Friday November 21st marks 30 years since the death of Chicago public high school great Ben Wilson. You ask any Chicagoan of a certain age and Thanksgiving of the mid 80’s were sorrowful, we lost Ben Wilson the day before Thanksgiving in 1984 and then our beloved Mayor Harold Washington three years later the day before Thanksgiving.
Most of us who were prep high school fans still get sad at hearing “Benji”s name and can only think of such lost promise but for me I was 8 years old and my brother Kevin was the same age as Benji, so its a little different for me.
I was attending Paul Revere Elementary School in south shore (I was in third grade and thought I could play ball), and to us young boys the Chicago Public High School prep stars were our basketball heroes. Remember this was Michael Jordan’s rookie year and we weren’t that into Larry Bird in Boston or Magic Johnson in Los Angeles.
We had just seen Mark Aquirre go from Westinghouse to DePaul University to the NBA. And Marcus Liberty and the usual contending team from King High School was among the elite of the public league along with Ben Wilson’s Simeon squad who had just won a state title the year before.
In my gym class at Revere if Mr. Dervin let us have “free gym” we played basketball dreaming we were those CPS high school players, if we were on the playground, we played on those bent rims on Dobson Street like it was the “city championship”, we just thought the world of those guys.
To add to it, my brother attended Simeon’s rival Julian High School and my late older cousin Bill was a big time booster at Julian, so every time I saw him we always talked public league hoops, it was a special time in the public league.
But Ben Wilson was special, # 1 player in the nation in 1984, we never had that in Chicago before and he was a southsider, us younger cats felt like “he was one of us”, he lived in Chatham, my grandparents at the time lived in Chatham at 82nd & Vernon. We knew the neighborhood had some issues but nothing crazy like it is now. I walked up and down 79th Street & King Drive with my grandparents all the time, no big deal.
But the death of Benji for me was that first lost of innocence for me, it was like, “how could this happen?” He was our guy, he was going to be great, was probably going to University of Illinois in Champaign and make a great squad with Ken Norman and his Simeon teammate Nick Anderson was going down there too. It seemed like we’d finally eclipse Indiana University and Bobby Knight and have our own great state school.
And just like that it was over, shot right there off of Vincennes. My mother drove me to school that way, unreal, I mean I heard of people being killed but not a star ball player like that. For a lot of people two years later when Len Bias from Maryland died after the Celtics drafted him that was their “basketball innocence lost” moment but here in Chicago we already had that and when Len overdosed that just brought it all back.
I sit here all these years later and it still hurts, two years ago I watched the excellent “Benji” documentary from ESPN and their 30 for 30 movies and cried like a baby, I’m tearing up writing this.
Its like your first heartbreak but worse, its death of a hero, the loss of a dream, I must admit I can still see the cover of that Thanksgiving Day newspaper on my parents couch like it was yesterday.
From that day forward the game of basketball was never the same, the Bulls were great, Michael Jordan was amazing but he wasn’t from the southside, he wasn’t Benji.
Simeon High since has turned out the likes of Derrick Rose & Jabari Parker and they are in the NBA but they aren’t Benji and no one will ever be.
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