Twenty Years a Tragedy
BY Andy Behrens
Ben Wilson slumped against a metal fence on South Vincennes Avenue on a cold Tuesday afternoon in November, dying. Wilson's arm was draped around his girlfriend, Jetun Rush, the mother of his 10-week-old son.
"I got shot. They shot me."
The 17-year-old Wilson, a senior at Neal F. Simeon Vocational High School, had been walking with Rush and another student. They bumped into Omar Dixon, 15, and Billy Moore, 16, a pair of freshmen at nearby Calumet High School.
"Excuse me," Wilson said.
"What'd you say, man?" asked Moore.
Wilson repeated himself; Moore revealed a handgun.
"What are you going to do, shoot me?" asked Wilson, according to later trial testimony. Dixon demanded money. He reached for Wilson's pockets. The 6-8 Wilson pushed him away.
"Let's shoot this punk," said Dixon. Moore fired the .22-caliber pistol.
Ben Wilson was a popular kid and a focused student, but the shooting would have been another scarcely reported violent crime in Chicago if Wilson hadn't been something else, too: an athlete of almost mythic ability.
Wilson had led Simeon to the Illinois state basketball title as a junior, and then dominated the elite Nike all-star camp the following summer. By the afternoon of Nov. 20, the day before the first game of his senior season, Wilson was considered the nation's top prep basketball prospect in the class of 1985.
By the morning of Nov. 21, when he was removed from life support at St. Bernard Hospital, Wilson was Chicago's 669th murder victim of 1984. They Just Lined Up
Today, 20 years after his death, there are many places to feel the immense absence of Ben Wilson. One of them-perhaps the least significant-is the NBA.
He might have been a top draft choice in an era that produced a conspicuous lack of superstars. Wilson could have gone to the Clippers in 1988 instead of #1 pick Danny Manning, or to Sacramento in 1989 instead of Pervis Ellison. There might have been shoe deals, championship banners, 9-figure contracts. Instead, there's conjecture.
"If Ben was playing now he'd probably go straight to the pros," said University of Illinois-Chicago head coach Jimmy Collins during a phone interview. "He was a tough kid. He'd rebound, take you inside, shoot outside, great passer. At 6-8, maybe 6-9, he was a Magic Johnson-type."
In 1984, Collins was an assistant under Lou Henson at the University of Illinois, one of three schools, the others being DePaul and Indiana, that were thought to be finalists in the Ben Wilson recruiting frenzy.
Al Scott, 58, the longtime football coach and athletic director at Simeon, vividly remembers the mob of assistant coaches, boosters, agents and sycophants that surrounded Wilson.
"Every school in the country was coming by here," he said. "We saw everybody. And it was to the point where I thought the kid might be totally confused. Now, I'd had my largest-ever (football) recruiting class in 1979-15 graduates and about 12 of them went D-1. But the way recruiters were coming in after this one kid-it was phenomenal, nothing like it. They just lined up. Everybody wanted him."
"As a basketball player, Ben was unique," said Joey Meyer, now the head coach of the Asheville Altitude of the National Basketball Developmental League. In 1984, Joey had just replaced his legendary father Ray Meyer as the head coach at DePaul. "Really a unique player. Maybe not nowadays, but back then, a kid that size, with such versatility; I just thought Ben's game was so versatile," he said.
"That's 20 years ago and I can still see him playing. With his long arms, his wingspan, he was, to me, a 6-9 or 6-10 player. I'm not sure he really had a position."
Wilson's exceptional versatility was a byproduct of his late physical development. "He had been small, playing point guard his whole life," said Collins, whose history with Wilson goes back when Wilson was in the ninth grade and was dating his daughter. Although Collins didn't consider it dating.
"I'm a strict parent. But he would, you know
come to my house. He was a great kid. But he was only about 5-11 or 6-0 back then. So I didn't see him for about a year. The next time he came to my house he was 6-7. I recognized his face at the door through the window. But I wondered, 'Is he standing on a box or something?'"
At 6-7, Wilson was no longer simply a skilled point guard. He'd become a skilled point guard who towered over perimeter players, drilled jumpers over centers, and sliced through-or elevated above-defenses constructed to stop him. As a junior, Wilson led his school to a 30-1 record and a state title. Before his senior year, he'd convinced a friend, 16-year-old Prosser High School guard Nick Anderson, to transfer to Simeon.
"Benji was Magic Johnson but with a jump shot," Anderson told the New York Times in 1993. "He had all those moves. And he was always so positive about everything. He used to record inspirational tapes for himself, and go to sleep with earphones, listening to himself saying things like: 'Ben, you're going to be the best. You have to keep working harder than anybody else.'"
