His Spirit Lives On
A preview of the film documenting the life and death of Chicago hoops star Ben Wilson.
by Duane Watson / @sweetswatson
On November 21, 1984, the city of Chicago claimed its 669th murder victim. While the death tally was disturbing, (the Chicago Police Department reported 433 murders for 2011 alone), the city was more shaken by the identity of the victim, Benjamin “Benji” Wilson, a 17-year-old student who was ranked the No. 1 basketball player in the country.
Dubbed “Magic Johnson with a jump shot,” Wilson was killed on the eve of his senior season at Simeon High School. If the murder occurred five years ago, we would probably know Wilson’s story intimately, but he grew up in the ‘80s, at a time when the Internet was a 7 x 4 VHS cassette. As a result, only those old enough to recall are hoop historians or Chicagoans who are familiar with “the true story of a dream cut short.”
Fortunately, music video directors turned filmmakers Coodie & Chike, who came up in the Windy City during Wilson’s rise, did a masterful job telling his story in an authentic way in the movie Benji.
“In ’84, I was in the seventh grade, and basketball or sports kept you out of trouble,” says Coodie Simmons, a Chicago native. “We used to look up to Maurice Cheeks ‘cause he lived around the corner from me and dudes in the NBA at the time. Then you had Ben Wilson who was like the next big thing. We used to try to sneak into the school to see him play and all of a sudden to be shot and killed—it was unbelievable. He was a hero, somebody you knew and looked up to. It was almost like you just found out that Superman died.”
Documenting the city during that period, with its emergence of street gangs, to the tragedy and citywide mourning of Wilson, including the 10,000 who attended his funeral, the film is about Chicago as much as it is about the teenager.
“Coodie was always like, ‘This film is about Chicago in ’84, remember how Boyz ‘N The Hood told that story of Compton, CA, in that era? We need to do that for Chicago.’ That balance was super important for us,” says Chike Ozah. “To tell that story of sports, but also for that story in general about a teenager who got caught up in the dynamic of the city. With what was going on and the crime and how all these things collided for this tragic accident to even occur.”
The impact of violence in Chicago has now come full circle. The city’s homicide rate is up 38 percent in the first six months of 2012, with 308 homicides through the end of July compared to 243 in 2011. Even Simeon alumnus Derrick Rose made an emotional reference to “all this stuff that’s going on in this city,” at the DRose 3 sneaker launch last week.
“Its just madness out there,” Simmons adds. “It’s perfect timing for this story because we wanted to make the thugs cry. ESPN is a perfect platform, so it’s going to touch some of these kids. They going to see what they doing and hopefully just put down these guns.”
Drawing on interviews from Wilson’s family and friends, as well as sons of the city like Common, Michael Wilbon, Jesse Jackson, Juwan Howard, Tim Hardaway and Wilson’s close friend and teammate Nick Anderson, the film is complemented with great, yet grainy footage and arresting animations.
Fortunately, much wasn’t left on the cutting room floor as the duo promise a few extras for a DVD release: a featurette on recent Simeon High School graduate Jabari Parker called A Day In The Life of Jabari Parker, #1 Player in the Nation; a short film on Wilson’s murderer—Billy Moore—called Redemption, showing his perspective, his changes and his experiences; and It Takes A Village To Raise A Kid, which celebrates the friends and family who brought Wilson up.
Simmons has a simple surmise on why everything fell into place with this project. “I think Ben’s spirit was with this movie. Everything was working out how it was supposed to, and of course Jesus Christ was rolling with it as well. I was just amazed at how things were coming together, everybody was able to tell the story.”
At the root of this stirring documentary is a story of a good kid and tremendous basketball player, who was the victim of poor circumstance.
Benji has enough basketball footage to substantiate Wilson’s top player ranking, as he led his team to a state championship. Even still, the What If aspect remains an underlying theme.
Former SLAM Editor-at-Large Scoop Jackson, however, closes the film not posing questions, but providing answers, unequivocally stating, “There’s always going to be that ‘had he lived,’ and that ‘had he lived’ is the prefix to the suffix, ‘would have been the greatest cat that came out of this city.’”
Benji, which debuted April 21 at the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival, airs October 23 on ESPN.