8 Things to Know Before You Watch ESPN's Documentary 'Benji'
Chicago has produced many a great basketball player over the years. Legendary names like Isiah Thomas, Cazzie Russell, Mark Aguirre, Maurice Cheeks, Terry Cummings and Hersey Hawkins patrolled the hardwood and concrete courts of the Windy City once upon a time.
That legacy persists into the present day, but the greatest of them all might've been the one about whom no NBA tome was or will ever be written. After those aforementioned greats, long before Kevin Garnett was a national name, and even before Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis and Jabari Parker were twinkles in their mothers' eyes, there was Ben Wilson.
Or, as those close to him knew him, Benji.
ESPN is set to debut a new documentary about the mythic prep star from Simeon Career Academy on the South Side of Chicago, entitled "Benji," as part of its 30 For 30 series on Tuesday, October 23. By all accounts, the film, co-directed by native Chicagoans Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah, is an emotional, Houseman-esque ode to an athlete dying young and the devastating effects that senseless violence has had and continues to have on Chicago's inner-city youth.
In anticipation of "Benji" hitting the airwaves, here's a look at eight aspects of Wilson's life, death and legacy.
Benji first gained national notoriety in the summer of 1984, when he was named the No. 1 prep player in the country by renowned basketball talent scout Bob Gibbons after excelling against elite competition at the Nike/AFBE Camp in Princeton, New Jersey.
According to Scoop Jackson of Slam, Wilson was the first Chicagoan to ever garner the honor, one that's since been matched by Kevin Garnett, Derrick Rose, Anthony Davis and Jabari Parker.
Benji's rise to the top spot came after leading Simeon to the first Illinois state title in school history. He was the only non-senior on a squad that upset previously-undefeated Evanston at Assembly Hall in Champaign in the final.
Wilson's performance during his junior year and the summer thereafter left him to choose between scholarship offers from Illinois, DePaul and Indiana once the basketball world discovered just how prodigious his talents truly were. Benji was a 6'9" jack-of-all-trades swingman who's since garnered comparisons to Kevin Durant but who patterned his game after those of Magic Johnson and George Gervin.
As Nick Anderson, a fellow Chicagoan who would've been Wilson's teammate at Simeon, told Scoop Jackson:
Benji was Magic Johnson, but with a jump shot. He had all the moves. We played one-on-one a lot. Benji usually won. I see him sometimes in my mind’s eye, playing in the NBA, which he could have done after only two years in college.
In fact, per Jackson, Magic called Benji's house during the Illinois state championships in 1984 to wish him luck.
That's how tall Ben Wilson was when he first arrived at Simeon as a freshman. As Paul Wilkerson, a native Chicagoan who played with Wilson during his youth, told Scoop Jackson of Wilson's decision to attend the prestigious basketball powerhouse:
“I don’t know why BJ decided to go to Simeon; I didn’t think he’d get any run here. In retrospect, I realized all great players run towards challenges instead of away from them.”
Much like Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, Benji began his high school career as a guard—in his case, a point guard—but eventually outgrew his position, albeit without leaving behind his perimeter skills. By the time he was a senior, Wilson stood nearly 6'9", with the size to play in the front court and the ball-handling, shooting and passing abilities to dominate on the wing.
Three Great Players
During that same summer of 1984, when he shot to the top of the prep hoops stratosphere, Ben Wilson had the opportunity to strut his stuff alongside two future NBA stars.
It was during the Prairie State Games at Illinois State University that Benji first had the opportunity to play with Nick Anderson, a 6'6" wing who went on to play at Illinois and enjoy a productive career in the NBA with the Orlando Magic, the Sacramento Kings and the Memphis Grizzlies.
That same team also featured Tim Hardaway, a five-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA performer best known for his prominent role on the "Run TMC" Warriors of the early 1990s.
If not for the tragedy that later befell him, Benji may well have enjoyed the best basketball career of the three.
November 20, 1984
That was the day Ben Wilson's life came to a tragic end.
It was during a lunch break on November 20 when Benji, his girlfriend Jetun and another friend of theirs were out walking a short distance from Simeon that they ran into three other teenagers, two of whom—Omar Dixon and William Moore—were looking for trouble.