After graduating from Simeon, Anderson attended the University of Illinois, where he wore Wilson's old high school number, 25, as a tribute. He did the same with the NBA's Orlando Magic. If Anderson had teamed with Wilson at Illinois, they would likely have altered NCAA tournament history.
"We were in the Final Four in 1989," Collins said, recalling the year Illinois lost a classic semifinal match-up with Michigan, 83-81.
"Ben would have been a senior then. Had we secured him I think, in hindsight, we'd have won a Final Four. Those were all really, really good players." The Illini lineup also featured future NBA star Kendall Gill. "Once they hit that court they were hard as nails. And Ben was as hard as any of 'em. And as smart-if not smarter-than any of 'em."
Wilson's parents, Mary and Benjamin Wilson Sr., divorced when Ben was five. His father remained close to home, working at a barbershop on 79th Street. Ben was the middle child among five brothers. Mary Wilson, a nurse, saw to it that her boys lived by strict rules.
"I had gotten to know the family real well," Collins said. "I felt personally involved. Recruiting was just different back then. Mary was a very, very protective mom, protective of her boys. She was strict to a degree. She was a very spiritual woman, a southern lady (from Columbia, Mississippi). Loving. And anytime you have a strict, loving parent, kids might get away with a little bit, but nothing bad."
"Mom was dominant," said Meyer. "When we sat in the home, (assistant coach) Jim Molinari and I, mom was dominant. She asked all the right questions. She was very strong. A very large impact, I thought, in his life.
"Ben could do it all," Meyer added. "People say that strength-wise, he was going to mature. But Ben was so skilled. Physically, he was similar to Kevin Garnett. Ben was a more perimeter player. Ben had some special skills. Passing, shooting. He had the potential to be a lot of different things. Garnett is more athletic, more of an inside player."
"Would Ben have been Magic Johnson? Would he have been Kevin Garnett? I really don't know. But this kid would've been a special player. I just have no doubt." There Was Some Kind of Mix-Up
In 1984, Simeon Vocational was a cramped red-brick building that rose above elevated train tracks; the surrounding neighborhood was dominated by industry, small brick bungalows, and gangs.
"The school was an old Kroger factory," said Scott. "Real small. But the kids felt safe here. We've never been a gang-ridden school. We had a lot of male teachers and we were sort of a gang. We didn't back off them, not ever. We treated gang bangers like we were gang bangers."
Just as it was in 1984, Simeon today remains a Chicago Public League sports power, near the top of the city's prep athletic meritocracy. And just as it was 20 years ago, the area around the school is home to shuttered factories, empty storefronts, and idle kids.
Al Scott has spent over three decades at Simeon. He's a bear of a man, graying and serious. Scott is the school's disciplinarian as well as its athletic director. He was among the first people to attend to Wilson after the shooting, and the last to speak with him.
"When kids get injured, I'm the first person that they call," he said, leaning back in a chair in the Simeon faculty cafeteria. At the time of the shooting-in addition to being the school's AD-Scott was also an attendance counselor, an assistant to the disciplinarian, and the primary first aid contact.
"A kid ran into the building-my office was on the extreme end of the building on 83rd street-a kid ran there and said, 'Coach Scott, come real quick. Somebody shot Ben.' I thought they were playin' at first but I still moved. But when I saw all the people going toward the area, I ran down there.
"People in crowds for gunshot victims are different than any other crowds. They have a fear of getting shot themselves, even though the gunmen are gone. So I had some trouble getting people to come and help me with him. And he's so long. Ben was sitting on the ground leaning up against a fence. I examined him. He had a hole in his chest which didn't bleed externally. A .22 leaves such a small hole it doesn't look serious. It doesn't bleed externally in most cases. It was internal. And I think that bullet kind of ran around in there."
The bullets that struck Wilson pierced his liver and aorta. The internal bleeding was significant.
"I was trying to prop him up, and I would try to talk to him. He would moan and mumble a little bit. I was trying to get him to hold on, I'd ask him if he was going to make it, if he'd be strong enough. He was just giving me simple answers. He'd say, 'Yeah.'"
According to Scott, he waited for the ambulance what seemed like forever.
"As I recall, it may have been about 20 minutes or more. And it's rumored that they went to the wrong place-that they went to Wescott Elementary School down the street-and the main entrance (to Simeon) is around the corner, so they couldn't see the crowd gathered down the street here
there was some sort of mix-up."
According to allegations in a lawsuit filed in 1985, the shooting occurred at 12:37 p.m. and Wilson reached a hospital at 1:20 p.m.
"What I tried to do was get the police-'cause the first two or three police cars that came were manned by people that I knew-I tried to get them to put him in a car. But because of his status, they didn't want to do it wrong. They kept calling for an ambulance."
