Friday, August 6, 2010

Gone Too Soon

There is no greater basketball tragedy than Ben Wilson’s story. Len Bias’ death of a cocaine overdose shocked the sports world, but it is unassailably true that Bias put himself in a bad position that night.

Wilson was shot and killed in Chicago after accidentally bumping into three young men while crossing the street on the eve of the first basketball game of his senior year in high school. Wilson was already a legend in the world of Chicago hoops; he had built himself from a run-of-the-mill freshman into the nation’s No. 1 prep prospect as a junior at Chicago Simeon in 1984. By all accounts, Wilson was the best kid that anyone could have hoped to know. But he ended up being a victim of the urban violence that was all too common in America during the 1980s.

Wilson had solidified his rep as the best high school player in America at the venerable Nike All-American camp the summer after his junior season. The other top players in Wilson’s class included Danny Ferry, Sean Elliott and Pervis Ellison. But the last time the general public got to witness Wilson’s startling talents came on the final day of the Illinois High School Association tournament in 1984. Wilson’s stacked Simeon team beat Aurora West, 67-58, in the AA semifinal, and later in the day beat Evanston, 53-47, for the championship at Assembly Hall in Champaign.

Wilson was saddled with foul trouble and played limited minutes in the title game, but that is largely forgotten because of the show he put on against Kenny Battle and Aurora West in the semis.

Wilson was 6 feet 8 inches and could do a little of everything, which back in those days would earn a player the “Magic Johnson with a jump shot” honorific. That’s flattering, for sure, but not entirely accurate. Wilson was an able passer from the high post, but he lacked Magic’s incomparable vision and showmanship. The cool Wilson could probably best be likened to George Gervin. Like the Iceman, Wilson was venerated for his cardsharp’s sang-froid and smooth-as-silk forays to the basket.

Aurora West tried to contain Wilson by using multiple zone looks, anchored by the freakishly athletic Battle. Wilson never panicked, getting double-clutch shots off against Battle or dumping the ball down to fellow big man Rodney Hull. Wilson had classic post moves and could fill the lane on the fast break. He finished with a team-high 21 points in the semifinals.

It wasn’t just the numbers. Wilson was well-schooled by Chicago Public League coaching legend Bob Hambric. He came into the backcourt to help Simeon beat the pressure of Aurora West and Evanston. On the other end, Wilson’s impossibly long arms wreaked havoc for opposing players trying to crack Simeon’s full-court press or fearsome 2-3 zone. Wilson also quickly diagnosed what the other teams were doing on defense, and could often be seen directing traffic for the Wolverines’ offensive attack.

Wilson’s good nature was also clearly evident in his final two games. He’s seen patting officials on the back, even when questionable calls forced him to the bench during the championship game. He helped lift opponents off the court and was the first to congratulate teammates after a good play.

That’s what makes Wilson’s story all the more harrowing. A senseless crime deprived the world of a unique basketball talent, but it also took away an unimpeachably good person.

Wilson’s gone, but certainly not forgotten. Chicago Tribune hoops writer K.C. Johnson, who played on the Evanston team that lost to Simeon for the championship, wrote an affecting piece on the 25th anniversary of Wilson’s death. Childhood friend Nick Anderson wore No. 25 throughout his NBA career to honor Wilson. Another Simeon star, Derrick Rose, wore the number out of respect for a player from the neighborhood that died before Rose was born. The school retired No. 25 in 2009.

Who knows where basketball would have taken Wilson. The commonly held theory is that Wilson would have gone to DePaul, Indiana or Illinois. This has led fans of those schools to tantalizingly wonder what might have been. How about Rod Strickland running the break at DePaul with Wilson trailing? Or the inside-outside combination of Steve Alford and Wilson at Indiana? Or imagine the possibilities at Illinois with Wilson joining forces with Battle and the other Flyin’ Illini?

We’ll never know. And that’s only part of the tragedy.


  1. I was thinking about Ben Wilson today, and found this post on google. I like the Gervin comparison, but my impression of Wilson was that he was already as smooth in high school as Jamal Wilkes was as a senior at UCLA.

    I have always described him as "Silk Wilkes with a jump shot." As a Michigan fan who had lived in Chicago, I had mixed emotions when Michigan beat Illinois in the national semis en route to the NCAA Championship. I was, and am, of course, still happy about the outcome, but I often think of how Ben Wilson deserved to be out on the court that night.