Not much in life is as tragic as talent unfulfilled and young death.
Ben Wilson exemplifies both.
But on Thursday night, the life of "Benji" was celebrated in the Simeon High School auditorium.
Beginning in October, ESPN Films is rebooting its Peabody Award-winning "30 for 30" documentary series. "Benji," the story of slain Simeon basketball legend Ben Wilson, is scheduled to premiere Oct. 23.
Thursday's event, which opened with a performance by the Life Gospel Choir, featured six 2-to-3-minute clips of the documentary, with discussion between each. The panel included Wilson's teammate and friend Teri Sampson, Wilson's brother Curtis Glenn, producer Amani Martin and directors Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah.
"When he was 11, 12, 13 and 14 years old, before anyone knew how great his potential was, he had a clear vision of greatness for himself," Martin said. "He had a little chip on his shoulder I don't think anyone else recognized, which helped fuel his work ethic."
Wilson went from a bench player as a freshman to the first national No. 1 prep basketball player from Illinois. He was gunned down near Simeon on Nov. 20, 1984, a day before his senior season would've begun.
"I couldn't understand the impact a high school kid could have on not only a community, but the whole city of Chicago," Ozah said. "It's a story about Ben, but it's also a story of Chicago in the '80s."
A deep archive of basketball clips, interviews with writers and friends, personal photographs and home videos turns "Benji" into a rich, vivid account of the life of a high school basketball legend.
As Wilson's ability blossomed inside the Simeon gym, so did the drug trade outside of it. Gangs expanded and became less organized, spilling into nicer neighborhoods. Despite his friends' insistence on never letting Wilson fight or get in trouble, it was almost impossible to avoid.
"Coming from the streets, we always felt like basketball was our ghetto pass," Sampson said, "that it would get us into any neighborhood because we were playing ball."
Perhaps the most powerful clip was "Benji's Memorial," which showed Wilson's mother Mary Wilson speaking at an assembly at Simeon the day after his death. A home video showed the wave of emotion hitting the congregation, with some students crying uncontrollably and being escorted out. Wilson was Chicago's 669th murder victim in 1984.
The story is tragic, but Thursday's assembly was about remembering. The burying of a loved one, the honoring of his legacy and the lessons learned from a 17-year-old united a community.
Memories of Wilson live on in "Benji" and in the walls of Simeon.
"I think people, specifically under 35 years old, who never saw this guy," Sampson said, "this movie is gonna do some justice and bring some truth to the mythology."
What: ESPN Films' "30 for 30" documentary series, "Benji"
When: Oct. 23, ESPN.
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