Today marks the 25th year since Ben Wilson’s tragic death. The Chicago Tribune has a fantastic piece on Wilson’s legacy in Chicago, from the eyes of somebody who played, and lost, against Wilson in High School. Here’s what Scoop had to say about it, 15 years ago, in SLAM 4…–Tzvi Twersky
by Scoop Jackson
THERE ARE SINGLE MOMENTS that you remember for the rest of your life. On November 20th, 1984, I was on an airplane coming home for Thanksgiving break. Excited to see my boys, see the girls, put some bubbles on and hoop. There was always something about playing ball in Chicago that made life…special. The game was real, the city was real, and the players were real.
When I walked through the door, my mom seemed distant. I didn’t get the usual “you’ve-been-gone-for-four months,-oh-how-I-missed-my-baby” hug reserved for college students when they return to the crib. It was exactly 10:30 p.m. and the news was on television. From the hallway, I heard the newscaster repeat the evening’s top story: “Simeon basketball star Ben Wilson has been shot.” Dead.
I walked into the dining room and sat on the couch, bags still in hand, only to stare blankly at the television: at what had just been said, what I just heard.
Benji (as he came to be known) was a high school basketball superstar. He was the first player in Chicago’s history to be named the No. 1 high school player in the country. In a city that produced Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre, Cazzie Russell, Tim Hardaway, Quinn Buckner, Glenn Rivers, Maurice Cheeks, Terry Cummings, Nick Anderson, Kendall Gill, Eddie Johnson, Ken Norman, Hersey Hawkins (to name just a few), Ben Wilson had reached a status that some of “the greatest ball players ever” couldn’t attain. Six-foot-nine-inches of prodigy. Lamar Mundane’s range. Reggie Miller’s consistency with Marques Haynes’ ball handling skills. A guy who could play heads-up “D”. Ben Wilson was the future of basketball.
“He was a combination of Magic Johnson and George Gervin,” assesses Jeffery Wilson, Ben’s younger brother. “That’s who he patterned his game after, that’s whose game his was like.”
Only on the day my mom stood distantly, looking at the TV news, Ben Wilson’s future didn’t seem too secure. At 6 a.m., Benji said goodbye for real.
According to basketball aesthetics, presented by author Nelson George, the psyche of the relationship between African-Americans and basketball are unique and beautiful. He writes: “In a special way, basketball has blended with our self-image. Black male intelligence, toughness and innovation are all displayed in this sport. Like music and comedy, basketball is one revealing prism for studying how distinctive African-American ethos has elevated an aspect of our culture.”
Deep. Every once in a lifetime an individual comes along, reflecting a seemingly extinct self-image of black culture. Someone much loved, well respected, honest and revered in the community. Someone with keen awareness of his destiny, as well as his position in life. Someone with desire, passion and potential. Someone older than 17.
Ben Wilson in death became young America’s Martin Luther King Jr. A martyr. A Malcolm. He became more than a talented basketball player. His life became a presentation of young struggle and achievement unfulfilled. His image became that of an icon.
“It wasn’t just the fact that he died,” said Nike hoops camp counselor Todd Harris. “It was more about how he died and that he was a great kid.”
How he died. While walking down the street during lunch break, one block away from Simeon High School, Ben and two female friends (one of them his girlfriend) accidentally came across three youths who were “blocking” the sidewalk. Ben accidentally bumped into one brother and said, “Excuse me.” Words were exchanged and Ben “pushed” his way away from the situation. Respect undone. Sixteen-year-old Billy Moore wasn’t havin’ it. Pop. Pop. Pop. Ben Wilson’s heart and liver were instantly punctured. His aorta severed and 8 pints of blood spilled. After seventeen hours of unsuccessful trauma surgery, Ben Wilson’s dream took on another dimension. He would be survived by his mother, four brothers and a two-month-old son.
Rewind. As basketball legends go, Ben Wilson was one of a kind. Unique. He entered Simeon High School as a 6-1 point guard and the last person to make the fresh-soph squad.
“I don’t know why BJ decided to go to Simeon; I didn’t think he’d get any run here,” remembers Paul Wilkerson, v.p. for P.A.I.D. Athletic Apparel, and an ex-Chicago ball player who ran with Ben during their elementary and high school days. “In retrospect, I realized all great players run towards challenges instead of away from them.”
Ben’s uniqueness came from the fact that he would grow almost three inches every year for his next three years of high school. His life changed as quickly as his game. Because he grew so rapidly, he never lost his ability to handle the ball, shoot from 25 feet, or run an entire game from the point. Yet it was his work ethic, dedication and overall passion for basketball that set him apart from all other players who’ve graced the city’s concrete or hardwood.
