Illinois had its fair share of basketball phenoms in the 1980s. Walter Downing began the parade and others followed including Marcus Liberty, Nick Anderson, Deon Thomas, Ed Horton, Kevin Gamble, Bruce Douglas, Kenny Battle, and Kendall Gill. For one phenom, success tasted very sweet. In 1984, Ben Wilson lead Chicago Simeon to the class AA state championship in Illinois. That summer saw Ben continue to grow to 6’8″, and his game allowed Ben to continue to transform into the top recruit in the nation – ahead of future NBA stars Glen Rice, Sean Elliott, Pervis Ellison, and Rod Strickland. When Simeon was set to begin its defense of its state championship in November of 1984, tragedy struck. Ben Wilson was shot and killed in front of the school. The tragedy shocked the city, state, and nation. His death did little to stop gang violence. However, his death became a transformative event for every student at Simeon high school.
Ben, or his closest friends and family called him, Benji. He grew up on the south side of Chicago with five brothers. Ben took to basketball at early age and would begin practicing as early as 8 a.m. every day. At first, the neighbors were not too happy with Ben’s practice routine. He soon became an alarm for his neighbor Mr. Robertson. His younger brothers marveled at dribbling skills. In his younger years, he was a ball handler. He lacked the height to play inside. Everything changed his sophomore year. He grew six to seven inches in a three month period. He went from 6 foot to 6 foot 7 inches yet he still was able to maintain the grace and ball handling skills of a shorter player.
His junior year, Simeon became a force in the Chicago Public Force. Under the tutelage of Coach Bob Hambric, Wilson thrived that year. Hambric said of his game,
He possessed the same skills as Magic, but he had a better outside shot. He did all of it. He had the ability to change the complexion of any game. If he decided he was going to rebound and block shots, that’s what he did. If he decided he was going to go down low and score, he was able to do that. He was able to do anything.
After winning the Public League Championship, Simeon advanced to the state tournament, then held at the Assembly Hall at the University of Illinois. In the quarterfinal game of the state tournament that year, Ben scored 16 points in the first half. The second half, Ben did not see the ball at all. Rock Island tried to deny him the ball at all costs but it was not enough for Simeon to advance to the semis with a 48-44 win.
In the semifinals, Simeon defeated Aurora West 67-58 to advance to the finals against unbeaten and #1 ranked Evanston. Ben had 21 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists. The championship game did not see Ben have his best game. He was in foul trouble and only had 4 points and 5 rebounds, but teammates Tim Bankston and Bobby Tribble combined for 40 points to lead the Wolverines to their firs state title. Ben still made the All-Tournament team despite a poor game.
That spring and summer saw Ben work hard to improve himself for his senior season. Both academically and physically. He continued to grow. At summer camps, Ben worked to improve his game to resemble his idols, Magic Johnson and George Gervin. By the end of the summer, Ben was, in many recruiters’ eyes, the top player in the nation. Ben had narrowed his list of schools down to DePaul, Illinois, and Indiana.
That fall, Simeon was set to prepare to defend its state championship. The season was set to kickoff in Rockford at the Boylan Tournament on November 21. The day before, Ben bumped into a couple of youths around noon a short distance from the school. Events escalated and two shots were fired. Both struck Ben. One went through his liver, the other his aorta. The prognosis was not good as Ben lost a lot of blood before he could get to the hospital to have his wounds repaired. At 6 a.m. on November 21, Ben Wilson died from his wounds, 13 hours before the first game. His team mates played on his honor that night winning 73-50.
The event shocked the city, state, and nation. It emotionally destroyed the Simeon family, Over 8,000 people would come see his casket at the school, some waiting seven hours. The school did not win the state championship that year. The nation questioned why violence was so prevalent in the city. At the time, over 700 murders a year were taking place in Chicago. Now, that number is down close to 400, but that is still too many. The trial, though swift, was controversial because of two very different accounts of what happened. Billy Moore would get 40 years for shooting Ben and Omar Dixon was sent to jail for 30 years as well. For Ben’s mother, Mary Wilson, her son’s death was not going to be in vain She wrote a book entitled, To Benji, With Love. It is required reading for all incoming students at Simeon.
