Derrick Rose hasn’t always worn No. 1. Back in his high school days at Simeon (Chicago, Ill.), Rose paid tribute to local legend Ben “Benji” Wilson by wearing No. 25.
The nation’s No. 1 high school basketball prospect in 1984, Wilson had Chicago abuzz before Michael Jordan’s Golden Era. But when he was senselessly murdered after inadvertently bumping into two gang members on the eve of his senior season in 1984, everything changed.
Wilson is the subject of a new documentary, “Benji,” co-directed by filmmakers Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah (aka Coodie & Chike) and premiering tonight at 8 p.m. as part of the "30 for 30" series on ESPN. The film explores the story of a 17-year-old hoops phenom who was supposed to escape the inner city.
“When he died, I cried, and I didn’t even know him,” says Simmons, a Chicago native who was 10 when the tragedy struck his neighborhood. “There’s a lot of legacy to him.”
From pictures to clippings, current Simeon star Jabari Parker said there are constant reminders “all around Simeon” about Wilson.
“I feel like I’m in his shadow,” said Parker, the top ranked player in the ESPN 100. “When I put it into perspective it makes me go even harder. I never want to take things for granted and his story just teaches me to always be grateful for what I have, not just on the court, but in life period. You just never know.”
Wilson, who led Simeon to the state title in 1984, was equally smooth on and off the floor. He was beloved in Chicago and desired by coaches everywhere.
“He was like the LeBron James of his time,” Simmons said.
Wilson’s murder caused a media frenzy and public outcry, which quickly brought attention to what was happening to youth in the inner city. The murder, Ozah says, represented a loss of hope.
“He was expected to get out,” Ozah says.
About 8,000 people attended his wake in Simeon’s gym two days after he died and 10,000 crammed into his funeral.
Wilson’s No. 25 became a treasure at Simeon. His best friend, Nick Anderson, wore it the rest of his career, including 13 years with the Orlando Magic. And Simeon’s best players, including Rose, continued to wear No. 25 until it was retired 25 years after Wilson’s death.
“If you were a great athlete, you wanted to wear No. 25,” Simmons said. “It’s something special to keep his spirit alive."