PRO BASKETBALL; Dele and Dabord: The Twisting Trail Of Two Brothers
By MIKE WISE
Published: September 22, 2002
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In two separate rows across the length of her dining room table, the mother laid out pictures of her sons. From birth to christening to adolescence and into adulthood, Brian and Kevin -- taking up a row each -- smiled back at Patricia Phillips through more than 30 years.
Brian Williams, the boy with the ice-blue eyes, grew to be 6-foot-11 and became a sometimes troubled, eccentric N.B.A. millionaire. He would travel to Europe for the summer with nothing more than a knapsack and the clothes on his back. He ran with the Chicago Bulls and with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. He once traumatized his Detroit teammates by trying to pull the emergency-exit hatch of a charter jet at 30,000 feet.
In 1998, he changed his name to Bison Dele, to honor his Cherokee ancestry and the first person from his mother's side of the family to be enslaved. Three summers ago, Dele walked away from $35 million and the game that made him famous so he could explore the world.
Kevin Williams grew big and tall, too, to 6-foot-8 and burly as a bear. He ran, swam and played water polo and basketball. But he was a severe asthmatic and never approached athletic success beyond the neighborhood. He changed his name to Miles Dabord. Drifting through jobs and towns in the West, often relying on his younger brother's charity for a new car or motorcycle, he was always ''Brian's brother.''
Today, Dele is missing and presumed dead, and Dabord is in a hospital near San Diego, lying in a coma from which he is not expected to awake. He is the prime suspect in the disappearance of his brother and two other people in Tahiti.
''Miles has always been in his shadow,'' Patricia Phillips said in a telephone interview on Thursday afternoon as wind chimes sounded outside her apartment in Santa Monica, Calif. ''He was always feeling he wasn't as valued or as loved. I'm sure that was in play over the last six months on that boat.
''But I can't lay innocence or blame anywhere, not until I know what happened. I can't make this Cain and Abel until I know for sure.''
On July 8, Dele vanished, as did Serena Karlan, a 30-year-old he was dating, and Bertrand Saldo, a French boat captain in charge of navigating Dele's 55-foot catamaran from Tahiti to Honolulu.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has not publicly identified Dabord as a suspect, but the police in the French Pacific territory of Tahiti think that somewhere in the middle of the South Pacific, Dabord killed all three.
Less than two months later, Dabord resurfaced at Certified Mint, a Phoenix coin shop, where, carrying his brother's credit cards and passport, he wrote a check for $152,000 to purchase American double eagle gold coins. The Phoenix police detained and booked Dabord but did not formally arrest him after he insisted to them that his brother had sent him to pick up the gold.
He was released that night and within days became the subject of an international manhunt, fleeing to Tijuana, Mexico, where he called his mother, from whom he had been estranged for several years. He was crying, she said, when he told her: ''I found something and I tried to cover it up, but I didn't do what they're saying. No one will believe me.'' He then threatened to kill himself.
On Friday morning, Phillips climbed into her car and drove to Chula Vista, Calif., just south of San Diego, where her elder son had been in a coma since at least last Sunday. Dabord had been brought across the border by an unidentified friend and listed as a John Doe at Scripps Hospital in Chula Vista until his fingerprints showed who he was. Today, sheriff's deputies stand sentry a few feet from his hospital bed. Like Dabord's mother, they hope the unconscious man will waken and tell them what happened on that boat off Tahiti.
The catamaran was found 40 miles up the coast from where Dele and his party were last spotted, its nameplate painted over. Dele had named it Hakuna Matata, after the phrase from the Disney film ''The Lion King'' meaning ''no worries.''
Indeed, its owner seemingly had none. Dele had purchased the catamaran in Australia and had been sailing for two years. He was an anomaly as a pro athlete, a man who, when drafted by the Orlando Magic, immediately moved into an unassuming residential neighborhood, far away from Isleworth, an exclusive resort where many teammates had bought homes.
''When I met him in New York after an MTV awards party, he looked like some kind of rocker,'' Dwight Manley, Dele's agent, said. ''He wore funky clothes, funky glasses -- very avant-garde, anti-authority and counterculture.''
Manley described Dele as ''much more cerebral than your average player.''
''He was easily distracted,'' Manley said, ''and wanted to do everything, whether it was flying or surfing or philosophizing.''
