed his name in 1998 to honor his Native American and African roots. While most of his peers consider an exotic locale to be any place that serves drinks with umbrellas, Dele liked to vacation in the Middle East. His father, Tony Williams, was the original lead singer of the famous 1950s group, the Platters.
On the other hand, there was a public bout with depression, a suicide attempt and general behavior considered erratic, even in the whack-fest known as the NBA.
"The kid just marches to a totally different drummer," said former Orlando Magic general manager Pat Williams (no relation), who took Brian Williams in the 1991 draft. "And we can't hear the drumbeat."
Perhaps that is why Manley's trial balloon appears to have been shot down by a volley of skepticism. After word got out, Dumars told reporters, "It's going to be a long process. I have to talk to Dwight and see where Bison is. I read where his body was in great shape, but I want to know what kind of shape he is in mentally. That's just as important."
Denver general manager Kiki Vandeweghe said at the time, "It's definitely something we would take a look at, sure. I've been looking at free agents, obviously, every day. Certainly that guy, when he left the NBA, could still play. I don't know what he looks like now."
When Dumars said he needed to see where Dele is, he might have meant that literally. No one seems to know other than Manley, who doesn't feel like talking. After Dele retired, he reportedly was on an island off the coast of Africa. Then he went to Beirut and bought a desalinization plant, not exactly a common endeavor for retired jocks. He lately has been reported to be in Australia. Indiana Pacers assistant Kevin O'Neill, who worked for the New York Knicks last year, said Australia native Luc Longley swapped e-mails with Dele.
As an assistant at Arizona under Lute Olson in the 1980s, O'Neill recruited Brian Williams out of Santa Monica (Calif.) High School and again after Williams left Maryland during the ill-fated Bob Wade regime. The two have remained close, but O'Neill said they haven't talked in more than a year. "I think he's just sailing and enjoying himself," O'Neill said.
Some believe Dele, who is 32 a young 32, given that he hasn't played in a while can still be productive in the NBA. He is a large, mobile left-hander who can play forward and center.
"He's a good basketball player," said Wizards forward Christian Laettner, a teammate of Dele's with the Pistons. "He's a little different, a little quiet. He likes to keep to himself. He has his own private life. But he's a good guy."
During spins with Orlando, Denver, the Los Angeles Clippers and especially in his final year in Detroit, Dele was known for occasionally lackadaisical or disinterested play. The usually mild-mannered Grant Hill once called Dele a "wimp," thereby adding another uncomplimentary adjective to those already in use.
"He might relax a little," Laettner said. "But if you just talk to him and try to spur him on once in a while, he'd be just fine."
No one questioned Brian Williams' attitude or intensity during his brief stay in Chicago. After running with the bulls, Williams played with the Bulls, joining Chicago with nine games remaining in the 1996-97 season after rehabilitating a knee injury that resulted not from any basketball-related injury but from skydiving. (When he finally admitted it, Williams said, "That came from my agent, who is now my ex-agent. I parachuted. So did George Bush.")
He was a key playoff element, giving the Bulls a big body that proved useful bumping Utah forward Karl Malone and other large fellows.
"We couldn't have won it without Brian Williams," Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf said after Chicago won its fifth championship.
"He was great for us," said Portland guard Steve Kerr, who played with the Bulls back then. "He was in the perfect role, being a complementary guy to Michael [Jordan] and Scottie [Pippen] and even Dennis [Rodman]."
Ah, Rodman. No wonder Williams seemed like just one of the guys.
Kerr also played with Williams in Orlando, and they both belong to the close, extended family of Arizona basketball alums. Ex-Wildcats always seem to gravitate back to Tucson, even if only for a visit. Although Kerr was gone by the time Williams transferred from Maryland, the two got to know each other pretty well.
"He'll admit he's a flake," Kerr said. "He's different. But I love Brian. He just does stuff no one thinks of."
And says things no one thinks of. Once at Arizona he used the phrase je ne se quois, sending reporters scrambling for a French-English dictionary. ("Indescribable verve or flair.")
In Detroit, explaining why he didn't feel like talking after a game, Dele said, "We're modern day gladiators. I don't recall anybody ever interviewing losing gladiators.
Said a reporter: "That's because they were dead."
Responded Dele: "My point exactly."
Then, when he was talking, this time about a lackluster performance, Dele said, "It's an energy thing. My whole day is designed for how I can get as much energy as I can for game time. I'm still trying to figure it out."
When Dele ended up in Beirut, of all places, Kerr was one of the few who wasn't surprised. They often discussed the Middle East, Lebanon in particular. Kerr was born there. So was his father, a career diplomat who was president of the American University in Beirut and was assassinated by terrorists in 1984, when Kerr was a college freshman.
