It’s August 2012, and ex-NBA star Dan Roundfield is enjoying a day at the beach with his family as they vacation on the Caribbean island of Aruba. Suddenly, though, tragedy strikes as his wife, Bernie, is dragged out into the ocean. And yet Roundfield nevertheless reacts immediately, making his way into the water in a valiant effort to save her.
Dan Roundfield hadn’t been just any basketball player. The 6’8” power forward had made the NBA Eastern Conference All-Star squad three times in the 1980s and been MAC player of the year in 1975. In fact, having picked up the sport as a teenager, he would go on to spend 12 years in the NBA.
Roundfield started at Indiana in 1975, and his talent took him not just around the States but to Europe as well, with stints at Washington, Detroit, Atlanta and even Italy’s Turin. And when he retired in 1988, he had scored an average of 15.2 points a game. Roundfield’s former Atlanta Hawks comrade Dominique Wilkins would later praise his teammate’s skills, telling The New York Times in 2013 that the power forward was “one of the most underrated players in the history of the league.”
Roundfield was more than a basketball player, though; he was also a family man. Together with Bernie, whom he had met and married while they were both college students, he had two sons: Corey and Christopher. And even while in the midst of sports stardom, the father would take regular jobs during off-seasons, working in retail or in a bank.
Furthermore, after Roundfield’s NBA career was over, he put the degree in marketing that he’d earned at Central Michigan University to good use. And by 2012, his experience had brought him a job at an engineering firm.
Then in 2012 the 59-year-old and his family were taking a relaxing break at their regular holiday hangout: Aruba. The small island located in the Caribbean is a popular destination for vacationers from the U.S. and Canada. And given that Aruba has a drier, less rainy climate than other islands in the area – not to mention some beautiful beaches – it’s perhaps no surprise that the Roundfields had been going there for over two decades.
There was also one particular spot on the island that the Roundfield family came back to again and again. “We always go to Baby Beach, and we go there because it’s safe,” Bernie explained to the Associated Press in 2012. The beach is so-called, in fact, because the waters there are placid enough for even an infant to swim in. At least, that’s typically thought to be the case.
Now on that fateful day in August 2012, Bernie was floating around the waters of Baby Beach on a raft. Then, according to The New York Times in 2013, her husband shouted, “You’re getting a little far [out]. Start paddling toward me.” Somehow, the water that she was in had turned from calm to scary – but no matter how hard she tried to paddle back to safer territory, the current wouldn’t let her go. Panicked, she therefore called out to Roundfield, “Danny, help me!”
Roundfield immediately moved to save Bernie from being dragged into the open ocean, walking into the water toward her. The sea levels at Baby Beach are said to be about chest-high, so a man of the former NBA star’s stature would perhaps find wading through the water easier than swimming. However, as the waves crashed around his stricken wife’s raft, he disappeared from view.
At this point, Bernie may have been in fear for her life. And although the waters around Baby Beach are shielded by rocks and a reef, the Caribbean Sea beyond is far less forgiving. In fact, according to natives, anyone using the beach should imagine a six-foot-wide boundary between the tranquil water and the changeable, sometimes dangerous currents of the open ocean.
However, just when Bernie thought that all was lost and offered up a prayer as her only hope of survival, a miracle happened. There was a voice, followed by a hand. But they didn’t belong to her husband; somehow, massage therapist Nicole Brandt had heard the stricken woman’s cries for help while she was out snorkeling. “There was no time to get help, no time to think. I started swimming as fast as I could. [Bernie] was just about on the edge of being pulled out to sea,” Brandt told The New York Times.
Then Brandt managed to drag Bernie back to the safety of the beach – in effect saving her life. However, there was no time for celebrations: Roundfield was missing. He hadn’t returned to the beach and was nowhere to be seen. The massage therapist therefore alerted the authorities to the ex-NBA star’s disappearance, while his wife lay trembling on the sand.
Not long after that, searchers began looking for the ex-Hawks star. Firefighters, police officers, the Coast Guard and members of the public looked for more than an hour. Tragically, though, a diver ultimately discovered his body underwater. Roundfield had, it seems, drowned while attempting to save his wife from that very same fate.
But even when Roundfield’s death had been confirmed, there was still some confusion surrounding how he had passed away. For one, he had been out of Bernie’s sight for a while, and so she could offer no explanation herself. Initial reports wrongly indicated, in fact, that he’d died in a boating accident or incorrectly stated that Bernie had known that she was in dangerous waters at the time.
“I’m not getting to deep water that is rough. That’s crazy,” Bernie later told The New York Times. “When people asked me what happened, I said, ‘I don’t know what happened.’ I was on a float, and the water was calm. Then the water starts moving, and I start to move away. It got rough. Why? I don’t know.”
However, Aruba Police Department’s John Larmonie would offer one possible explanation as to how Bernie – and subsequently her husband – had ended up in such a horrendous situation: her raft might well have gone over that “boundary” in the sea between safety and danger. “If you cross [that line], the current can change very fast with the wind,” Larmonie explained to The New York Times. “You’d have to train for swimming in water like that.”
A coroner would also later explain to Bernie what they believed had happened to her husband that day. While wading out to help her, Roundfield had most likely been knocked down by a wave before banging his head on the rocks below. It had been, they said, a quick death, as there were no apparent signs of suffering on Roundfield’s face. And while underwater, he’d somehow become caught beneath the rocks – preventing his body from being washed out into the ocean.
Naturally, the basketball world was rocked by the news of Roundfield’s untimely death. Wilkins, through a statement, said, “[Roundfield] taught me how to be a professional and took me under his wing. I will truly miss him.” And Danny Ferry, the Hawks’ then-manager, echoed those sentiments. “[Roundfield] represented the Hawks with dignity both on and off the court,” Ferry added. “This is a tragic loss for us all.”
The tributes didn’t end there, either. Friend of the family Clyde Mitchell told The New York Times, “[Roundfield] was a man with no pretension. What you saw is what you got. [He] wasn’t a very good swimmer, but he jumped right in when Bernie called, because that’s who he was. And that’s how much he loved her.”
Furthermore, despite the tragedy, one small ray of positivity came out of that horrific day: Bernie and Brandt stayed in touch. And the mother of two wants her late husband to be remembered exactly the way that he told her he wanted to be. “When I go, make sure no one makes me out to be something I wasn’t,” Bernie recalled Roundfield once saying. For his wife, this means simply that “Danny was the kind of person that didn’t [take the small things] for granted. He liked the simple things: staying home, being with his family [and] playing with his grandkids.”