“He worked harder at basketball than any layer I’ve known,” says Bob Hambric, his coach at Simeon. “He had a great interest for basketball.”
Others agree. “He did things nobody knew. Always working trying to improve,” says younger brother Jeff. “Outside of Jordan, Ben was probably the best-conditioned athlete ever.”
“Ben used to record inspirational tapes for himself and go to sleep with headphones, listening to himself saying this like: ‘You’re going to be the best. You have to keep working harder than anybody else,’” says Nick Anderson of the Orlando Magic. “He had a saying: ‘If it’s to be, it’s up to me.’”
“Before the camp he told me was going to b the best in the nation,” recalls Mary Wilson, Ben’s other. “I said, ‘Honey you’re just a little skinny boy. You’ve got to play against all these big rascals. You know you’re not going to be the best against everybody. You might be the best in Illinois, but….’ Then he said, ‘Momma, didn’t you tell me to set my goals high?’ Then I answered: ‘Of course I did, but be realistic.’ Then he said: ‘You don’t think that’s realistic?’ And I said to him: ‘Well, Benji, that’s going to be awful hard. There are a lot of good ball players.’ He then said: ‘I know, but ain’t more gonna be better than me.’”
Despite the significant achievement, the fact remains that only a select few, if anybody, really saw Ben play as the No. 1 player in the country. He was given the title during the summer at the Nike\AFBE Camp in Princeton, N.J. He showed and proved that he was the best, among the best. But nobody outside of those who attended practices, got to see him. And most of those people only got to see him become No. 1, not how he played once he got there. Then again, maybe he was already there.
Most basketball players live for the moment when they can live up to their billings. Ask Jordan or Stephon Marbury. Most of them elevate their games to proportions beyond even their own beliefs. Strictly for the competition; strictly for the love. There’s an inner soul that exists within most athletes that strives for the moment of truth, the season of truth.
Ben Wilson’s senior year would have been that season. Older, wiser, more experienced and confident, Benji would have shown Chicago a brand of basketball never before witnessed. No longer the best kept secret, he would have…well, it seems as if everybody has their own story to tell.
Nick Anderson, Simeon All-American forward: “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.”
Bob Hambric, Simeon coach: “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.”
Charles Honore, Quigley South all-conference guard: “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.”
Paul Wilkerson, Kenwood High School guard/forward: “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.”
Eric “Mo” David, Simeon guard and team captain: “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.”
How good was Ben Wilson? to put things in perspective, here are some of the players that were rated under him as high school phenoms: Danny Ferry, Glen Rice, Pooh Richardson, Sean Elliot, B.J. Armstrong, Rod Strickland, Tom Hammonds, Todd Lichti, Cliff Robinson, Pervis Ellison, Doug West, Charles Shackleford, Negele Knight, and it don’t stop. To this day, one of the most moving pieces of memorabilia concerning Ben Wilson is the list of compiled by national basketball talent scout Bob Gibbons in 1984 of the Top 100 players in the country. Ben’s name was not present, but the number one slot remained open in his honor.
One out of every five Black men in America dies before the age of 25. The numbers do not discriminate. Honor student or crack head, street hustler or loving father. Violence has no conscience. The code of the streets seems to hit all of us at some point and time in our lives. Benji, despite all of his accolades, was not immune to this. Ironically, though, in that statistic a certain number stands out. The number 25. Ben Wilson wore No. 25. He identified with the number, and as the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. would witness at the funeral where he delivered the eulogy, Ben was buried in the same number.
No. 25 gave Ben individuality. It made him special. In the early ’80s when most young basketball players wanted to wear No. 32 like Magic, No. 23 like Jordan, No. 6 Like Dr. J, No. 33 like Bird, No. 24 like Aguirre or No. 11 like Isiah, Benji wanted his own number. He’d ask himself: “Why follow somebody else, when you can set the standards yourself?”
“Coach never had a number 25 uniform, says Mo. “On the first day of practice Ben’s sophomore year, coach puled him to the varsity squad. Hambric created a number for him, a brand new uniform just for Ben. You know, he got his own uniform.”
“And (Ben) never looked at this as being better than everybody. He looked at it as, hey, I’m doing alright. I’m getting better.”
“Ben’s impact on this program is that every young man who has played for me has gone to college and most of them [have worn] No. 25,” says Coach Hambric. “And that is strictly out of respect and in memory of Ben Wilson.”
Nelison Anderson, as he was called back in his 28 points-per-game days in Chicago, came to Simeon after playing with Ben during the Prairie State Games at Illinois State University in the summer of 1984. (Tim Hardaway, guard for the Golden State Warriors, was also on that team). Although he never got a chance to play with Ben during the high school season (Anderson transferred to Simeon from another high school, Prosser, which made him ineligible for the first half of the season), he saw the importance No. 25 carried on the team, in the city, and in his life.