Matt Muehlebach, a teammate of Williams' with the Wildcats, said Williams was a good teammate, different but nothing to get alarmed about.
"He went to polo matches and rode horses," said Muehlebach, a Tucson lawyer and sports agent. "He drove a classic convertible car. … I think the rest of us were pretty shallow. We'd come home from practice and watch ESPN and maybe party on weekends. Brian did other things. We didn't even know what a 'club' meant. For us, it was bars and frat parties. Brian was a guy who went to a lot of 'clubs.'"
Said O'Neill: "Brian was different from most people in that he had so many diverse interests. He was a well-read guy, very knowledgeable about a lot of things. 'Different' is a pretty good term. But not in a bad way."
No doubt about it, Brian Williams/Bison Dele had a certain je ne se quois. But there was more to it than that.
In the spring of 1991, less than two years after playing its first game, Orlando was still struggling. But the Magic, with two picks in the first round, was about to get well, or so it seemed. After one season at Maryland and two at Arizona, Brian Williams was regarded as one of the better big men in college basketball.
Pat Williams said he heard "whispers" about Brian Williams' private life, but nothing was pinned down. When Brian came to Orlando for an interview, Pat found him to be intelligent, friendly and "a little unusual," he said. "But then you saw those physical skills. He never did it all the time, but, boy, there was some good stuff there."
So when it came time for Orlando to pick at No. 10, Pat Williams looked around, saw the likes of Rich King, Anthony Avent and Victor Alexander still available and took Brian Williams. "This was not a lot of Hall of Fame material," said Pat Williams, who has written 20 books and is now a senior vice president of the Magic. "And we had to get big. We had to. Brian Williams was the best of the big people."
In hindsight, Pat Williams said, only Dale Davis would have been a better pick among big men. Williams said he second-guesses himself more for wasting the 23rd pick on overweight center Stanley Roberts. No, Brian Williams would be fine, paired in the frontcourt with sharpshooter Dennis Scott, who was drafted the previous year. The next draft would bring Shaquille O'Neal.
But there was trouble from the start. Following orders from his agent at the time, Fred Slaughter, Williams held out. He missed all of training camp and the first month of the season, falling hopelessly behind. Once he did sign, Williams was ineffective. Then he broke his thumb. The first year was a waste.
More problems surfaced before the next season when Pat heard reports from the Los Angeles summer league that Brian was having "fainting spells." He was in a traffic accident in Orlando. Williams wasn't seriously injured, but he later said he had been contemplating suicide. The Magic brought in a team of psychiatrists, and Brian was diagnosed with clinical depression.
"That was a new one on me," said Pat Williams, who has been involved in the NBA his entire adult life. Brian Williams was out until February. Then he suffered a broken bone in his hand and ended up playing just 21 games.
The Magic traded Williams to Denver after the season, and he played 80 games for the Nuggets, backing up Dikembe Mutombo. After another year in Denver, he was traded to the Clippers. Williams finally realized his potential in 1995-96, averaging 15.8 points and 7.6 rebounds a game as a starter. Then after becoming a free agent, he got hurt skydiving, sat out while rehabilitating the knee and ended up helping the Bulls win a title.
Again a free agent, Williams signed a seven-year contract as the presumed answer to the Pistons' inside problems. Playing center for Detroit in 1997-98, he had his best year statistically, averaging 16.2 points and 8.9 rebounds. But the Pistons slumped in the standings, and Collins was replaced by Alvin Gentry at midseason. After that, Williams changed his name. His game was different, too. Bison Dele wasn't the same player as Brian Williams. His effort and performance declined, his zest for the game seemed to be gone and then he quit.
Pat Williams said he has one particular memory of Brian, during his second season with the Magic. He was at home, dealing with the depression, and Pat dropped by for a chat.
"He was on medication; he was being treated by doctors," Pat Williams said. "I just wanted to tell him that we were all supporting him, that he would get back on his feet again. For about an hour, he spoke in a whisper. His modulation was so soft, he whispered. And I came away thinking that this was a young man who really needs help.
Brian Williams got the help and got his life on track, but he was never more than a tip-in removed from his distinctive persona.
"He's a likable kid," Pat Williams said. "A bright kid, very sensitive. But let's just say he's a very unusual person."
A couple of years ago, Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson was talking to reporters when Dele's name came up.
"I had a special relationship with Brian Williams," said Jackson, the former Bulls coach, adding that Williams was "one of the best students I ever had and one of the brightest kids I've ever had as a basketball player."
But what about Bison Dele?
"I don't know Bison Dele," Jackson said. "I've never met him."

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