Ben’s influence continued shortly after his death. Teammate Nick Anderson, who had recently transferred to Simeon, has always remembered his friend on and off the court. Anderson would wear #25 to honor Ben at the University of Illinois and as a member of the Orlando Magic in the NBA. It is very hard for Anderson to still talk about Ben without getting emotional. In one interview, Anderson said this of Ben’s skills:
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 recent years, Ben’s legacy has continued to grow, Comcast Sportsnet recently produced a documentary on Ben’s life and death on the 25th anniversary of his death. This spring, it was announced that ESPN would produce an account of Ben’s life for its 30 for 30 film series. It is set to air on October 23rd.
Simeon became a powerhouse winning five state titles in the last ten years. First, Derrick Rose led Simeon to back-to-back titles. Rose would wear Ben’s 25 jersey. Originally, the number was retired but Hambric had the team leader wear it as an honor to Ben. After Rose’s back to back titles, the number was officially retired. The past three years, Jabari Parker has led Simeon to three straight state titles. Parker, the number one player in the nation, has worked with Jordan Brand shoes to produce shoes for this year’s Simeon players that honor Ben. The left shoes will have the number 2 on the heel, and the right shoe will have number 5.
For the Wilson family, his brothers are keeping his memory alive. A Facebook page contains photographs and other memorabilia of Ben’s life including his student ID. The violence still continues and his legacy of hard work and dedication still lives on. For many, the tragedy for Ben Wilson, is not that he did not get to play basketball, but that he was such a good person. It was how he carried himself when the clock wasn’t running that mattered.
Many have tried to project how Ben would have done that senior season and into college and maybe the pros. But, we will never know. Sometimes, legends grow in stature because we want or need to remember them. Sometimes, it is hard to tell the legend from the myth. Sometimes its because they are legends.
His competitors and teammates weigh in:
Teammate Eric David
“He was Scottie Pippen with Magic Johnson size and a strong body, but with a real jump shot, not a learned one. I’m not talking about the Scottie Pippen that came into the league. I’m talking about the Scottie Pippen now. The one that can dunk on Patrick Ewing. That was Ben back then.”
Opponent Paul Wilkerson
He was a true leader. These kids now have no concept. A true leader of a team makes everybody else feel like they can destroy just as much as you can. Ben did that. He always made his teammates feel like they were unstoppable.
Opponent Charles Honroe
He was a big small man because of his [ball handling abilities]. He knew what he wanted to do and how to do it. Very similar to Magic. He was very energetic for his size. He showed a lot of fluidity in the way he played. It was amazing to see him go from basket to basket at his size.
Arndt, Michael. (1984). “Family, school mourn loss: Ben Wilson”. Chicago Tribune. Nov 22, 1984; pg. 1.
Brodt, Bonita; Recktenwald, William. (1984). “Year of slaughter on city streets”. Chicago Tribune. Dec 30, 1984; pg. 1.
Carroll, Margaret. (1985). If Ben were here tonight..’: A tribute”. Chicago Tribune. Mar 20, 1985; pg. F2.
Connor, Matt. (1989). “Retrial begins in murder of Ben Wilson”. Chicago Tribune. Sep 27, 1989; pg. N6.
Davidson, Jean; Recktenwald, William. (1984). “Bullets end Benjy’s fight to be the best: 2 teens held in slaying “. Chicago Tribune. Nov 22, 1984; pg. 1.
Davidson, Jean; Boyce, Bill. (1984). “Mourners pay tearful tribute to Ben Wilson”. Chicago Tribune. Nov 25, 1984; pg. C1.
Davidson, Jean; Recktenwald, William. (1984). “City leaders unite to fight gang violence”. Chicago Tribune. Nov 27, 1984; pg. 1.
Keegan, Anne;Thornton, Jerry. (1986). “Chicago losing ground in war on street gangs”. Chicago Tribune. Jul 30, 1986; pg. 1.
Lipinski, Ann Marie. (1985). Wilson family shares team’s joy: Chicago Tribune. Mar 20, 1985; pg. C1.
Myers, Linnet. (1985). “How Ben Wilson died: Jury hears 2 versions”. Chicago Tribune. (1963-Current file); Oct 9, 1985; pg. 1
Myers, Linnet. (1985). “2 teens convicted in murder of Ben Wilson”. Chicago Tribune. Oct. 12, 1985; pg. 5.
Myers, Linnet (1985). “Teen who killed Ben Wilson gets 40 years in prison”. Chicago Tribune. Nov 23, 1985; pg. 5.
