Commentary

Chicago's transcendent tragedy

New film looks back at Ben Wilson shooting and tries to inspire change -- and tears

Updated: August 23, 2012, 2:03 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Beyond the expectations of fame that any artist carries with him, Chicago-born director Coodie Simmons has one prevailing goal for his documentary on the late Ben Wilson.

[+] EnlargeBen Wilson
Chicago TribuneBen Wilson might have been the best high school player in the country heading into his senior season.

"Our whole thing was we wanted to make thugs cry," said Simmons, who co-directed the movie with his partner, Chike Ozah. "You know what I'm saying?

"They say these kids today are immune to death, but that was a greater death. It was something really powerful for Ben Wilson to die."

Thugs, basketball players, teenagers and suburban mothers who have never heard of Wilson, the archetypal star who died too young, all will cry during the 78-minute movie "Benji," which will premiere on ESPN on Oct. 23 as part of the award-winning "30 for 30" documentary series.

Maybe they'll cry when former NBA star Nick Anderson loses it talking about his friend, or maybe when they see footage of students bawling at Simeon just hours after his death in 1984. Maybe they'll cry with joy a few times, too. I believe a lot of tears will be shed when this movie premieres. But mostly I think Ben Wilson's name, as they say nowadays in the Twitter world, will be trending far beyond the borders of the South Side of Chicago.

After a Nike-sponsored partial screening of "Benji" and a panel discussion last week at Simeon Career Academy, I watched the entire movie that evening at home. It was, as expected, very powerful, a universal tragedy story, a life lost before it really began. It's also a story of Chicago in the 1980s, with stirring interviews.

Simmons and Ozah, famous for directing rap videos (Kanye West's "Through The Wire" is one), wanted to tell a story that has meant more than basketball. I think they, along with their producers and teammates, succeeded.

"It inspired me a little bit," Simeon coach Robert Smith said. "It touched me at the end when they had the funeral part. I think it's going to be great for the youth and definitely the basketball players in the state of Illinois."

Like those of fellow basketball stars Hank Gathers and Len Bias, the Wilson story has lived on far past the protagonist. Wilson was shot in a dispute with two teens outside his high school on Nov. 20, 1984, just before his senior season was to begin. Wilson was thought of as the best high school senior in the country, and Simeon was coming off a state championship. He died the next day in the hospital. He was mourned in the city, with an estimated 10,000 people at his funeral -- "With all due respect to the late Mayor [Richard] Daley, Benji had the biggest funeral in Chicago history," his brother Curtis Glenn said -- and across the country.

Wilson's death precipitated a chorus for change in the embattled inner city and in Chicago's emergency care procedures. In the years since, Wilson has become, as narrator Wood Harris (Avon Barksdale from "The Wire") puts it, "a mythical figure fixed in Chicago's collective memory."

Until they retired his number in 2009, the best player on every Simeon basketball team wore Wilson's No. 25, including Derrick Rose. You can't escape his presence in the school, that smiling picture with an index finger pointing up.

Wilson's cautionary tale sometimes belies his talent, and the footage in "Benji" shows how special Wilson, a lithe 6-foot-7 do-everything player, really was. Wilson's last summer saw him skyrocket to unofficial status as the best player in the country, with Illinois and DePaul courting his services. Folks now compare him to a predecessor of Kevin Durant.

Some kids might be out there that we can never reach and recover, but there's a whole new generation of kids coming up. If they can see this movie and be inspired to figure out what their potential and passion is ... I think this story transcends past the passion of basketball.

-- Filmmaker Chike Ozah

"This movie is going to do him some justice," said Wilson's former teammate, Teri Sampson, who starred in the panel discussion. "It will bring some truth to the myth. Ben Wilson was the best player I ever saw."

Regardless, it is Wilson's death at the gun of teen Billy Moore, which is explored in detail, that has served as a sad lesson to legions of high school players: Watch yourself.

Rose, a quiet kid by nature, was kept out of trouble by his family and friends. Rising Simeon senior Jabari Parker, the No.1 player in the country, just like Wilson, lives a cloistered life with his large family just off 79th Street.

(Parker was out of town for Thursday's event. Rose was rumored to be coming but didn't make it.)

When asked what his neighborhood is like, Simeon senior forward Kendall Pollard said, "I don't know. I don't go outside."

Wilson's story was just repeated. Hanging over this event was the recent death of former Chicago preps player Michael Haynes, who was shot to death on 118th and Vincennes on July 27, trying to mediate an argument over a necklace. After a few stops and starts, he was headed to Iona College to play basketball. He was one of five men shot and killed in a 12-hour span.

"Totally ludicrous, insane," said Tio Hardiman, the director of CeaseFire Illinois. "This is a kid that wanted to make it out and vowed to come back and help everyone."

"Big Mike, he was real cool with everybody," Pollard said. "Everybody knew Big Mike. He always had a smile on his face. When I heard the news, it was just tragic."

"Michael Haynes, I was at his funeral," said Sonny Parker, father of Jabari and founder of the Sonny Parker Youth Foundation. "It really affected all of us in our community. This kid is getting ready to do the right thing and go to school. He's breaking up a fight. He gets shot and killed."

Coach Robert Smith has a good group at Simeon, the core of which has won three state titles in three years. As Pollard said, most of his teammates who have college ambitions purposefully stay out of trouble, but sometimes trouble finds you.

"It does," Smith said. "I wake up in the mornings looking at my phone, hoping and praying I don't get a phone call that one of these guys have been shot or anything like that. it affects me all the time. I think about it all the time. Me and my coaching staff talk about it all the time. We talk to the guys about it all the time, just where you're at and the things you're doing."

Chicago has been in the national news for an escalating murder rate, up 27 percent this year, said Hardiman. He serves as a public face for CeaseFire, which focuses on mediating disputes before they become violent crimes. The documentary "The Interrupters" focuses on the campaign's work. From July 1, 2011, to June 30 of this year, Hardiman said the group has mediated 969 conflicts and has spent 24,000 hours with 1,120 "high-risk individuals." Education and proactive conversation is key to change, he said.

When Wilson died, there were gang ceasefires and task forces and a vocal community commitment to stopping violence. But the vicious cycle continues.

So it's fair to ask: What can a movie really do? Our attention spans are so short. Tragedies are flogged and forgotten. Simmons, a Julian High grad, and Ozah think their movie has a deeper purpose beyond telling an evocative story, even if it's just a spark for conversation about violence.

"I could've been Billy Moore, I could've been Ben Wilson," Simmons said. "I can see both sides."

"Some kids might be out there that we can never reach and recover, but there's a whole new generation of kids coming up," said Ozah, a New Orleans native. "If they can see this movie and be inspired to figure out what their potential and passion is ... I think this story transcends past the passion of basketball."

While the fundamental problems of poverty and learned behavior are beyond a film's reach, Hardiman, who sees the numbers and the reality on the ground, agrees with the filmmakers.

"Without a doubt, I think it would be good," he said. "Violence is alive and kicking in Chicago. We can use stories like Benji."

Wilson's story will be visceral, but as Parker told me, Chicago's inner-city youth need more. More playgrounds, more safe havens, more good examples, more alternatives to "Just say no." They need something to yes to.

"Fundamental actions have to take place within society and communities," Ozah said. "It can't just be a fad of a movement. Those don't last forever. There needs to be physical actions taking place to change the dynamic of city and the way we interact with each other."

I think "Benji" could be the start of something good. But at the very least, Wilson's story is one worth retelling. It never can be forgotten.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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