For almost 10 years Anderson has paid homage to Ben by wearing No. 25. It’s the closest thing the world has to Ben in the NBA.
“The day Ben left us,” said Anderson, “my thought was: ‘I have to strive that much harder for excellence.’ Every time I put on my basketball uniform, I think of him.”
It is the striving for excellence that seems to be missing from today’s athletics, especially basketball. It has become a game of personality, but no heart. The same senseless posturing that ended Ben Wilson’s life, seem more commonplace in the young “bucks” who now run the NBA. Charles Barkley agrees: “The players today, they’re like (what) you see on TV: Kids killing Kids. Kids in gangs. Rebellious. Undisciplined. I mean if they didn’t play basketball, they’d be in gangs, killing themselves.”
His statement is 10 years overdue.
Ben Wilson was a product of the old school, the old reign. His character was his greatest attribute, not his ball-playing ability.
“People demonstrate love by the way they live,” says Mary Wilson. “Ben had a strong character. He was not a talker, he was a listener. He was so uncharacteristically prioritized for a 17-year-old….He was a man.”
“He recognized that other people were going to look at him to find out what was going on,” Mo adds. “There would be old guys coming up to Ben, you know. We’d be riding the 79th Street bug home and the bus driver would ask to talk to him. Ben would sit right in front and watch, and listen to what this had to say. Now this is Ben Wilson. All-American, after the Nike camp, the No. 1 player in the nation at the time, but he listened. He listened to people out of respect.”
“He was God. He was a spirit, a beautiful brotha,” says his brother Jeff. “Words cannot describe what he meant.”
Maybe not. Words probably don’t give significant justice to what Ben Wilson actually meant to the city of Chicago. He’s buried in the same resting place as Mayor Harold Washington. The Chicago Sun-Times recently named him as one of the 37 most influential sports figures in the history of the city. Benefits and dinners are still held in his honor. He was so revered and respected, Magic Johnson called his house, during his junior year at Simeon, to wish him luck at the Illinois High School Championships. And Magic is from Michigan.
“Here [in Chicago] we’ve got so many kids who believe that they are worth more than what they are,” Todd Harris emphasizes. “They overestimate their values and underestimate the seriousness of life. In respect to Ben, here was a kid who was the best, without a doubt! There was no Felipe Lopez and Michael Harmon (last year’s high school No. 1); he was the best player in the country, period.
There were times when Ben seemed unfazed by his ability to play the game, by the things he was capable of doing. After pickup games at Nat King Cole Park, he would be concerned about his ball-handling or his shooting. As other games continued, he would be on the side handling two balls simultaneously, like a 6-9 Kenny Anderson. Or he’d find himself in Rockford, Illinois, with his uncle and his brother testing his range from 20 feet out—hitting, at times, 20 in a row. On the bus after Simeon won the city championship, surrounded by mayhem, he’d sit, chilled, thinking about the state championship. Thinking about how he could marshall his leadership qualities to push his team to three more victories. If there was ever anybody who typified the “from nowhere to go-where” statement, it would be him. Unfadable, baby.
There’s a saying that makes reference to the importance of the past in influencing the future: Just because you’re in a position to make a million dollars, doesn’t mean you can forge who opened the door for you to get paid. While the NBA goes through life without Len Bias, Chicago still rests in its post-Benji syndrome: Hopefully “life importance” can be put in perspective by young superstars who believe they are “larger than this” Ben Wilson thing or that something like this can not happen to them.
Ben Wilson was no different than any young black man who ever lived. At times he showed advanced qualities and more-than-average sense, but he still had the regular black man’s dream to succeed, he just happened to be an exceptional basketball player. Ben Wilson is the reason Anfernee Hardaway and Glen Robinson can be greedy. He is the reason Lloyd Daniels can get into the league. He’s the reason Black mothers worry about their children. He is a legacy to be remembered. A human spirit, with a hellava jump shot.
The movie Hoops Dreams paid homage to Chicago basketball products by painting a vivid picture of Black life and basketball. The movie goes on without mentioning the fact that the greatest legacy left in Chicago’s b-ball is no longer with us. On 71st Street, laying beside the mayor, Ben Wilson typifies what young Black life is about in Chicago. Only he never got the chance to prove it.
What do you do with a legacy, though? How do you put it to use? You preserve it by letting the world know what your contribution to life was. Ben’s was sincerity and humility. As depicted, in spray paint, on a liquor store wall on 73rd and Wentworth, on Chicago’s South Side: BEN WILSON #25.
The legacy remains strong, only the number is wrong.
Ben Wilson #1.