NBA's Brisker and Dele similar in life — and in death

John Brisker: Left country in 1980s, disappeared in Uganda, never found. Declared dead in 1985 at age of 38.

Bison Dele: Disappeared after sailing catamaran from Tahiti en route to Honolulu, presumed dead at age 33. Prime suspect in disappearance is his brother.

They came from different eras. And their games were as different as the times they played.

John Brisker was a slippery-smooth guard with a shooting stroke pure as sugar cane. And Bison Dele was a powerful 6-foot-11 forward, as light on his feet as a dancer.

They played in very different NBAs.

Brisker was one of the first players to jump to the NBA from the old American Basketball Association, coming to the Sonics in 1972. Back then the league was as young and naive as a middle schooler. It was a rogue's gallery of characters and ruffians. It was Dodge City before the sheriff rode into town.

Dele was a product of the new NBA. He was part of the wave that spiked TV ratings and filled beautiful, new arenas. He was part of a Chicago Bulls dynasty, the 1997 team that grabbed the imagination of this country like the Apollo astronauts did two decades earlier.

Brisker and Dele were very different, yet they had many similarities. They shared some of the same demons. Both led secret lives. Both seemed to struggle against the fates. Both led lives of quiet desperation.

They were enigmas. Almost everything in the lives seemed urgent and wild and electric. There was a restlessness to both of them.

"They were similar in that both were very much into themselves," said Tom Nissalke, who was Brisker's first head coach in Seattle and was an assistant with Denver in 1994-95 when Dele, then known as Brian Williams, played for the Nuggets. "They were two guys who kept to themselves, and we knew very little about what they did off the floor.

"But there was one big difference between them. I don't think Brian had a mean bone in his body. And I think John had a lot of mean bones."

With Brisker, life was always war-time. Dele was a man of peace. But both apparently have died under similarly violent and mysterious circumstances.

Brisker left the country in the 1970s, eventually associating with Idi Amin, then ruler of Uganda. He disappeared there, apparently after some business dealings went wrong. King County finally declared him dead in 1985 at the age of 38.

Now Dele, 33, is missing and presumed dead, after sailing his 55-foot catamaran from Tahiti to Honolulu. The prime suspect in his disappearance, Dele's brother Miles Dabord, is near death, lying in a coma in a Chula Vista, Calif., hospital.

Two gifted players. Two troubled lives. Two tragedies. Brisker and Dele were so similar and so very different.

"Both were very sensitive to criticism," Nissalke said. "I remember people used to yell 'Psycho' and things like that at B-Dub (Dele's nickname). They knew he suffered from severe depression, and those fans really bothered him.

"Brian could be a little standoffish at times. There were times when it was difficult to reach him. But with John you saw a lot of meanness. Sometimes he could be friendly, nice to see you, like that. And other times he was very hostile looking. He had a mean streak you never saw in Brian."

Brisker was feared when he played in the ABA. He was Mike Tyson with a buttery jumper. He was quick-tempered and nasty.

When Brisker played for Pittsburgh in the ABA, his coach, Jack McMahon, threw him out of practice once after Brisker seemed to pick fights with almost all of his teammates. About a half-hour after he was tossed, Brisker returned to the floor waving a gun.

"Practice is over," McMahon declared.

It seems guns were involved in every bad story with Brisker.

"John was probably one of the first players to get involved in drugs," Nissalke said. "And with the guns and the drugs, you never knew what was going to happen out there."

Brisker was such a menace on the floor that Nissalke, who coached the ABA Dallas Chaparrals, once put a bounty on him. Nissalke's sixth man, Len Chappell, asked to start the next time Dallas played Brisker's Pittsburgh team and the coach granted the request.

Nissalke expected Chappell might throw an elbow at Brisker just to get Brisker's attention. But when the opening jump ball was tossed, Chappell turned and one-punched Brisker to the floor. Brisker didn't play the rest of the night and Nissalke rewarded Chappell with $500 for the punch.

"I was concerned about that incident when I first came to Seattle," Nissalke said. "But at the first players' meeting Brisker came up to me said, 'That was a pretty good move. Coach.' And he smiled. But the next day he started copping an attitude with me. And it was about that way every day after that."

Still that same guy could be as charming as a maitre d'.

"He was handsome guy," said Zollie Volchok, who was the Sonics general manager when Brisker played here. "When he walked into a room it seemed the eyes of every woman in the place turned to him.

"And when it came to doing charity stuff, I could always count on John. I'd always ask Brisker to do telethons for the Variety Club or anything else. It was never a problem. There were three guys I could count on. Slick Watts, Fred Brown and Brisker. The only time I had a problem with Brisker was when he came into my office and asked for more money."

But the good from Brisker came in bursts and could quickly be followed by angry, violent eruptions. Dele, however, was a gentle soul. He was unusual, but he wasn't angry.

"He was a little bit different, but he was a sensitive and caring person," said Sonics GM Rick Sund, who was Dele's last general manager, at Detroit. "But he definitely traveled to a different drummer's tune. He was certainly free-spirited. He took chances in life."

Dele had an insatiable wanderlust. He ran with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. He sky-dived. He was a pilot who loved to scare his passengers by throwing his plane into terrifying dives. He once frightened the entire Pistons team by threatening to pull their jet's emergency exit door when the plane was at 30,000 feet.

Sund remembers the time a plane buzzed the Pistons' practice facility. Moments later he got a phone call in his office.

"Hey did you hear me buzzing the building?" Dele said, laughing from his plane.

Another time, just before fall camp, Sund saw Dele sailing around the basketball floor on rollerblades. Sund just shook his head. This guy, he thought, is unlike any other player I've ever been around.

Dele left the Pistons in 1999, even though he still had five years and $35 million left on his contract. Money wasn't his motivation. Basketball wasn't his muse. The idea he would take a catamaran to Tahiti surprised no one who knew the eight-year NBA veteran.

"I mean, he walked away from $35 million," Sund said. "He just said he had lost the competitive edge. He told me he'd be stealing money if he continued to play. He had the most totally unusual perspective on athletics of anyone I ever knew."

Before the start of Dele's last season in Detroit, Sund got a call from Dele's agent, Dwight Manley. "Are you sitting down?" Manley asked, then told Sund his client was changing his name from Brian Williams to Bison Dele.

"Later Bison came in and told me why. It was important for him to tell me why he changed his name," Sund said. "He told me he has done a lot of studying of his (Cherokee) ancestry and he changed his name to honor one of his ancestors."

At the end of another season, Dele came to Sund and asked that his share of the playoff money be distributed to the ball boys, trainers and janitors.

"There were a lot of likenesses between John and Bison," said Nissalke, who is part of the Utah Jazz broadcast team. "Both were very smart. They were both mercurial personalities. And Brisker could be very charming, but B-Dub was a wonderful guy.

"He was respected as a player. He was as talented as any 6-10, 6-11 guy that I can recall. He could run. He could shoot. But I never thought basketball was the be-all and end-all of his life."

And now it appears his death will be shrouded in the same sad mysteries as Brisker's.

"Part of me expects that in six months we'll hear from Bison. That's he in Tahiti having a great time," Sund said. "But I guess, from all I hear, that's not going to happen."

John Brisker and Bison Dele. Two eccentric talents, who lived life as if it were a series of jazz riffs. Two improvisational people, who appear to have died such improbable deaths.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or