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A Star's Complex Life and Mysterious Death

Profile: The relationship between basketball standout Brian Williams and his brother was troubled long before its tragic end.

September 28, 2002|DAVID WHARTON and LANCE PUGMIRE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

TARAVAO, Tahiti — On the far side of the island, where few people live, snarls of mango and breadfruit trees have been hacked away to make room for a marina.

A man on the dock pounds his anchor into shape with a hammer, sweating in the damp, tropical afternoon. Schoolchildren hurry down to the water, chattering, laughing, eager for their sailing lesson.

Once in a while, someone glances at the boat in the last berth on the left.

It lilts there on the tide, drapes pulled tightly across tinted windows. Even the simplest details, a surfboard lashed to the bow, a pair of sandals left casually by the cabin door, seem sinister because of the yellow police tape garlanded around the deck.

This is the 55-foot catamaran on which Brian Williams--he called himself Bison Dele near the end of a celebrated basketball career--was last seen in July.

What happened on the boat is a mystery that has police baffled.

This much is known: Brian was a man of varied moods and interests, hardly a typical athlete. The 33-year-old walked away from the NBA in his prime, forsaking millions of dollars, to travel the world. Sailing was a new passion and he had been exploring the South Pacific with his girlfriend and a hired skipper on his boat, the Hakuna Matata--Swahili for "No Worries."

Midway through the trip, his 35-year-old brother, Kevin, a troubled soul who called himself Miles Dabord, joined them. According to police documents and interviews with investigators, family and friends, the relationship between the men was complex--and tested by Kevin's frustration at living in the shadow of his successful younger brother. At sea, Kevin reportedly grew moody and was constantly smoking marijuana.

Maybe old tensions flared; maybe the brothers argued about something new. Authorities believe Kevin killed Brian and the others, then dumped the bodies.

The disappearances went unnoticed for weeks, by which time Kevin had moored at Taravao and returned to the United States. He spent a month on the run--posing at least once as his brother--before being found comatose and nearly naked on a Mexican beach two weeks ago.

Whatever happened at sea, local gendarmes and the FBI don't have an eyewitness. So they have focused on the catamaran, scratching at bloody traces and examining the blue-green hull, finding marks perhaps caused by a stray bullet.

The evidence may tell them when and how the victims disappeared, but they doubt it will explain why.

Equally Complicated

At 6 feet 11, 270 pounds, Brian was agile for his size, talented enough to rank among professional basketball's better centers. But he was just as well known for reading Nietzsche and Camille Paglia, for being alternately personable and aloof. Once, he suggested his team deal with a losing streak by holding hands and singing "Kumbaya."

Off-seasons were spent riding his bicycle long distances and running with the bulls in Pamplona. He was an avid pilot. "Planet Earth is my home," he said in 1996 while playing for the Clippers. "That's all the home I need. I just wander the Earth. I am king. I don't need a starting point. I don't need a destination."

His brother was equally complicated. Kevin read incessantly but never finished college, bored by schoolwork. He was tall and athletic but slowed by asthma. His entrepreneurial ideas usually failed.

As Brian continued to fund Kevin's plans, their mother, Patricia Phillips, noticed a disturbing pattern. "This usually occurs after one of his get-rich-quick schemes fails and [Kevin] turns to alcohol to ease his disappointment," she recently told investigators. "Once [he] cannot afford to live a certain lifestyle, he seeks out his family or, more specifically Brian, to help him back on his feet. Once Brian provides [him] with money, he leaves and is not heard from until his next financial blunder."

There was something else. Kevin took steroids for his ailment, and Phillips told police: "The medication tends to alter his behavior to an aggressive posture. He is capable of extremely violent behavior when he does not get his way."

A childhood friend disputes this portrait of Kevin as struggling and bitter. Kevin could be warm and humorous, Paul White said, his troubles a result of him "not being the most disciplined person in the world, of being someone who was impatient with the college process, and of being someone who had an entrepreneurial spirit."

White added, "Some issues in one's life haunt a person and affect the way they go about their life."

Critical Difference

The brothers were so similar, each broad-shouldered, with dark eyes and a heavy brow that made them seem brooding. They shared a love of books. But from early on, there was a critical difference.

Brian began to shine as an athlete in junior high school. When Kevin tried to keep up, the asthma left him gasping, often landing him in the emergency room.

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