Greatness struck down by gunfire
In 1984, Simeon High School basketball phenom Ben Wilson’s star was rising. A chance encounter destroyed everything.
Less than a week before gunfire struck down prep basketball star Ben Wilson, shattering his family and classmates and stunning Chicago, a Tribune sportswriter mused about the Simeon athlete’s future.
There, in the last few paragraphs of his story about national signing day and the college destinations of top basketball prospects, writer Barry Temkin speculated on what college the 17-year-old Wilson would attend. Wilson, affectionately known as “Benji,” was the only one of four highly regarded Illinois prospects who hadn’t signed with a college, and his high school coach, Bob Hambric, said Wilson wouldn’t sign until April.
Wilson, a 6-foot-8 forward, was ranked by some as the best basketball player in the country and had narrowed his choices to DePaul, Indiana and Illinois.
But on the eve of the first game of the 1984-85 season, Wilson was dead.
It has been 35 years since Wilson was shot twice on Nov. 20, 1984, during his lunch hour, dying of his wounds the next morning. But his legacy can still be felt at Simeon High School and by those who play the sport.
Until Wilson’s jersey was retired on the 25th anniversary of his death in 2009, Simeon’s best player always wore his No. 25. Nick Anderson, a member of the University of Illinois’ 1989 Final Four team and later an NBA star with the Orlando Magic, paid homage to his teammate when he not only wore No. 25 during what would have been Wilson’s senior year, but also throughout his college and NBA career.
Anderson was a close friend and had transferred to Simeon at Wilson’s urging right before the 1984-85 season.
“I can remember that summer that I transferred, we spent the whole summer together — playing ball, hanging out, going to movies,” Anderson told the Tribune in 2009.
“We just became so close. He was a brother to me.”
Derrick Rose, who as a Chicago Bulls player was named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year (2009) and MVP (2011), wore No. 25 while being compared to Wilson when he played for the Simeon Wolverines.
“It was an honor, because Benji was a legend,” Rose said in 2009. “Benji meant so much to us. His story really scared me, knowing it happened to a great player. Anything can happen.”
Wilson grew his legend helping the Wolverines win the Class AA state championship and finish end the 1983-84 season with a 30-1 record. But it was during the 1984 offseason when his reputation skyrocketed. The Tribune declared Illinois high school basketball’s Class of 1985, Wilson’s class, to be “one for the books — perhaps the best graduating class in state history.”
Like other esteemed members of that group, Wilson was going to spend the summer honing his skills and reputation at basketball camps around the country, the Tribune reported in April of that year. “That’s one reason to go to camp — good publicity,” he said.
Wilson didn’t disappoint. In August, numerous scouting services crowned Wilson the No. 1 player in the country — and he loved the attention, especially after getting rave reviews from college coaches at a camp in Princeton, New Jersey.
“I liked it,” Wilson told the Tribune, referring to his experiences that summer. “You got to play against all the best players. No, there wasn’t any pressure on me to play well.”
Soon the new season would start, and Wilson could begin cementing his legacy in Illinois basketball history alongside greats like Mark Aguirre, Isiah Thomas and Quinn Buckner.
But a chance encounter during Thanksgiving week destroyed everything.
That Tuesday, Wilson decided not to eat lunch at Simeon. Instead, he left the South Side campus and walked down the street in the November chill to a convenience store with his girlfriend, Jetun Rush. There, according to accounts, Wilson crossed paths with some teenagers. Things quickly, horribly escalated.
Store owner Andre Thomas, according to a Tribune report, said he heard from witnesses that Wilson “was out front and he happened to bump into one of these three kids. Benji said, ‘Excuse me,’ and the guy said to him, ‘There ain’t gonna be no excuses,’ and then he shot him.” Wilson was struck in the chest and groin.
A friend saw Wilson right after gunshots had split the air.
“I came out of school on my lunch break and I saw him. He was sitting down against a fence and his eyes were closed,” Leonard Carr, a Simeon junior, told the Tribune. “There were around 10 people standing around him. Some were running, some were crying. … I couldn’t do anything.”
