Few things bring complete strangers together more than sports and tragedies. Whether we’re residents celebrating a world title or residents navigating natural (or man-made) disasters, we’re in it together. The common bond unites in moments like those, making it easier to see ourselves in one another.
Unfortunately, the connection is fleeting. We retreat to our personal silos and circles before long, and everything returns to “normal.” The spirit of community hibernates until the next event — or until we’re reminded of past incidents.
That’s what we have in the new documentary, “Benji,” which airs Tuesday on ESPN. It’s the story of 17-year-old Ben Wilson, the sweet-natured boy who was the nation’s top basketball prospect when he was gunned down in November 1984. He was Chicago’s 669th murder victim that year, but his senseless killing shook the city like none other.
“He had an infectious-type personality, first of all, because he was 6-foot-8, handsome, and always laughing and smiling,” said Kurt Jones, a close friend and teammate of Wilson’s at Chicago’s famed Simeon High. “Not only was he a nice person who people were attracted to because they loved his personality, but he was always looking out for others. He always said positive things to people.”
Jones, a bail bondsman in Alexandria, joined forces with Wilson’s brothers to create Alive25. The foundation serves to honor the player’s memory while addressing the issue of gun violence through tournaments, forums, workshops and other measures.
“We want to keep his name alive because of the prominence he brought to Chicago and the motivation he brought to other kids,” Jones said. “We want to use it as a learning tool so they can reach the pinnacle of success in their lives. To understand his story, he meant so much more than basketball, and these type events are occurring every day.”
Wilson was an obscure player before hard work and dedication led to his blossoming as a junior, when he led Simeon to its first state basketball title. He dominated an elite Nike all-star camp the following summer, which elevated him to the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 1985.
He didn’t enjoy much national recognition back then — the era before ESPN routinely televised high school games and announcements on college choices — but he was beloved in Chicago. More than 10,000 people attended the 12-hour memorial service at Simeon, where the principal told reporters that Wilson likely would’ve graduated in the top five of his class.
All of that promise was snuffed out by two freshmen from a nearby high school. They were on Simeon’s grounds looking for trouble when they bumped into Wilson. Jones refutes the documentary’s exact account of the incident and says courtroom testimony backs him up. But the bottom line is 16-year-old Billy Moore fired two shots and Wilson died, just one day before his senior season was set to begin.
“He had worked out so hard that summer,” Jones said. “I have never seen a work ethic like that. He had so many skills. He was Jordan-like when it came to agility. He had a basketball handle for his height like Magic. And he had a jump shot like Kevin Durant. All of those skills combined to make him a fabulous player.”
Chicago has produced a long line of talented hoopers, including Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose and the NBA’s No. 1 pick this year, Anthony Davis. Longtime observers argue that Wilson might have been the Windy City’s best ever. But everyone agrees that he was the innocent victim of a murderous, gang-related mentality that plagues Chicago to this day.
The city has experienced more than 400 homicides this year, a rate of killing that in many weeks exceeds the body count for our troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and other trouble spots around the world.
Maybe if 400 were killed at once — or if they all were top athletes — there would be more pulling together in an effort to stop the violence. But there isn’t. Jones hopes that Wilson’s story and the Alive25 foundation can help stem the tide, even just a little bit.
“This isn’t a fight that one person can do,” he said. “This is a fight that everybody needs to be a part of. People are fed up with random violence.”
Anyone can be a victim, including the nation’s best high school basketball player. Too bad any unity in the aftermath slowly fades away, like the glow after championships and the resolve after disasters.