Commentary

Benji Wilson's ongoing journey

Originally Published: October 23, 2012
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

WilsonChicago TribuneA film about Benji Wilson, a Chicago basketball prodigy who was shot to death in 1984, may play a role in helping to heal the city in 2012.

It is sometimes necessary to go back to high school. The older one grows, the more those four years can act as a comfort. Faded are the angst and insecurities. Brighter every year is the first kiss, the lively prom, the innocence. For those who played sports in high school, the memories are plentiful and vivid, but they are also increasingly untrustworthy. The ordinary becomes triumphant: Four points in that game is now 24, the sloppy 6-yard run, a zigzagging 62-yard punt return. Perhaps - I'm in no mood to consult with sports psychologists for contradictory opinions - this is some sort of defense mechanism against the belly that is now hanging over the belt, the gray or vanishing hair, and the bones that have begun to creek. The mirror tells one story; the past another: Once we were kings. Benji Wilson was a king, cut down dead in 1984.

-- Rick Kogan, read on air just prior to Chicago's WBEZ radio program "Afternoon Shift" on Oct. 18, 2012

Journeys.

If we are honest with ourselves, we know that they never really begin where we think they begin and they hardly ever end when we think it's the end.

The journey to get the story of Ben Wilson's life told on (and through) film started long before directors Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah were given the green light to start telling one of the most compelling stories in the history of Chicago -- and one of the most traumatic, misunderstood and unforgiving stories in sports.

For close to 15 years, the film version of the story of the life and death of Chicago's basketball "messiah" seemed to imprison the city. Different screenplays existed, different directors were attached to those screenplays, family disputes emerged about who had the legal rights to tell the story, Ben's mother passed away, Ben's girlfriend at the time of his death didn't want to be involved, people wanted money, to profit off the Prophet.

There's always been this belief that Ben Wilson died because there was a greater lesson to be learned than the loss of his life. He was meant to transcend the game of basketball. His mother always said it, his friends always believed it. It just always remained unknown in what form the final message of his death was going to be. It was, at times, as if his story no longer belonged to him. It belonged to everyone who had (and some who didn't have) a hand in his life, to people who never knew him but were somehow touched by him, to every young black kid on the streets of Chi who caught the same fate he did when he caught that bullet.

For 28 years, there has been a tug-of-war with Benji's life. People pulling from all sides. In the middle of it all: a rope disguised as fate. A rope that was fraying. A rope where the balance of the meaning of a man's life hung.

Then happenstance. A higher power (ESPN, not God) intervened and damn-near all of the necessities and necessary people fell in line and then fell into place. And for the greater good of a prodigy mourned by all of us, Mary Wilson's son's story finally found the needed medium.

It took 78 minutes. Years of words and emotions that are impossible to fit in this column; 78 minutes. And it was told. The hyphen between March 18, 1967 - Nov. 21, 1984 had finally been filled with a visual retelling that had the power to transcend. His life's sentence had finally found its period.

The film was to be that voice/vehicle/vessel that touched so deep to the core of our souls that it would initiate change. A force that made Chicago look in the mirror and realize that almost three decades removed from our golden child's death, we have not changed; we have not evolved; we not have grown. Coodie always said throughout the process of making "Benji" that "there's a reason the film is being done now." Because film has always had the power to move.

And because of the vortex of violence Chicago has chosen to live in ... because of the "killing fields in plain sight" and the black male "us killing us" mentality and behavior that now represents the city ... because of the "Don't shoot! I want to grow up" cries, slogans and stickers, and the special additions of "Hidden America" on "Nightline" ... because we've become the first city mentioned when any discussion comes up about the lack of value this generation of young blacks has for life ... because of the 419 killed in Chicago so far this year, "Benji" had to serve a greater purpose than the life of the kid it is named after. Something greater than just another addition to Volume II of ESPN's 30 for 30 franchise.

The film was to be our reminder that at the time of his death, Ben Wilson Jr. was the 669th of the 741 homicides in 1984. A number that even at the shocking pace we are at today in Chicago probably won't be reached by year's end. A cold and stark reminder that things here ain't really changed, that our situation, our plight, our lives ain't changed. That maybe in the end, Benji did die for nothing.