Wilson underwent five hours of surgery at St. Bernard
Hospital in Englewood. The situation was bleak. His liver “was almost completely shot through,” and a bullet had passed through his aorta, the hospital’s chief general surgeon, Dr. Hong-Ming Lay, said at a news conference.
Surgeons couldn’t feel any blood pressure when Wilson came into the operating room, Lay said. The hemorrhaging was so severe that Wilson had to be given twice the amount of blood normally found in the body.
Wilson’s mother, Mary Wilson, was a nurse. So when she felt his feet while spending that night at her son’s bedside, she knew there was no hope.
“I clutched his feet and prayed, ‘God, give him my strength,’ but his feet were already icy cold, and I thought, ‘God, he’s not living anymore,’” Mary Wilson said.
Ben Wilson died hours later, on the day before Thanksgiving.
“It’s just so empty. There’s no way I can explain this feeling. I’ll never see my baby again,” Mary Wilson said.
At a memorial service in the Simeon gym that day, school officials and community activists asked students to learn from Wilson’s death.
“When will it end?” Simeon principal Ned McCray asked, referring to the gun violence. “When men stand up and say, ‘Young men, no more. No more.’”
Wilson died the day Simeon was to open the season at the Rockford Boylan tournament against Evanston. Coach Hambric decided to take the team to Rockford, where Evanston players gave flowers to Simeon players before the game. Simeon won 71-50. No one openly talked about Wilson.
An estimated 10,000 people came out for services that Saturday. Wilson was buried at Oakwood Cemetery, where hundreds wept and cried out, “Why?”
Prosecutors charged two 16-year-old boys, Calumet High School students William Moore and Omar Dixon, with Wilson’s murder. According to police and later testimony by Wilson’s girlfriend, Dixon and Moore were among three teens blocking the sidewalk when Wilson attempted to pass through. After Wilson bumped into one of them and excused himself, he and the group exchanged words. Dixon grabbed Wilson’s jacket pockets to rob him. When Wilson pushed Dixon away, Dixon told Moore: “This guy pushed me. Pop him.”
Dixon and Moore went on trial in October 1985. Although authorities initially identified at least one of the youths as a gang member, prosecutors and defense attorneys did not address alleged gang involvement during the first trial.
Moore, the shooter, and Dixon were both convicted. Moore was sentenced to 40 years and Dixon to 30 years.
Dixon was retried in 1989 after the Illinois Appellate Court determined that Moore’s confession was improperly used against Dixon in the original trial. The outcome of the second trial was the same.
In the months after his death, Wilson’s family sued the Chicago Fire Department and St. Bernard doctors over his medical treatment. Wilson was shot at 12:37 p.m., wasn’t taken to the hospital until 1:20 p.m. and didn’t go into surgery until 3:14 p.m., the lawsuit said.
At the time, people suffering from traumatic injuries were taken to the nearest hospital, not the nearest trauma center. Wilson’s shooting changed that.
The lawsuit, which sought $10 million in damages, was settled seven years later. The family received an undisclosed amount; its lawyer, Jeffrey Goldberg, said the settlement would take care of Wilson’s parents and Wilson’s son, who was an infant when Wilson died.
After Wilson’s death, a mayoral task force on youth crime prevention was created, and Mary Wilson was named one of the advisers to a $3.9 million program to fight gang crime.
During an appearance in 1985 before the state legislature, Mary Wilson said she had found new purpose: “I’m beginning to feel that even in his death, there’s something for me to do. We need to start thinking about what can be done to stop the killing. The killing has to stop.”
Friends and family mourn Ben Wilson during a graveside service at Oakwood Cemetery on Nov. 24, 1984.
Curtis Wilson, Ben Wilson’s oldest brother, accepts a framed team jersey from members of the Simeon High School basketball team during a retirement ceremony for Ben’s number on Nov. 14, 2009.