A Nomad Who Tested Limits
Dele's father, Eugene Williams, was a bass singer with the second generation of the Platters. Through the 1970's and early 1980's, Dele and his brother spent time traveling with the group and were exposed to places and people that few children born in the central California farming community of Fresno ever dream of.
After their parents divorced when the boys were young, they shuttled between their mother in California and their father in Las Vegas. Dele often looked like a newborn doe as a young high school player, all arms and legs and very gangly. But he grew into his frame, became one of the nation's top recruits and eventually was selected the Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year at the University of Maryland. He then transferred to Arizona, where he was a star for two years.
Leaving school a year early, he was drafted 10th in the first round by the Magic in 1991 and played for five teams during eight nomadic seasons. After rehabilitating from knee surgery, he joined Michael Jordan and the Bulls in 1997 late in their run toward a fifth championship. His coaches said he was more agile and quick than some of the greatest big men they had ever coached, but there was a caveat: Dele had so many other interests outside the game that basketball became a source of income rather than a long-term career choice.
''He was the type of guy who looked you in the eyes, but he looked right through you,'' John Gabriel, the Magic's general manager, said. ''It was hard to reach Brian.''
During his second year in the league, Dele was found to have clinical depression, and he admitted having made at least one half-hearted attempt to commit suicide: He drove an antique car into a telephone poll at a low speed. Afterward, he made it known that that the car did not have seat belts. His mother said he also took sleeping pills and nearly overdosed once during a depression.
He suffered from fainting spells and once lost consciousness during a summer-league game. Gabriel said, however, that Dele overcame his demons and forged a decent career for himself. His short stint with the Bulls led the Pistons in the summer of 1997 to sign him to a contract worth $45 million over seven years. Manley went to dinner with Dele and his father the night the deal was signed in Las Vegas, where Eugene Williams worked as a part-time limousine driver for the Mirage Hotel and Casino.
Phillips said her son supported her financially, enabling her to go back to school and earn a degree in anthropology from U.C.L.A.
Manley said Dele also supported his father and brother in various ways.
Dele was intrigued by limits, especially when it came to flying and fear.
Nearly six years ago, he obtained a pilot's license. He often terrified his passengers while behind the controls of small aircraft. ''He was always playing with the G-force,'' Phillips said. ''He would lift the nose of the plane to the point where the engine would stall. He could have died so many times. Ask anybody who flew with him.''
Jerome Williams, the Toronto Raptor forward who was once Dele's teammate on the Pistons, remembered a particularly unsettling episode in 1999. While the team charter was returning home, Dele tried to pull open the plane's emergency-exit hatch -- at an altitude of more than 30,000 feet.
''We were like, ''What are you doing? No! No!' '' Jerome Williams said. ''People got up and almost went after him before he stopped. He said he wanted to see something. The pilot came back later and told him it was impossible at that altitude. That was just B, always doing something crazy.''
Manley said: ''It's no secret that Brian had psychological problems. In order to deal with those problems he developed a superiority complex of being in charge of everything. The master of his domain.''
While many N.B.A. players spend their summers on Caribbean beaches or at their off-season homes, Dele visited Lebanon almost every summer, where a college friend from Arizona had persuaded him to become a minority partner in a water-treatment complex.
Williams said Dele would often go to Europe with only a backpack in tow. ''He wouldn't take any luggage,'' he said. ''He got on the plane with a backpack and some money and that's it. I don't even know if he had a specific destination.''
When Dele retired from the Pistons in the summer of 1999, he still had five years and $35 million remaining on his contract. Manley, his agent, tried to talk him out of it; Manley estimated that Dele retired with more than $5 million in savings.
''He wanted to explore the world,'' Manley said. ''To him, basketball was not what the world was about. It was a way for him to accumulate a war chest and go on to things he really wanted to do.''
Two weeks ago, Manley called Mitch Kupchak, the general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, regarding the possibility of Dele's returning to the N.B.A. with the Lakers. Just a few days later, Manley learned of Dele's disappearance.
South Pacific Reunion
Wanderlust brought Dele to the white-capped waves of the South Pacific, and in time his brother and Serena Karlan joined him.
Karlan was the college roommate of Dele's high school girlfriend. They had known each other for eight years and were romantically involved for at least one year. She was obtaining her real-estate broker's license in Manhattan when Dele telephoned in December and asked her to come to Australia and sail with him. During the layover before they left for Hawaii, Dele and Karlan spent most of their time on Moorea, an island about 10 miles from Tahiti.