Benji bumped into them by accident and attempted to excuse himself, but Dixon and Moore wouldn't allow him to pass to easily. Dixon attempted to rob Wilson, who forced his way out but was struck by three bullets from Moore's gun as he did so.
That night, after hours of emergency surgery, Benji was pronounced dead, on the eve of his senior season at Simeon. The team decided to play in his honor the next day, beating Evanston, whom they had defeated in the state championship game the year prior, by a decisive 71-50 margin.
As for Dixon and Moore, the former was sentenced to 30 years in prison, while the latter was locked up by way of a 40-year sentence. The jury needed only an hour of deliberation to convict them. Both men remain in jail to this day.
Thousands and Thousands
The impact of Wilson's murder was made clear in the commemoration of his passing. It's estimated that 8,000 people attended Benji's wake at the Simeon gym on November 23, three days after he was gunned down, and that around 10,000 showed up to his funeral on November 24 at Operation PUSH headquarters.
Delivering Benji's eulogy at that ceremony was the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who'd been a candidate to represent the Democratic party during the presidential primaries earlier that year. Wilson's body was buried in the same resting place as that of Harold Washington, the first African-American mayor of Chicago.
The inscription on his headstone reads "Best in the Nation."
Benji's passing had a massive impact on his community in the immediate term. Local gangs agreed to temporary ceasefires and task forces were dispatched to study the problem of violence in the Windy City, though these issues have not subsided entirely. The city's murder rate has declined overall since 1984, but has seen a 27 percent spike this year, per Jon Greenberg of ESPNChicago.com.
Among those recent deaths is Michael Haynes, a former prep player in Chicago who was due to play college ball at Iona.
That's the number that Benji wore during his prep career, and that has since become a factoid of Chicago basketball lore in its own right.
Simeon retired Wilson's No. 25 in 2009, ending a long-standing tradition at the school of the team's best player wearing it on his jersey to honor Benji's memory. Nick Anderson was the first to do so during what would've been Wilson's senior season and throughout his collegiate and pro career.
Since then, the number has been worn by Bobby Simmons, a one-time NBA veteran, and Derrick Rose, the three-time All-Star and league MVP for the Chicago Bulls.
The "Fab Five" later paid homage to Benji when Juwan Howard sported the No. 25 jersey while at Michigan.
Benji was survived by a son, Brandon, who turned out to be a decent basketball player in his own right. Brandon spent his early childhood in Chicago before moving to New York with his mother, Jetun, and his stepfather, Edward Rivers.
According to Barry Temkin of The Chicago Tribune, Rivers first introduced Brandon to the game, though there was never any pressure to live up to Benji's legacy.
Not that Brandon necessarily could've. After all, he was a scrappy, 6'2" guard, while Benji turned out to be a 6'9" savant.
Nonetheless, Brandon earned scholarship offers from a few small schools and wound up playing in the Wendy's All-Star Shootout at the DePaul Athletic Center in Chicago in 2002. Brandon wore the No. 25 jersey for the New York squad to honor the father he never knew.
An Impact Beyond Words and Numbers
Ben Wilson's been gone from this earth for nearly 28 years now, but his legacy is far from forgotten.
Simeon Career Academy has done its part to keep his memory alive. The school mandates that its incoming students read To Benji, With Love, a book about Wilson's life written by his late mother, Mary Wilson.
The importance of the book and the events that precipitated it has not been lost on Simeon's most celebrated pupils. As Derrick Rose told KC Johnson of The Chicago Tribune in 2009:
They tried to keep his spirit alive, not just in the program but throughout the whole school. Benji meant so much to us, and his story really scared me, knowing it happened to a great player. Anything can happen.
I just wanted to stay out of the negative. I didn't go to parties or stupid places. I was a loner. I didn't go nowhere but to my friends' houses and home.
Jabari Parker, another Chicago native and the No. 1 prep player in the class of 2013, has taken a similar approach to his time at Simeon. Like Rose, he's spent much of his high school career surrounded and protected by family and friends so as to stay out of trouble.
Not that it's limited Parker's participation in furthering Wilson's legacy. In fact, Parker recently worked with Jordan Brand to design a special shoe for the Simeon basketball team with Wilson's number on it.