Webster’s Dictionary defines "urban legend" as an often lurid story or anecdote based on hearsay and widely circulated as true.
If you’ve heard the story of Ben "Benji" Wilson, you’re familiar with the legend of an innocent young man, referred to by many as the best basketball player Chicago ever produced, who lost his life in 1984. Wilson was walking down the street with his girlfriend, minding his own business, when he accidentally bumped into a “thug” who not only took exception, but brandished a firearm and shot him twice.
All because he didn’t say, “excuse me.”
That story (or some version of it) has been told many times over the past 28 years in Chicago. On Tuesday night, "Benji," the documentary of Wilson's short life and untimely death, aired on ESPN for the first time aiming to separate fact from fiction and finally tell the full story in chilling entirety of a young man's life taken too soon.
Hearing basketball guru Sonny Vaccaro declare Ben Wilson the first actual “phenom” in the world of high school basketball jibes with the way Benji has been described by Chicagoans all these years. That part of the urban legend was true. Benji really was great.
Here was a player from the South Side of Chicago who came out of nowhere one summer and emerged as the nation’s best high school basketball player – the first from this city to ever hold that distinction – in a class deep with NBA-level talent.
Anthony Davis, who took college basketball by storm and became the No. 1 pick of the New Orleans Hornets in last June’s draft, literally followed the exact same path to basketball stardom while he was in high school. His ascension was an almost symbolic gesture of what Benji’s life could have been had he lived.
Before he died, Wilson was on the verge of leading Simeon to back-to-back state titles, helping the school become the first Chicago Public League program to accomplish the feat. Twenty-two years later, Derrick Rose would complete Wilson’s legacy in that area when he led the Wolverines to their second consecutive state title in 2007… all while wearing Benji’s No. 25 jersey.
And to hear Billy Moore – the man convicted of murdering Benji – tell his story of what really went down on Nov. 20, 1984, it's in stark contrast to the police confession and “hood” stories we’ve heard about Wilson’s death that had been told for nearly 30 years. It's the part of the urban legend that wasn’t true.
Not much has changed in Chicago in the years since Ben Wilson lost his life. Black-on-black crime is still rampant and gun violence on the South Side is still at epidemic levels.
But the tragedy that was Benji’s life (and death), and the cloud that has hung over the city since 1984, felt lifted on this warm October night in Chicago. Perhaps now, Benji can truly rest in peace and in his spirit, the children of this city will learn to “shoot over brothers, not at them.”