''She was supposed to go out for five weeks, but ended up staying seven weeks,'' her stepfather, Scott Ohlgren, said in a telephone interview from Boulder, Colo. ''She was pretty conservative, so we assumed things had to have been pretty serious for her stay that long.''
In interviews with a family friend who requested anonymity, Dabord is portrayed as quiet, a loner by most accounts who worked as a computer operator in Palo Alto, Calif., among other jobs. His asthma was serious enough that he took prednisone, a highly concentrated steroid that could trigger his temper, his mother said, if he was not weaned off it after 10 days.
''There was an ego struggle for him, the older brother always ground up with a bit of uncertainty about his place -- but nothing alarming,'' Phillips said. ''Miles wasn't a fighter or a malicious person. He would always try and talk his way out of things.''
Neither he nor Dele had seen their mother since Jan. 10, 1999, when their grandmother died.
''When I heard they were sailing together, I thought of these last six months as maybe a way that they had found a way to be close brothers,'' Phillips said. ''For six months, I've had this romantic notion about my boys, just imagining all they were doing and learning and seeing. Now I don't want to think or feel.''
After the Disappearances
In the Tahitian port of Taravao on Friday, the islands' chief prosecutor said investigators had found what appeared to be traces of blood aboard the Hakuna Matata. The evidence has been building against Dabord in the past two weeks.
Of the four who had been aboard the Hakuna Matata, Dabord was the only one seen after July 8. That morning he met the woman he was dating, Erica Weise, at Tahiti's airport, and the two of them spent a week together on the boat. According to The Los Angeles Times, Weise told the authorities in California that Dabord had told her there had been a struggle on the boat that led to the deaths of Dele, Karlan and Saldo. He deflected blame from himself, saying Dele had started the fight.
During the week Weise visited, Dabord somehow navigated the boat up the east coast of Tahiti and got in touch with someone about repairing it. The boat arrived in port on July 16, and, according to family members, Dabord left for Los Angeles on an Air New Zealand flight on July 20. In a matter of weeks, he posed as his brother while trying to buy the gold coins.
''We presume that the bodies of these people must be in the sea, the ocean, and will probably never be found,'' Michel Marote, the chief investigator, told reporters in Tahiti on Friday.
Perhaps the only man who knows what happened is lying in a coma today in a hospital south of San Diego.
On Friday night, Phillips sat about six inches from her son in the hospital bed. She could not get any closer or touch him, she said, because he was still under arrest. Doctors told her that Dabord was severely brain damaged from a suicide attempt in which his brain lost oxygen for at least eight hours. He is not expected to wake from his coma, and Phillips has resigned herself to becoming his legal conservator and making the decision in the next few weeks to have him removed from life support.
''My boys are gone and neither of them can ever tell me what happened,'' Phillips said. ''And even if someone pieces together the story or tells me what Miles told them, that's just for the law, the press and the public. It still doesn't explain what happened inside of the boys. That's all I want to know.''
Photos: The Family -- Kevin, left, and Brian Williams were born in Fresno to eclectic parents. Their father, Eugene Williams, would sing bass for the Platters, and their mother, Patricia Ann Phillips, would become a new-age California mother who practiced yoga and meditation. The boys had an itinerant childhood, spent between California and Las Vegas.; Bison Dele, above, and Miles Dabord, below, with their mother. (Family photographs courtesy of Patricia Phillips); The Man -- Brian Williams ran with the bulls of Pamplona and played with Michael Jordan's Bulls. Given a choice, he would have chosen traveling through Spain rather than playing pro basketball in Chicago. In 1998, he changed his name to Bison Dele. An iconoclastic thrill-seeker who took up flying and then deep-water sailing, he walked away from the N.B.A. and a guaranteed $35 million at age 30 in 1999 to explore the world. ''He was very multilayered and complex,'' his mother said. (Associated Press); The Mystery -- On May 2, the two brothers, Dele's girlfriend, Serena Karlan, above, and a 32-year-old French skipper named Bertrand Saldo set sail from Auckland, New Zealand, on Deles 55-foot catamaran Hakuna Matata. They were bound for Honolulu. During a layover in Tahiti, Dele, Karlan and Saldo vanished. The boat, left, found at the east coast port of Taravao, had been renamed. (Agence France-Presse, left; Associated Press)(pg. 1); Patricia Phillips, at her home in California, says she will never know what went on between her two sons in the South Pacific. (Ana Johansson for The New York Times)(pg. 6)