Everyone has a favorite Bison Dele story. He is one of those guys you have favorite stories about. There are not too many people like that, though I never could call him Bison. Brian Williams was fine with me.
He played briefly for the Chicago Bulls during their fifth championship season in 1996-97. The NBA's peculiar salary cap rules prevented the Bulls from offering Williams a substantial contract, and I was a little surprised he moved on to the Detroit Pistons for more than $50 million over seven years.
Money never seemed to matter much to Williams, who was one of the most generous athletes I've ever encountered. Also, one of the few. He routinely would give his playoff share, by that time more than $100,000, to ballboys or clubhouse attendants. Like his teammate that season in Chicago, the equally unconventional Dennis Rodman, Williams seemed to relate better with the staff around the team rather than the players themselves. Whereas Rodman was unusually shy, especially for an exhibitionist, Williams was different.
Basketball defines him the least. Even during his playing days, he was an adventurer and outdoorsman. He rejected the nightclubs and women chasing so common among pro athletes for individual experiences, from running with the bulls (the real tough ones) in Pamplona to hang gliding or skin diving. It is perhaps why the big rumor about Williams early in his NBA career was that he was gay. However, as the characters said in the old Jerry Seinfeld show, "not that it's a bad thing." NBA players just didn't know what to make of Williams, although when he was reported missing this week, it was with his latest girlfriend.
It will be a tragedy if Williams is lost, as his family seems to fear. Though it will be a greater loss because it is Brian Williams. There are just so few like him. Basketball may not need more like him, but society does.
In his two seasons in Detroit, Williams drove head coach Doug Collins to distraction, but he played well for the Pistons, averaging 16.2 points and 8.9 rebounds his first season. At 6-foot-11 and 260 pounds, he was a classic post man. He is left-handed -- no surprise there -- in shooting and behavior. And he's strong. His move to the basket was almost unstoppable, especially with NBA players unaccustomed to seeing the shot coming from the left hand. But, not surprisingly, Williams didn't care for Detroit.
Not to live around the Great Lakes is not to understand. It's not only the snow and cold. One can go weeks without seeing the sun. Brian Williams' life was lived in sunshine.
So this is what he did: He purchased a gigantic fish tank -- the size of one wall -- for his home. He loaded it with all sorts of tropical fish and then got himself some snorkeling gear. After practice, Williams would go home and stick his head in the tank and imagine he was snorkeling in the South Pacific. He'd come to practices and tell his teammates about his adventures in his tank and how it took him out of feeling of being locked in the Midwestern winter.
Sometimes there was a practiced intellectualism with Williams that seemed affected. It occasionally distanced him from teammates. But he always made you smile. He was sensitive to snubs, and even good natured lampooning in the media often produced a hurt look and a request for an explanation. You always felt badly when you made fun of him, which was too easy to do.
And the NBA lockout probably ended his basketball career.
Williams had played through a few injury-plagued seasons in Orlando, then began to blossom in Denver and then with the Clippers. His success in L.A. earned him his shot with the Bulls after holding out most of the season and a big contract with the Pistons. He proved he could make it, and that really was enough.
The NBA sat out until January of 1999. Eight months away from the game, Williams came back Bison Dele, a combination of names to recognize his heritage and desire. He'd began practicing a religion, though I never was sure which one it was. He played through that 50-game season with a pretty good Pistons team that narrowly lost its opening-round playoff series to Atlanta. But that long time off apparently was too much. Williams never really seemed to like basketball that much. Like a lot of big men, he played because it was expected. But his loves were elsewhere. The difference was Williams had the resolve to pursue them. He didn't follow the pack; he didn't do what was socially acceptable. He was torn because he desired acceptance, but he never really sought it.
So he went to the Pistons and said he was retiring. They begged him to stay. They needed him. They also owed him more than $30 million. He said he didn't want it.
He could have feigned injury. But he'd had enough in his career. He could have hung around and collected the money. But that didn't matter to him. It was happiness, exploration, adventure -- squeezing every experience out of life and giving.
Pistons oldtimers remember the time the longtime basketball secretary was leaving. The team asked players to contribute $100 each toward a gift, and most of them did. Williams invited the secretary to his home and cooked her a gourmet dinner, then handed her an envelope and wished her well. It contained $10,000. He gave Collins and team executives Christmas gifts, and Collins later said in several decades in basketball he'd never known players to give coaches and general managers holiday gifts. And it wasn't a tie. He had crystal sculptures made of the Pistons' horse logo.
Though when you asked about Williams, the most frequently used adjective was "flaky." There is an ethic and generally accepted behavior in professional sports, and Williams didn't fit any category.
He left the Pistons and then someone heard he was running a water treatment plant in Beirut. And then he was buying a Catamaran and sailing the Pacific. Family members believe it is where his life may have ended at age 33. But I wouldn't be surprised to find out someday he'd become a king on a remote South Seas island. It's just what he might choose to do next. And I'll always smile when I think about Brian.
Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, writes a weekly column for ESPN.com.