In this two part series, we take a look back at two of the biggest “what if’s” in basketball folklore. Two athletes; one, a true prep phenom with the greatest personality and top grades to boot with his amazing basketball skills; the other, a college athlete foreseen to be an all-time great -both ruined by the harshest of realities of the world we live in. It’s time to take a trip down memory lane to appreciate these two stars who were denied their chance for greatness. This week we reminisce on what could’ve been if Ben Wilson hadn’t been gunned down in the cold Chicago afternoon of November 20, 1984.
by Jayden Taylor
You lace up your basketball shoes, scream in the layup lines after every showstopping dunk, live every second on the court as if it was your last. Basketball can be the epitome of happiness, when everything goes your way. We all have something in our lives which we love. Something that inspires us to give everything we can to maintain that joy it brings. Some of us have real talent in what we love to do; a lot of us don’t and that’s the reality we live in. Then there’s special people- athletes, artists, musicians who give us that special overwhelming feeling when watching them do what they do. We develop a love for what those people represent as they share the same passion as us.
A kid from Simeon, with a story for the ages…
It’s been over 30 years since Ben “Benji” Wilson was taken away from Simeon, Chicago. Once deemed the light out of the dark for the dangerous city, he left this earth in truthfully, one of the cruellest ways.
Born on March 18 in 1967, Ben was destined for basketball greatness. He started playing at the very early age of his elementary schooling days at St. Dorothy School and eventually transferring to Ruggles Elementary school. Every morning, it became a ritual for Ben to practice his dribble moves, serving as an alarm clock for his neighbours. He’d also play before school started, and again when it finished. A true embodiement of the phrase “Ball is life”.
In 1981, 14 years old and standing at 6’1, Ben began his high school career playing for Simeon Vocational High School in the neighbourhood at Chatham. It’s still a rarity to speak of, but we hear a lot about superstars starting out playing as guards to the forward game, forced to by a rather unusual growth spurt. This gives these type of players the ever necessary length for a basketball player accompanied by the comprehensive skills they adapted when playing the guard position. It makes for something extraordinary – revolutionary, even. In this light of outlandish growth spurts, we mention Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis. More specifically Anthony Davis, who’s case of physical growth resounds freakishly with Ben Wilson’s. Both played the point guard position in high school until they were struck by their growth spurts; gaining around 6 to 7 inches in height within the span of a year or two. As aforementioned, Ben started his freshmen year at 6’1. He played the point guard spot at the time but would finish his high school career at a grand 6’9ft tall.
His legacy at Simeon and in the city of Chicago lives to this day.
Ben’s basketball legacy was backed by his glistening, yet short-lived, high school career. 1982, Benji became the first sophomore in his varsity team. The next season, he led Simeon to their first Illinois State Championship by defeating top ranked Evanston Township High, and putting Benji on the national radar. Much alike any successful young athlete, he was certainly an influential and popular figure amongst his peers and colleagues.
In the 1984 season, Ben Wilson, the prodigious talent, would be invited to an invitation-only Athletes for Better Education held in Princeton, New Jersey. After the event which showcased his revolutionary game, Wilson would be ranked the number one high school player in the world. He was the first Chicago-native player to do so. Now there have been Chicagoans like Derrick Rose and Anthony Davis who shared the same honours at their time as prep stars. From Illinois to Indiana University, Benji had many colleges salivating and begging for his signature, and the dream slowly almost became reality.
Basketball is deeply rooted in the city of Chicago. There is the cult-like following of the Bulls, spawned single-handedly by Michael Jordan and his high-flying antics. Chicago is also a basketball factory, producing numerous great players such as Isaiah Thomas, Dwayne Wade, Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker, and Anthony Davis. Shooting hoops was seen as a refuge from the crimes that seemingly engulfed the city. The sport is celebrated in the basketball city that is Chicago, which makes the story more emotional and significant – Benji was one of the first true pioneers of Chicago basketball, and the city loved him dearly for that.
Then it just hits you like a freight train. November 20th, Ben and his girlfriend (who would end up birthing his first and only child) ran into two thugs from a local high school, which was known for its dangerous vibe. It’s said that Ben had robbed one of the thug’s cousins of 10 dollars. By fate, they would bump in to Ben and confrontations arose. However, Ben held an imposing figure, standing at 6’9 and, with the Chicagoan in him, retaliated against the thugs. And out of comprehensible fear, 3 gun shots were fired from a .22 caliber in Ben’s direction. Later sent to hospital, Benji would die in hospital after emergency surgery.
To this day we will never know what Benji was capable of. Would he have been one of the greatest? Would he had been a huge failure? Who knows. However, his legacy stays strong. It was estimated that 10,000 people came to mourn in his funeral, all grieving over the death of someone special. The headstone on his grave reads: “Best in the Nation”.
From 1984 to 2011 there was a declined rate of murder crimes in the whole of Chicago. Was this his real legacy?
Benji had the brightest of futures. He was poised to do great things with his talents. He had the world in his hands. His child never got to see his daddy make it. Chicago were robbed of what could possibly be a diamond in the rough. Sometimes life takes the most precious things in our life from us; only then do we realise how we fail to appreciate them. On November 20th the world was deprived of watching something special unfold.
His legacy at Simeon and in the city of Chicago lives to this day. Ever since, Benji’s number 25 has only been worn by the best players at Simeon, including Derrick Rose (It would be retired in 2009) and every upcoming athlete at Simeon high is given a book about Ben Wilson’s story.
But what if Benji never got shot…