No Author. (1984). “Death of a rising star.” Chicago Tribune. Nov 23, 1984; pg. 18.
No Author. (1985). “Jury impaneled in Ben Wilson case”. Chicago Tribune. Oct. 9, 1985; pg. A2.
Sakamoto, Bob. (1984). “High school basketball: Simeon settles its score with King”. Chicago Tribune. Mar 16, 1984; pg. C7.
Sakamoto, Bob. (1984). “Future is bright for bumper crop: ‘Awesome’ group courts success”. Chicago Tribune. April 9, 1984; pg. D24.
Sakamoto, Bob. (1984). “Top players showing off their best moves: 2 transfers to Simeon are raising questions Simeon”. Chicago Tribune. Oct 17, 1984; pg. C1.
Schnay, Jerry. (1984). “Simeon machine misfires in victory”. Chicago Tribune. Feb 22, 1984; pg. B6.
Schnay, Jerry. (1984). “City semifinals are taking a new direction”. Chicago Tribune. Mar 12, 1984; pg. E26.
Schnay, Jerry. (1984). “Simeon advances to semis”. Chicago Tribune. Mar 24, 1984; pg. A2.
Schnay, Jerry. (1984). “Crafty Simeon follows coach’s style to the top: Hambric’s cool rubs off on Class AA champions”. Chicago Tribune. Mar 26, 1984; pg. D32.
Schnay, Jerry. (1984). “High school basketball: Simeon coach always in control Wolverines follow Bob Hambric’s example to state title”. Chicago Tribune. Mar 26, 1984; pg. N31.
Schnay, Jerry. (1984). “Playing under a microscope: Class Of 1985 High school basketball Class of ’85”. Chicago Tribune. Aug. 20, 1984; pg. C28.
Schnay, Jerry. (1984). “Simeon may be in the driver’s seat for a while”. Chicago Tribune. Nov 19, 1984; pg. C26.
Schnay, Jerry. (1984). “High school basketball preview: Everybody’s chasing Simeon, St. Mel King, Prospect and Manley Could Be the Best of the Rest”. Chicago Tribune. Nov 19, 1984; pg. C28.
Schnay, Jerry. (1984). “This top 20 has talent: Simeon, St. Mel stars draw national attention”. Chicago Tribune. Nov. 19, 1984; pg. D28.
Sherman, Ed. (1983). “Simeon ace puts in a bid”. Chicago Tribune. Dec 12, 1983; pg. D27.
Sherman, Ed. (1985). “Simeon gained much more than a title”. Chicago Tribune. Mar 24, 1985; pg. C6.
Sherman, Ed; Schnay, Jerry. (1984). “Wilson’s team tries to carry on”. Chicago Tribune. Nov 21, 1984; pg. C1.
Thornton, Jerry. (1984). “Slain athlete’s wake quiet, except for sobs and ‘Why?'” Chicago Tribune. Nov 24, 1984; pg. 5.
Weingarten, Paul. (1985). “For love of Ben: When her son died, Mary Wilson vowed it would not be in vain”. Chicago Tribune. Sep. 8, 1985; pg. F12.
Wiltt, Howard. (1984). “Young superstar fights for life: ‘Benjy'”. Chicago Tribune. Nov 21, 1984; pg. 1.
Wilson, Mary. (1985). To Benji, With Love.
Illinois High School Association. “March Madness Record Book: 1984 Class AA Boys Summary”. Available Online: http://www.ihsa.org/archive/bkb/mm/1984baa.htm.
Ben “Benji” Wilson, Jr. – Tribute to a Basketball Legend.
Available online: http://www.facebook.com/BenWilsonTribute
Jackson, Scoop. (2009). “Original Old School: Nuthin’ but Love.” Slam Magazine. Also available online at: http://www.slamonline.com/online/the-magazine/features/2009/11/original-old-school-nuthin-but-love/.
Johnson, K. C. (2009). “Ben Wilson’s death resonates 25 years later: Slain Simeon star’s spirit lives on at school.” Chicago Tribune. Available online at: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2009-11-15/sports/0911140247_1_ben-wilson-simeon-death.
“25: The Ben Wilson Story”. (2009). Comcast Sports Net.
“Benji: A Dream Cut Short”. (2012). ESPN.
All pictures: https://www.facebook.com/BenWilsonTribute