When the ambulance finally showed up, they showed up unprepared, according to Scott, asking bringing a clipboard and asking questions instead of bringing a stretcher.
"It's a gunshot victim
they should've came with the stretcher," said Scott. "So
I got into a verbal confrontation with them. When they got in (the ambulance), they slammed the door in my face. One of the police that was there, as a favor to me, he knocked on the door-I believe with his pistol butt-and they saw it was a policeman so they opened the door.
"I snatched the door then to gain access to the ambulance. Ben was unconscious but he was fighting. He was pulling the IVs down, knocking stuff off the cabinets, off the walls. He was combative. So I was able to put my elbows on his shoulders and hold him down, so they could restrain him. But then the paramedics still sat there for a long time, on the radio-that's their business, they know what they've got to do. Then he went to the hospital."
Things didn't get any better.
"There was no doctor at (St. Bernard) who could do anything," Scott said. The lawsuit alleged that surgery was delayed until 3:14, roughly two hours after chief general surgeon Dr. Hong-Ming Lay had been contacted.
At an evening press conference, Dr. Lay said, "It's the first time in my life that I have seen so much blood loss."
As news of the shooting spread, the outpouring of concern for Wilson was profound. Access to the hospital and Wilson's family was limited.
"There was a big time sports agent who called my house and gave me some numbers to give to Mrs. Wilson," recalled Scott. "To have Ben removed from St. Bernard. Or at least to get in the best people. Because this guy's a multi-millionaire, and he was interested in saving Ben. I remember him telling me to get that number to Mrs. Wilson or somebody who'd be responsible enough to enact it. And I don't know if it was some kind of a magic credit card or what, but it could've done anything-I think even helicopter him out of there.
"I couldn't get anybody to believe me at the hospital, and they wouldn't let anybody in. They wouldn't let anybody except the principal. They thought I was crazy. But I was upset, you know. I tried to get someone to take the message up to the mother, but couldn't get anybody to. So the next morning, at six o'clock, because of the amount of blood loss, and (Dr. Lay) saying that he'd just be a vegetable, they pulled the plug." What I Took From You
A memorial service for Ben Wilson was held at Simeon at noon on Wednesday, Nov. 21. Teachers and students were inconsolable. Many wore buttons that read, "Replace black-on-black crime with black-on-black love." Mary Wilson urged angry students not to retaliate with violence. Billy Moore and Omar Dixon had already been arrested.
"At the close of the hour-long service," the Chicago Sun-Times reported, "the school choir sang the spiritual 'Goin' Up Yonder.' Seventeen-year-old Audrey Johnson's rendition triggered an eruption of grief that swept through the gymnasium, muffling the words of the final stanza."
The Simeon boy's basketball team had a game that night in a Thanksgiving tournament in Rockford, Illinois. They beat Evanston, the team they'd defeated for the state championship the prior season, then made the two-hour drive back to the south side.
The wake at Simeon was attended by as many as 10,000 people. "It lasted 12 hours," remembered Scott. "And Ben's father just sat there. I can see him. He didn't move the whole 12 hours." Simeon Principal Ned McCray told reporters that Ben likely would have graduated among the top five in his class.
"He represented that you can make it to the top," a 16-year-old classmate of Wilson's told the Sun-Times. "He showed us everybody can make it."
His death, however, had shown that the culture of reckless violence in the city's toughest neighborhoods did not care about human potential. It did not evaluate talent. It simply took young black lives at an obscene rate. Over the subsequent holiday weekend, 10 more black Chicagoans were shot in gang-related aggression. Two people, including a 13-year-old boy, died in gang warfare at Cabrini-Green.
Ben Wilson was buried that Saturday. He was dressed in his blue and gold high school basketball uniform. The Simeon team had a morning game in the semifinals of the Rockford tournament, which they won, then made the return trip downtown for the funeral. The service was held at Operation PUSH headquarters at 50th Street and Drexel Boulevard.
"We gather here today, because a superstar is dead," said Reverend Jesse Jackson. "Shot down, unarmed and in cold blood in the midday of his life." Jackson called for gun control and parental accountability. He told mourners that Wilson was a victim of "nothing more than social permissiveness, an accepted norm that black life is expendable and cheap."
The Simeon basketball team returned to Rockford that night and won their tournament.
"For a while, the school went numb," recalled Scott. "It was just a numbing kind of effect. There was one kid who was on the team, his whole life's been messed up because of this. He's sort of just stopped living. He goes to the gravesite about once a week. Or once a month, at least. This kid was really smart, and I don't think he went to (college) or anything after that happened. It had a devastating effect on a lot of people."
