Great­ness struck down by gun­fire

In 1984, Simeon High School bas­ket­ball phe­nom Ben Wil­son’s star was ris­ing. A chance en­counter de­stroyed ev­ery­thing.

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGO FLASHBACK - By Tina Ak­ouris tak­[email protected] chicagotri­bune.com

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.”

OVIE CARTER/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Friends and fam­ily mourn Ben Wil­son dur­ing a grave­side ser­vice at Oakwood Ceme­tery on Nov. 24, 1984.

ABEL URIBE/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

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.

ED WAGNER JR./CHICAGO TRI­BUNE 1984

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