But, see, journeys never end when we think it's the end.

Somehow, because of this 78-minute documentary, a higher power (God, not ESPN) brought two men together who had no reason or desire to coexist. Two men who were instrumental in telling Ben Wilson's full story: his closest friend, Mario Coleman, and the man who killed him, Billy Moore.

The change that Ben Wilson eventually was going to have on everyone's life arrived when two filmmakers decided to put in the film the statistic that made Ben Wilson Jr. a statistic -- when they decided to make Moore a part of Benji's life story as opposed to the person who ended it.

It took Mario a while (understatement) to come around to this. It took the entire city a while to come around to this. Credit goes to Coodie and Chike for knowing that film -- when executed beautifully and with earnest sincerity -- does have the power to be more powerful than one man's life but often not stronger than two.

So when Mario, who'd met Moore just 10 days prior to the final screening of the film at the Chicago International Film Festival last week, left the theatre in the middle of that final screening to go get Moore (who was in the lobby) so that he could be a part of the experience, it put an end to the citywide anguished belief that Benji may actually have died in vain.

They stood next to each other in front of a blank movie screen, in front of a crowd of people, telling their story of forgiveness. Of how this film gave one a chance to speak and another a chance to hear.

People asked questions about what they thought it would take to cease the culture that has become synonymous with everything wrong with black life in Chicago. They responded in different ways. I spoke for them by saying, "More people seeing these two standing next to one another!"

Before the night ended I walked up to Moore, who spent 19 years in prison for the murder of Benji and has been out since 2004 trying to redirect other people's lives so they don't put themselves in the same situation that he did at 16, and whispered in his ear, "You are going to end up being a hero."

He said he didn't want to be one and that's not what he is looking to get out of this. I told him that his being a part of the postscript of Benji's life and this film was going to be many people's redemption song.

Wilson
Wilson FamilyWilson's mother and friends have always felt his life was about a lot more than basketball.
"Billy was supposed to be a part of the dynasty -- we just didn't realize it," Coleman said to me the next day, referring to Billy's place in this tale of redemption, as we shared a lengthy phone conversation about the night before. "We did not know how to bring him in."

But someone did.

I watched Billy and Mario speak to each other with no reserved hate. I listened as Mario told the story of how he took Moore to the barbershop to meet/confront all of Benji's other friends, many of whom vowed to kill Moore if they ever saw him. I watched them exemplify a power of forgiveness that if seen by more than the few hundred people in the theatre could change streams of unconsciousness.

If only everyone who ever sees this film could see what this film actually did. How the result of a film could be one of the examples that could stop Diane Sawyer (who came to Chicago recently to orchestrate/lead a "town hall meeting" with gang members, children and community leaders for ABC's "Nightline") and Walter Jacobson (legendary local newscaster who recently sat down and interviewed current gang members for a special segment on WBBM-CBS Channel 2 News) from asking for answers. How this film could stop a few thousand kids from thinking that Chief Keef's words are their answer. Because if Mario Coleman and Billy Moore could forgive and stand beside one another, it forces all the young brothas Billy and Mario once looked like who are in today's crossfire to wonder whether the hate they hold for one another is really (honestly) that serious.

I just looked at them. Only Benji could do this. His mother called it.

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.

That was a paragraph from a story I wrote on Ben Wilson in 1994 in Slam magazine on the 10th anniversary of his death. Eighteen years ago. We like to think that things have changed, and that what's going on in these streets when we talk about the plight and fate of young black men is extremely more drastic and exaggeratedly more dangerous than it was back in the day. We'd be wrong.

So many have waited for this day to come, for this film to have a life. All with hope that somehow a voice would emerge from beyond the grave to lead the kids of Chi in a different, more promising direction. To heal wounds. To define forgiveness. To be a mirror.

The person Ben Wilson was compared to the most when he played was Magic Johnson. He was the first "next" Magic. His full nickname: "Magic With A Jump Shot." Which makes it interesting if you look at the impact and influence Johnson has had on lives in his posthumous basketball career and then correlate how, now that this story has finally been told and this film finally made, Benji -- more than any other player in recent memory -- has the power to still be our next Magic.

Scoop Jackson | email

ESPN.com columnist