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Hoop dreamer

Eccentric, erudite Dele exceptional among athletes
Posted: Wednesday September 25, 2002 8:37 PM

By Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated

Last Friday, when I began reporting the Bison Dele saga for this week's Sports Illustrated, one thing quickly became clear: As compelling as the headline "BISON DELE PRESUMED MURDERED AT SEA" may have been for most sports editors around the country, they were missing an even more remarkable story. Namely, why did Dele suddenly quit the NBA in 1999, leaving a guaranteed $36 million on the table? And what exactly had Dele been doing over the last three years as he traveled on his hegira around the world?

What I learned was this: In life, even more than in his apparent death, Dele was sui generis, the sports world's William Blake. Who else embodied the contemporary American fantasies of both childhood (becoming a professional athlete) and adulthood (leaving everything behind to experience as much of the world as possible)? As Jim Rosborough, one of Dele's coaches at Arizona, told me, "There's no question Brian's teammates wished he had been more serious about his basketball. But in hindsight, maybe he had life figured out better than the rest of us."

Back when his handle was Brian Williams, Dele wasn't close to any of his NBA teammates, choosing instead to hang with a crew that had nothing to do with basketball. His two closest friends were Ahmad ElHusseini, a Beirut businessman whom he met during their college days at Arizona, and Patrick Byrne, a guy who at various times has been a Stanford lecturer, a heavyweight boxer, a financial analyst for Warren Buffett and (currently) a dotcom CEO.

Before Dele left the Detroit Pistons in '99, the three Musketeers -- Dele, ElHusseini and Byrne -- had an annual reunion, in which they would spend a week together at some far-flung place, party like rock stars and suck the marrow out of life. Over the years, Dele journeyed everywhere, from Pamplona to Cairo, Monaco to Havana, Mexico City to Morocco. One time, he and Byrne rode 800 miles on bicycles from Salt Lake City to Phoenix, carrying nothing more than a credit card.

"Brian was as smart, sensitive and intelligent as any student I had in any college course," says Byrne, who remembers Dele devouring Blake's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.

It was ElHusseini who gave Dele the name his closest friends called him: Zobi, after a song by the French gypsy band Negresses Vertes called Zobi La Mouche (Zobi the Fly). When Dele retired from the NBA, he spent the next four months living in Beirut with ElHusseini and his girlfriend, all the while trying to evade everyone connected to his basketball career, from his family to his coaches to (of all people) the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who called and tried to get him to reconsider his decision.

Dele was at peace with his decision, ElHusseini told me. "Zobi took the time to explain to me how much he loved the art of playing basketball," he says. "But he despised the politics and b.s. of competition, the money involved and the pressure from teams, advertisers and people close to him."

In the few vague reports about Dele's whereabouts the last three years, he was said to be a part-owner of a water-purification plant in Beirut, as if he were wearing a business suit to work every day. Nonsense. While Dele was in fact a silent partner in Aqua Blue, ElHusseini's Beirut-based water company, he never spent a second on the clock there. "With the help of Patrick and some other guys, Zobi's been able to wisely invest his money and make some profit," ElHusseini says.

"My impression is he had $10 million to $15 million socked away when he left," says Byrne. "That was his goal. He didn't need $30 million."

Indeed, Dele lived a spare existence after leaving Beirut, routing his course through India, Indonesia, the Philippines and New Zealand. When he arrived in Australia, he lived out of a truck, ElHusseini says, often driving by himself into the Outback. "Have you seen The Thin Red Line?" asks ElHusseini. "There's a line when Sean Penn asks a guy, 'Do you ever get lonely?' And he replies, 'Only when I'm around people.' Zobi always repeated that line."

Observers who compared Dele to Dennis Rodman missed the point. Yes, the one-time teammates shared the same agent (Dwight Manley), the same girlfriend (both have dated Madonna) and similar social circles. (Rodman was tight with Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, while Dele shared a hotel suite during the 1997 NBA Finals with Smashing Pumpkins lead singer Billy Corgan).

Look deeper, though, and Dele and Rodman were nothing alike. Dele was the most cultured pro athlete of the last decade, perhaps ever -- his tastes ranged from Kierkegaard to Kant to Miles Davis -- while Rodman was nothing more than an "outrageous" knucklehead whose act became tiresome after, oh, about five minutes. "The only thing I ever learned from Dennis," Dele told SI's John Ed Bradley in '98, "was how to rebound."

Dele's friends say he was an independent thinker of the highest order, a view that's reinforced by his response to rumors about his supposed homosexuality. "People can think whatever they want about that," he told Bradley. "The person who stands up and proselytizes that's he's not gay, now he's the one you have to wonder about. As for myself, I don't give a s---. Think I'm gay, or think I'm straight, it doesn't matter. Why is there such a need to know, anyway?"

"Brian was a cerebral guy, a loner, but the truth was, he was never gay," Byrne says. "It was just that people started asking him, and even though it started getting to him he had too much class to deny it."

To my everlasting regret, I never met Bison Dele. He was a troubled soul, no doubt, having suffered from clinical depression, and yet I can now say with complete certainty that he had more depth than any athlete I've ever covered. As I wrote this column, I kept listening, over and over, to Dele's pal Corgan belting out the Smashing Pumpkins anthem Bullet With Butterfly Wings:

The world is a vampire set to drain.
Secret destroyers
Hold you up to the flames.
And what do I get for my pain?

Here's hoping Zobi really did find his peace, somewhere. His friend Byrne is convinced he did. After all, following his three-year spell outside the U.S., Dele was coming full circle on his voyage to Hawaii, and not just in the literal sense. His agent recently spoke with the Los Angeles Lakers about Dele's possible return to hoops, and hotel workers in Tahiti often spotted a basketball in his hands.

"Because he was going to Hawaii, I wouldn't have been surprised if he was thinking of coming back for the NBA season," says Byrne. "The tragedy is, Brian had finally become the guy he'd always wanted to be. You got the feeling he had laid all those demons to rest. Brian's life was an epic, but he had a second act coming. It might have been in the NBA or it might have been somewhere else, but his second act was going to be even better than the first."

Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl contributes frequently to CNNSI.com. His story, "The Mysterious Case of Bison Dele," appears in the Sept. 30, 2002, issue of SI.