ESPN's '30-for-30' film "Benji" debuted on Tuesday night. It carries a strong message that remains unfortunately relevant to this day.
The story of Ben Wilson has long served as a local parable for the dangers of prodigious young talent in Chicago's war-torn South Side neighborhoods, and a national audience learned the sad tale of the one-time Simeon basketball star on Tuesday night thanks to ESPN's latest '30-for-30' film, "Benji".
Wilson was described as "Magic Johnson with a jump shot", a 6-foot-7 forward with an incredibly soft stroke from outside. Wilson was, in many ways, ahead his time, and not just in terms of his seemingly evolutionary body or proto-Durant offensive arsenal. National basketball rankings for high school players are par for the course now -- players are identified as early as seventh grade locally when basketball factories like Whitney Young and Wilson's Simeon High start to quietly recruit the top junior high players. By time high school players reach their sophomore season, a clear pecking order starts to form, one that remains surprisingly accurate when looked back on years later.
It makes sense: there was never a point in LeBron James' or Carmelo Anthony's life when they weren't the best player on the court. The advent and popularity of AAU has changed the game, pitting the top players in the country against each other from the moment they're identified. It's a phenomenon unique to basketball, where the elite talent can match up on both ends of the court and show what they've got. It's also the reason one could predict the top pick in the 2015 NBA Draft (Andrew Wiggins, unless he reclassifies) with far greater accuracy than one could predict the top pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. It's created a culture that lends itself to ranking teenagers, with pride, scholarships and lots of attention on the line.
This wasn't the case in 1984 when Wilson went from a rising junior on Simeon's state championship team to the No. 1 ranked prospect in the country after attending a national summer camp led by the legendary Sonny Vaccaro. Again: if Wilson lived in contemporary times, he'd have attended dozens of similar camps throughout his high school career and not just a single weekend-long event between his junior and senior seasons. The show Wilson put on at the camp vaulted his legend and made him a meal ticket -- more than once in the film is he referred to as a "Messiah" by friends and family hoping the local-boy-made-good would one day be able to lift his inner circle out of their poverty-stricken South Side surroundings.
Wilson was gunned down on the eve of his senior season during a November day when he left school to escort his girlfriend home. His fatal altercation with the gunman was nothing more than simple teenagers boasts gone horribly wrong, a tragedy that started with a shove and ended because two arrogant kids (Wilson and his murderer) refused to tone down their macho high school images. There was a local outpouring of support best captured at Wilson's funeral, which was transformed into a seemingly made-for-TV event featuring speeches from the likes of Jesse Jackson with over 10,000 people in attendance.
It was the biggest funeral in the history of Chicago, at least if you discount former mayor Richard Daley.
Two aspects of the film stuck out. Sad part goes first.
Wilson's murder came 28 years ago but the film doesn't feel at all dated. It's unfortunately fitting for contemporary times because Chicago violence is no less relevant. The increasing murder rate has been the city's biggest story in 2012. An unseasonably warm March kick-started murder season in Chicago with 52 people killed, more than twice the number of homicides from March of 2011. At the moment, Chicago boasts 100 more murders than New York and 200 more than Los Angeles. The city is already on the brink of surpassing last year's murder total of 443.
It's easy to have an out-of-sight/out-of-mind attitude with the murder rate in such a segregated city, where so much of the violence happens in distinct neighborhoods. Make no mistake: this continues to be Chicago's No. 1 issue and it must be resolved. The life of another basketball star was already taken this year when former Washington standout and Iona-bound forward Michael Haynes was killed this summer after trying to resolve a dispute over a stolen necklace.
The hope is that "Benji", with its ESPN backing and subsequent outpouring of support from NBA players like Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones, will serve to illuminate the city's problems and help curb the violence. Can a made-for-cable documentary really do that much? It's hard to say, but it transitions to the second point:
Chicago cares deeply about basketball.
Wilson's legacy best lives on through Simeon's next wave of star ballers, from Chicago Bulls icon Derrick Rose to current phenom Jabari Parker, a senior for the Wolverines who was recently proclaimed 'the best high school player since LeBron James' on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Parker has led Simeon to three state titles in his first three years at school and is considered either the No. 1 or No. 2 senior in the country. Parker's size (6-foot-8) and scoring acumen makes the comparisons to Wilson inevitable. But it's Rose who springs to mind most often while watching "Benji". How could he not?
Like Wilson, Rose was a Simeon star who waded through the same troubled neighborhoods with even more pressure. Wilson's story was certainly never far from the collective minds of Rose's inner circle, and it's a credit to the family that he turned into the superstar he is today.
I attended an adidas event last month in which Rose started crying when thinking about how far he had come. Rose knows he was lucky to make it out of Englewood alive and Wilson is the reason why.
The documentary takes a jarring twist in the last half hour when Wilson's killer, 16 at the time of the murder, is brought on-camera and interviewed. Seeing the story from the other side of the gun makes the message all of the more powerful and decidedly heavy. "Benji" is another triumph for "30-for-30", which has quickly become the best thing ESPN does by a mile. "Benji" is a strong addition to the collection, a harrowing tale that will hopefully raise awareness on Chicago's long-standing bloodshed. Wilson himself is lionized in the film and made into more of a hero than he probably was, but that's the point of a venture like this. As is mentioned in the film by a childhood friend, Wilson was "the chosen one". Watching the documentary, you can't help but think of all of the other lives lost during bloody Chicago summers from the '80s until now that will never receive such attention.