EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE
This week: John Groce has reopened the Simeon-Illinois basketball pipeline. One former Simeon star, Ben Wilson, never made it to Illinois — but his memory lives on.
Headline: Ben Wilson: One of a kind
DATE: Nov. 25, 1998
By JEFF D'ALESSIO
Before Chicago basketball had No. 23, there was No. 25.
His name was Ben Wilson, and had he lived past the age of 17, the Flyin’ Illini will tell you, he might have been the one with the statue outside the United Center and his own line of cologne.
“He is the best player that I ever saw play basketball ... including Michael Jordan,” Ervin Small said. “And that’s the truth.”
Small and Nick Anderson played alongside Wilson at Chicago’s Simeon High School. They might all have been teammates at Illinois, too, were it not for the tragic events of November 1984.
According to police reports, Wilson and two lady friends were out for a walk about a half-block away from the high school. It was lunch hour on a Tuesday, the day before Wilson and the Wolverines were to begin their Class AA title defense against Evanston in Rockford Boylan’s turkey tournament. They were minding their own usiness.
Everyone liked “Benjy.” He was the No. 1 high school player in the country, but he sure didn’t act like it. He was on track to finish in the top five in his graduating class of 280. He was “one of the finest young men I’ve ever met,” former Illinois coach Lou Henson said.
He was confronted by three tough-talking students from nearby Calumet High. They were looking for trouble, standing in Wilson’s way on the side walk.
He accidentally bumped into one of them, who screamed to his buddy: “He pushed me! Pop him!”
The first bullet struck Wilson’s diaphragm, ricocheted through his liver and punctured a main artery. The second struck his groin.
He never stood a chance.
“For him to get shot like that was just heartbreaking,” former Illinois assistant Jimmy Collins said. “He wasn’t a member of a street gang, he wasn’t into drugs, he wasn’t into the wild life that a lot of the kids are into.
“He was a very, very positive image for our young kids.”
The whole city took Wilson’s death hard, one Chicago newspaper devoting its entire front page to the story. He was the most popular teen in town, as evidenced by the 8,000 who showed up to mourn him.
The mayor, Harold Washington, was there. The Rev. Jesse Jackson delivered the eulogy. A shaken Collins skipped the Great Alaska Shootout to spend time with Wilson’s family.
“When they first called me and told me it had happened, I thought, you know, he got hit in the arm or something,” said Joey Meyer, DePaul’s coach back then. “You know what I mean? You don’t ever think of someone that age dying. It came so far from left field, it just stunned everybody.
“The unfortunate thing is, it happens all the time. But when it happens to somebody that’s very visible, then we all recognize it. But I think anybody that was involved in basketball would have just really liked for him to have an opportunity to live his life and develop as the player everyone thought he was going to be.”
Legacy lives on
Bryant Notree was 8 years old the day Wilson was gunned down.
He doesn’t remember a thing.
"I never even got to see him play,” Notree said. “But when you come out of Simeon, you’re going to know about Ben Wilson. That’s just the way it is. Coach (Bob) Hambric talked about him. A lot of the guys that knew him used to come back and talk about him.
“You could just feel his spirit within you.”
Thirteen years after Wilson’s death, Notree kept his memory alive, wearing his old No. 25 during his three years as an Illini.
It was a hand-me-down from another Simeon great, Deon Thomas, who put it on after Anderson was through with it.
“Every time I put on my basketball uniform, I think of him,” Anderson once said.
All three former Illini still proudly wear Wilson’s No. 25: Notree with the Illinois-Chicago Flames, Anderson with the Orlando Magic, Thomas with the Maccabbi Rishon of Malaga, Spain.
Wilson’s old jersey still sits in a glass case outside the Wolverines’ home arena. Ben Wilson Gymnasium.
“I’ll stay with 25 forever,” Notree said. “I’m proud of that Simeon tradition, and I want to carry on the legacy that Nick and Deon started.
“The legacy lives on. It will live on forever.”
Worth the wait
Had he been able to fulfill his promise to Lowell Hamilton, Wilson would have been a senior on the Flyin’ Illini.
“No, I don’t think Ben would have been a senior,” said Hambric, who coached him at Simeon. “Because he would have gone to the pros after two years. Quite easily.
“Unlike Kobe Bryant. See, Kobe Bryant needs to be in college right now because he doesn’t have any fundamentals at all. Ben had the jump shot, as well as being able to handle the ball and pass it and being able to play in the low post and rebound.
“He was Magic Johnson with a jump shot.”
He died without letting the world know of his college choice, but confidence was high in the Illinois basketball office.
The coaches had gotten promising reports from another of their recruits: Wilson pal Hamilton of Providence-St. Mel.
“After I signed at Illinois, Ben called me and said, “Well, I guess I gotta sign with Illinois now, too,’ “ Hamilton said. “Not long after that is when he passed.”
No coach spent more time around Wilson than Collins, who first met him while working as a hearing officer for the Cook County Probation Department in the early 1980s.
It’s not what you think. The two were introduced by Collins’ daughter, Erica, Wilson’s love interest as a ninth-grader.
“He used to come by the house and shoot in the yard,” Collins said. “I grew very close to him, very close to his parents.”
Meyer thinks he would have wound up at Illinois, but Wilson had decided to wait until the spring signing period to make up his mind.
The contenders: Illinois, DePaul and Indiana.
He’d enjoyed his previous experiences at the Assembly Hall, where he won two championships in 1984: the Class AA state title with Simeon and the Prairie State Games crown with Windy City teammates Anderson and Tim Hardaway.
“People in the state wanted to see him stay in the state, so I think it would have either been us or possibly DePaul,” Collins said. “I don’t think he would have ever been a Hoosier.”