ESPN Films, 30 for 30 – Benji – dir. Coodie and Chike
In the closing section of this, the last of a new series of ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries, sportswriter Michael Wilbon says that Ben Wilson (the ‘Benji’ of the title) “represents promise unfulfilled”, and in piecing together the story of Wilson’s life and devastatingly premature death, Coodie and Chike have given credence to Wilbon’s claim that “nothing haunts us like that”.
Perhaps the most enduring appeal of sports is that it can be so easily understood as a microcosm of life itself: its competitiveness, its community, its rewards and its tragedy. What is equally true in sports and in life is that very few people ever come close to fulfilling their promise, to achieving their dreams, to transcending their roots.
Some, however, come closer than others and when such a person comes along, those of us who know them well find a place to pin each of our own faded hopes and dreams. It is a catharsis that many in Irish basketball will know from personal experience: how the promise of one young friend or teammate becomes, however momentarily, a collective promise; the promise that we, too, might see our ambitions played out through them.
Benji demonstrates quite clearly that such a feeling is not exclusive to small towns, that even in a large city like Chicago, fomenting with basketball talent, such feelings exist. Any large city is a patchwork of smaller communities and in a suburban neighbourhood harassed by gang and drug culture, the desire for a way out is palpable.
Indeed, one of the most striking things about Benji is the quasi-religious way in which young Ben Wilson’s death is viewed by many of those featured in the documentary. It is both startling and moving to hear grown men, including school friends and neighbours of Wilson’s, speak about him as “much more than a basketball player”, as a “Little Messiah”. It becomes apparent, at times, that there remains more than one promise unfulfilled – not just the great promise that Wilson himself had as the number one ranked basketball prospect in the country, but the promise that “he would have taken us on some of that ride too”; that he might deliver friends such as Mario Coleman and others to “the promised land, so that we can make a difference and we can be where we want to be.”
The summer of 1984 was a golden summer for Benjamin Wilson, the 6’7” seventeen-year-old centre for Simeon Vocational High School on Chicago’s south side. He had just led Simeon to its first ever Illinois State Championship and, after attending Sonny Vaccaro’s “Athletes for Better Education” Camp, became the number one ranked basketball prospect in the country going into his senior year.
Wilson was no ordinary High School centre; he was, by now, a household name in the city that produced a host of NBA starlets like Mo Cheeks, Doc Rivers and Tim Hardaway; a city bristling with excitement at the arrival of a number one draft pick by the name of Michael Jordan.
A “sweet and smooth” player, Wilson was drawing the sort of hype that implied he might be better than all of them and attracted the overtures of respected college coaches around the country, including Indiana’s Bobby Knight and Illinois’s Lou Henson. With his relentless work ethic, Wilson perfected his game and, even at seventeen, “he could do everything that the pro players could do,” explains Henson.
Sonny Vaccaro, the man responsible for taking MJ to Chicago that year, insists that the potential of Benjamin Wilson cannot be overestimated, that he was basketball’s first ever High School phenom and the forerunner of today’s biggest living legends in the sport. “Ben Wilson was my Kevin Garnett, my Tracy McGrady, my Kobe Bryant, my Lebron James. He opened the world of basketball’s eyes,” enthuses Vaccaro.
Unfortunately, while Chicago in the early-mid 1980s was a place of great change and even hope, with its first black Mayor (Harold Washington), the arrival of Michael Jordan, the disquieted voice of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the emergence of Oprah, it was also facing a growing problem with drugs and gang trouble. It was this boiling social turmoil that led indirectly to Chicago’s basketball community losing its so-called “chosen” one.
On November 20 1984, with everyone expecting him to lead Simeon to a second successive State Championship, and with the road to sporting greatness stretched out before him, Benjamin Wilson’s life was ended by a random act of violence. Chicago was cast in shadow – some 10,000 people are reported to have attended his funeral – and the name of Ben Wilson entered into the city’s mythology.
With Benji, Coodie and Chike have produced a hugely important piece of film and one that will help ensure that the memory of this bright and dedicated young man lives on. They present the story of Ben Wilson’s death sensitively, delicately and without judgment, allowing the main protagonists to recount the events as they remember them and without imposing too much of themselves in the form of narration.
Most impressively, the directors have expertly constructed a film that exposes the many layers of tragedy which surround the events of that November day in 1984. From the explicit tragedy of the murder of a seventeen year old and its impact on his family and friends, through the tragedy of unfulfilled promise in all its forms, to the deeper-lying tragedy of the drugs and gang culture that led his killer to commit an uncharacteristic crime, Coodie and Chike have taken a broad and impartial view. In giving voice to Wilson’s legacy, they allow each individual voice to be heard without bias and remind us that the destruction of a young life in such a sudden and incomprehensible way leaves behind it many victims.
In the end, we are reminded that out of the darkest days comes new light. The immediate and courageous response of Wilson’s mother that, “it’s not how long you live but how well you live,” gives way to a lasting legacy that has inspired new hope. The money raised for needy teens in Chicago’s crime-ridden suburbs, and the lawsuit that forced the City government to revise its emergency trauma procedures have undoubtedly saved countless lives since Wilson’s death.
Moreover, the example set by Ben Wilson and the way in which his memory continues to inspire young Simeon HS athletes to strive for success has been a catalyst for the fulfilment of a great deal of promise. Most recently, a new wave of phenoms such as Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker have given a nod to Wilson, wearing his legendary #25 at Simeon. “I wanted to be just like him…he still lives on,” says Parker.
Benjamin Wilson may or may not have turned out to be the ‘Little Messiah’ his fans and friends had hoped, but through his heart-breaking and untimely death he has become a saviour and a hero to many. Perhaps this story is not really about basketball. Perhaps, as Chike claims, it transcends way beyond that.
– Ryan Hayes
Benji airs on Wednesday 21November at 7pm on ESPN America.