Nearly 30 years after his death, Ben Wilson’s name still resonates in Chicago. Now it will ring out nationwide.
“Benji,” which debuted April 21 at the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival (part of the larger 11th TriBeCa fest), is the first feature film from Coodie & Chike, the team responsible for -- among many others -- Kanye West’s “Through the Wire” music video. In “Benji,” the duo has assembled an impressive collection of friends, family members, writers and celebrities to tell Wilson’s story.
And what a story. In the mid-1980s, Wilson went from an undersized varsity afterthought to being considered the No. 1 player in the country in less than two years. Like Anthony Davis, another Chicago baller who would claim the nation’s top spot as a high school senior, Wilson grew late, sprouting up several inches in a matter of months. And like Davis, Wilson retained his guard skills and smoothness in his new center-sized body.
Benji was, in the words of ESPN columnist Scoop Jackson, like “Magic Johnson with 30-foot range” -- blessed with size, handle and a jump shot to boot.
Wilson led Simeon High to a state title as a junior and was poised to make the school Chicago’s first to win back-to-back Illinois state championships. In addition to Wilson, Simeon had picked up a pair of talented transfers, including future NBA player Nick Anderson. The team seemed a lock to win state.
It would never come to pass. The day before what would have been the first game of his senior season, in 1984, Wilson was shot twice near Simeon after an altercation with a pair of teenagers. He died that night, and his assailants were later convicted.
One of the emotional turning points in the film comes when Anderson talks about getting the phone call that Benji was dead. Seeing a huge man, a former professional athlete, tear up recalling a memory from nearly 30 years ago drives home just how much Wilson meant to those around him.
But the grief was felt not just by those close to Benji, but by the entire community. Thousands of Chicago residents attended his wake and funeral. Coodie, who’s from Chicago, remembers trying to sneak into gyms to see Wilson play. He remembers crying the night Wilson died.
“The way he looked, the way he acted, was so powerful,” Coodie said. “He was almost like our Superman.”
“Superman’s not supposed to die,” added Chike. “Superman’s supposed to be immortal.”
Wilson was a Chicago contemporary of Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan before they were legends, “but Ben was talked about more at the time in Chicago,” said Coodie. “Everybody knew Ben was going to become that person.”
In the wake of Benji’s death, homicide rates in the city dropped -- not just because of renewed anti-violence campaigns and the lesson Wilson represented, but also because of legislation that mandated gunshot victims be taken to the nearest trauma center, not merely the nearest hospital. Had that been the law when Wilson was shot, as the film addresses, it’s likely he would have survived.
His story, at least, has lived on. When there’s a barbershop discussion about the best Chicago ballers of all time from high school or the pros -- Michael Jordan, Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose -- Wilson’s name is invariably in the discussion.
“I don’t want this to sound cliché, but he really hasn’t died,” said Jackson. “In a physical form maybe, but Ben Wilson -- Benji -- really has never died.”
While “Benji” is a story of promise unfulfilled, it’s also a tribute to the way he lived.
“The things that I think live on in this story is his positive approach to his dream to becoming the No. 1 player in the nation,” said Chike.
Toward the end of the film, Benji’s enduring legacy is considered. It’s been a tradition for Simeon’s best player to wear his No. 25, as Rose did.
And then into the frame steps Jabari Parker, whose parallels to Wilson border on uncanny. Parker, a junior who has led Simeon to three consecutive state titles, will almost certainly be ranked the nation’s No. 1 player as a senior. He stands 6-foot-7; Benji was a shade under 6-8.
Like Wilson, Parker has his bedroom is adorned with inspirational quotes and basketball posters (something Coodie & Chike weren’t able to squeeze into the film), and like the Simeon stars that came before him, Parker knows well the story of Benji. His father, playground legend and former NBA player Sonny Parker, made sure of that.
It was Parker’s idea to have Wilson’s No. 25 stitched into sneakers the Simeon team wears. Wilson’s story is stitched indelibly into the fabric on Chicago hoops.
“The shadow of Ben Wilson still plays a role in shaping these kids,” said Jackson. “It’s a constant reminder.”