The city immediately undertook anti-gang initiatives. Arrests for gang-related activities rose nearly 22 percent. There had been widespread and immediate speculation that gangs such as the Vice Lords, the Black Gangster Disciples and the El Rukns-names that seemed mystical and otherworldly-were somehow involved in the murder of Ben Wilson. And each gang terrorized segments of the city, to be sure. But no direct evidence had actually surfaced that either Billy Moore or Omar Dixon-the grandson of blues legend Willie Dixon-had any gang affiliation. Wilson was shot by young men whose only real affiliation was to an environment of unending and often undocumented aggression, one certainly shaped by the ubiquity of gangs. But Scott simply described Moore and Dixon as "itty-bitty kids."
In mid-March of 1985, on what would have been Wilson's 18th birthday, Mayor Harold Washington received anti-handgun petitions signed by 1,800 Simeon students. Shortly thereafter, at a fundraiser for the newly formed Ben Wilson Foundation, Washington said, "We have done a tremendous disservice to our children. We have not heard their screams in the night. We have lost touch with them. We have assumed they could raise themselves in a world they didn't make and can't control."
In May of that year, the Wilson family filed their $10 million lawsuit against the physicians and emergency medical technicians who treated Ben. The suit described a complete systemic failure in emergency response. It alleged, among other things, that the hospital and its surgeon were negligent in their treatment of Wilson, and that the EMTs should never have taken him to a facility so poorly staffed to care for him. Mary Wilson told the Chicago Tribune
that she filed the suit so that, "no other young man will be brought to a hospital without open-heart facilities and lay there two hours and bleed to death."
Six months later, in November, Moore and Dixon were found guilty of murder and attempted robbery. Moore addressed Wilson's parents in court just before he was sentenced to a 40-year prison term.
"I understand what I took from you," he said. "I'm very sorry."
Dixon was sentenced to 30 years. Defense attorneys argued that his sentence had been extreme, that the severity of his punishment stemmed from the celebrity status of his victim. "Omar Dixon is not a symbol, he's a person," they said. The conviction was overturned by the Illinois Appellate Court, but in October 1989, nearly five years after Ben Wilson's murder, a Cook County Criminal Court reconvicted Dixon.
In late-March 1992, the family's lawsuit was settled shortly before the case would've gone to trial. Attorneys for St. Bernard were quick to note that the settlement was not an admission of liability or wrongdoing. The Wilson family's attorney described the settlement figure only as "substantial."
He added, "Obviously it does not bring their son back." In The Wrong Place
The murder rate in Chicago has been reduced in recent years, though the statistics remain staggering. "This year, as of today-through 5 a.m. today-we've had 404," said Chicago Police Department spokesman David Bayless on Nov. 18, 2004.
"That's a decline. It was 538 at this time last year. And we actually view every shooting in Chicago as a failed homicide. The difference is good or bad emergency medical care, or the shooter's marksmanship. We've had 1,000 fewer shootings this year."
In 2003, Chicago led the nation with 598 murders. It was the city's lowest total in 36 years.
"We'd always led the nation in homicides," Bayless acknowledged. "It's a dubious distinction we've shared with L.A. and New York."
Yet Bayless believes a combination of new and long-term policing tactics are impacting the number.
"About 15 years ago, we started a concerted effort to take illegal guns off the street. We were consistently taking about 20,000 off the street every year. That's come down in recent years to about 10,000. We're still taking 30 illegal guns each day off the streets."
He added, "When we have an innocent bystander shot in an area like (Ben Wilson), people like to just say that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We disagree with that. We think they were in the right place, and that the criminals were in the wrong place doing the wrong thing."
Jetun Rush, Wilson's high school girlfriend, graduated from Simeon and attended college in Ohio. She married a New York police officer and moved to Long Island. Wilson's son, Brandon, became a talented prep basketball player at Long Island Lutheran High School. But at 6-2, Brandon lacked both his father's height and his preternatural ability. He spent two years playing at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, leaving after his sophomore season according to a school official.
"I play because I like basketball," Brandon told the Chicago Tribune
in 2002. "There's no pressure."
According to Al Scott, "Ben's mother passed away. She died a few years ago. She had moved down to Mississippi."
Simeon students and staff moved into a new facility in 2003. It's an imposing, institutional yellow-brick building erected on the site where Wilson was killed. The 1984 state championship trophy is the most prominent object in the school's sports display case. A basketball net still hangs from it, one that Wilson helped cut down. There are few other obvious reminders of the school's greatest athlete.
If he'd survived, Ben Wilson would now be 37, maybe near the end of a long and lucrative NBA career. But we can't know that. There are a thousand ways that a promising athlete's career can prematurely end. Twenty years ago, Wilson found one of them.
He was 17.