Ben Wilson: A Life Cut Down Too Soon

Ben “Benji” Wilson was the first high school basketball player from Chicago to be ranked as the No.1 prep prospect in the country before he was gunned down. Photo Credit: Associated Press

Sometimes reliving something terrible, so horrible it can be the healing balm needed to improve what isn’t right, what will never be acceptable. Sometimes it can bring attention to an epidemic that causes folks to re-think and re-examine what is actually going around them.

Perhaps it can tell them that we can do better, we must do better.

I never had the opportunity to get to know Ben “Benji” Wilson. The only thing I really know about Wilson is that warm-as-butter smile I see flashed across the Internet, and that sense of youthful innocence that would make any mother and father proud. I have read and heard about the kind of lights out basketball star Wilson was. Standing out more than his impeccable basketball skills was the fact he was a good kid.

Wilson was a young man who loved life. According to Coodie Simmons, one of the directors of “Benji,” an ESPN “30 for 30” film, detailing the life and tragic murder of Wilson, the basketball whiz loved to tell jokes and was happy with life.

“He was a happy, go-lucky guy,” Simmons said in a phone interview. “They said he was hungry all the time.”

Simmons said he wants “Benji,” which airs tonight, then again on Oct. 24 and Nov.3 to have the right impact on the right people in which the documentary is specifically aimed at.

“We want to make the thugs cry,” said Simmons, who made the stirring film with fellow director Chike Ozah. “I believe it’s going to be received the right way. It’s going to be powerful. We told a great story. I know it’s a story that needs to be told.”

The death of Wilson is a memory that is one that has haunted me and others since the Nov. 20, 1984 shooting death of the country’s top-rated high school basketball player that took place not far from the school he took to the Illinois state championship his junior season.

I was two years removed from high school myself when a flash of this giant of a basketball player dunking the basketball flashed across my family’s television set in Long Beach, California. What I saw was that the pride of Simeon High School and the South Side of Chicago had senselessly lost his life at the age of 17. Wilson became the city’s 669th murder victim a day before he was to start his senior basketball season.

According to published reports, as many as 10,000 people attended Wilson’s funeral. The perpetrators in Wilson’s death were teenagers themselves. The triggerman, William Moore, got a 40-year prison sentence. Moore is now out from behind bars trying to connect with city youths and have found forgiveness from Wilson’s close friend, Mario Coleman.

Even more tragic is the fact that Wilson, the first high school basketball player in Chicago history to be given the distinction as the nation’s best prep prospect, had just come into fatherhood with a young son when he was gunned down.

“Benji” an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary film, is co-directed by Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah.

It is both damming and reflecting that young Wilson became not only a victim of domestic terrorism, but also a statistic to the mind-numbing black-on-black violence that has permeated throughout urban communities throughout this nation.

“Ben’s death brought such grief to Chicago when it happened and it is sad to see that gang violence there is as bad as it was back in the 1980’s,” said Simmons, a Chicago native. “All filmmakers hope that their film can have a powerful impact on people and maybe sharing Ben’s story can shed some much needed light on this epidemic.”

When I saw the news about Wilson’s murder, I remember going into a state of sadness and anger. Perhaps it was the fact that I had lost several close friends in both middle school and high school to the same black-on-black violence nonsense that took Wilson’s life. Maybe it was just seeing that handsome, youthful face of Wilson’s that made me ask, “Why would anyone to hurt this kid?”

But as a black man who has been fortunate to have dodged the “misunderstanding” that could have easily turned tragic, it is very easy to understand how a glare, coupled with some taken-out-of context-words, can lead to a deadly confrontation, even for a popular student-athlete.

It’s amazing how Wilson’s sudden passing has resonated with me and has stirred in my heart for years. Maybe it’s because I am the father of four boys, and I worry about them. Maybe it’s because I’ve had gun barrels pointed directly at my head and I’ve been lucky enough to have survived those incidents.

The fact that Simmons and Ozah have decided to tackle this project should be an eye-opener for all in many ways.  Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of this film lie in the fact of the loyalty many of the star players who played after Wilson-have given him. Until his jersey was officially retired in 2009, the ultimate homage paid by former Simeon players like Derrick Rose was to wear the number 25 that Wilson wore.

Current Simeon star Jabari Parker, regarded as the best player in the country, keeps the number 25 etched on his uniform and basketball shoes. During his 13 years in the NBA, Nick Anderson wore number 25 as well. Anderson carried the number on his jersey out of love and respect for Wilson. Ben Wilson was his friend.  Even today, Anderson is emotional about what happened to Wilson.

Simmons, who knows Anderson personally, said it was a task to get the former NBA small forward to participate in the project. At some point, Anderson even stopped taking calls from Simmons.

“They were real close,” Simmons said. “Nick Anderson was real reluctant because it was so emotional. I called him a couple of times, and he stopped answering my calls.”

The Ben Wilson tragedy will always be in the back of my mind because of several reasons. First, Wilson represented the promise and the good that we see in our young people. Secondly, our communities and the greater society as a whole must present a better effort at expressing love to those young people filled with abandonment, rage and self-hate.

Finally, in “Benji,” Simmons and Ozah perhaps have challenged each one of us to reflect before we react.




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