Benjamin Wilson Jr., popularly referred to as ‘Benji’, was a basketball player from Neal F. Simeon Vocational High School in Chicago, Illinois. With Benji, the Simeon team won the City and State Championships for the first time in history. Entering his senior season, Wilson was regarded as the top high school player in the country. Sadly, on November 20, 1984, Wilson was shot twice during a confrontation with a student from a nearby high school. He died the next morning due to the injuries he sustained in the shooting. This is a story of his life and legacy.
Benji was born in 1967, he was one of three children born to Ben Wilson Sr. and Mary Wilson and was raised in the Chatham neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Wilson began playing basketball at an early age, starting in elementary school. He started at St. Dorothy School and later transferred to Ruggles Elementary School, graduating in 1981. Wilson practiced at Cole Park in Chatham and participated in summer league games in Chicago. As his game developed, friends and family surrounding Wilson began to notice that his talent could make him one of the best, if not the best, players in the sport. They made it a point to protect Wilson from trouble as he got older. As he was entering high school, the nationwide crack epidemic was in full swing and some of the people closest to Wilson, including his older brother Curtis Glenn, became addicted. Chicago’s violent crime rate was very high during this time as well, especially in the South Side.
High school career
In the fall of 1981, he began his freshman year at Simeon. During the 1982–83 season, Wilson was the only sophomore on the varsity basketball team. For the 1983–84 season, Simeon advanced to the Illinois AA State Championship. Behind Wilson, Simeon defeated West Aurora High School by nine points in the semifinals and followed it up with a victory over top-ranked Evanston Township High School to win their first-ever state title. Benji was widely regarded as the best player in the country.
Athletes For Better Education (AFBE)
In July 1984, Wilson attended the invitation-only Athletes For Better Education camp in Princeton, New Jersey. The camp allowed scouts and coaches to watch top high school students in a single location. After the week-long event, Wilson was ranked the number-one high school player in America. As his senior season approached, it was believed that Wilson was considering scholarship offers from the University of Illinois, DePaul University, and Indiana University.
Benji’s killer, Billy Moore, later described how it all happened in the ESPN documentary “Benji”. He and Omar Dixon were outside the restaurant when Wilson and Rush (girlfriend) came up the street behind them. Rush was trying to break away from Wilson, who in his desperation to speak to her failure to pay attention to where he was going and bumped into Moore. Moore called to Wilson to watch where he was going, which only served to make the already upset basketball star even madder as he turned back and approached Moore. The two exchanged words and expletives and Moore revealed the pistol he had been carrying, a .22 caliber revolver.
Seeing Moore’s pistol, Wilson taunted him and dared him to shoot. Moore later said he felt that the much larger Wilson was just “punking” him and drew his weapon. Wilson then lunged at Moore, who responded by firing two shots at him. The first struck Wilson in his groin while the second struck him in his abdomen and caused significant internal bleeding. Moore and Dixon then fled. Within minutes, word of the shooting reached Simeon’s campus, and a crowd gathered near Wilson.
Paramedics were slow in reaching the scene and Benji’s coach Hambric decided to take it upon himself to get his star player to the hospital. Just as he was getting into his car, an ambulance arrived at the scene on South Vincennes. According to Chicago’s then emergency protocol, Wilson was taken to the nearest available hospital, which was St. Bernard Hospital in Englewood. St. Bernard was a small community hospital that was not equipped to handle emergencies or trauma cases like shootings, so a call was put out for any available trauma surgeon to report immediately to St. Bernard.
At Simeon, the basketball team remained sequestered in the teachers’ lounge for the rest of the day. Wilson’s teammate Teri Sampson recalls that throughout the night, the reports progressively worsened, going from Wilson possibly recovering in time for the state playoffs, to perhaps missing a year of play, to possibly never playing again, to fighting for his life.
Wilson’s brother Curtis Glenn recounted in the ESPN documentary seeing his brother being wheeled by him in the hospital and noticing his feet were unnaturally pale. Upon examination, it was discovered that Wilson’s aorta was damaged by the second shot and there was no blood reaching his lower extremities. Despite doctors repeatedly telling her they could save her son, Mary Wilson’s professional experience as a nurse told her that even if they were able to repair the damage, Ben would likely be in a persistent vegetative state afterward due to the massive blood he had already lost. Early the next morning, Mary Wilson asked that her son be taken off of life support, and Ben Wilson died shortly thereafter.
Both Moore and Dixon were convicted on charges of murder and attempted armed robbery. Per the recommendations of the prosecuting attorneys, they both were given significant prison sentences. Moore received a forty-year sentence while Dixon received a thirty-year sentence.
The Wilson family’s lawsuit against the hospital for inappropriate delay of medical care was settled in 1992 for an undisclosed amount.
Wilson was nicknamed “Magic Johnson with a jump shot” by his Simeon coach, Bob Hambric. He had one son, Brandon Wilson (b. September 1984), with his high school girlfriend Jetun Rush. Brandon, who was 10 weeks old when his father died, became a top high school basketball player and went on to play at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore; wearing Wilson’s number 25.
Wilson’s friend and Simeon teammate, former NBA and University of Illinois basketball player Nick Anderson, wore jersey number 25 during his career in Wilson’s honor. Juwan Howard wore 25 at the University of Michigan as a tribute to Wilson. Former Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose, who graduated from Simeon in 2007, wore number 25, and the team won the state championship in 2006 and 2007. He also wore number 25 with the New York Knicks, after being traded. Simeon basketball player Jabari Parker had the number 25 stitched into the team sneakers during his time at Simeon. Following Nick Anderson’s tribute to Wilson in wearing number 25 at Illinois, many others who graduated from Simeon and moved on to play for the Illini have carried on the tradition of wearing the jersey number 25. Benji will always be one of the biggest what-ifs in basketball history.