By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) In Chicago basketball lore, there’s no bigger “What if?” tale than that of Ben Wilson’s. And when it comes to Illinois basketball lore, the exact same question applies.
What if Wilson – the Simeon High School superstar whose tragic shooting death at age 17 was immortalized this week in “Benji,” the latest installation of ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” franchise – had lived and gone on to play basketball at the University of Illinois?
What if Wilson had still been in Champaign as a senior and played on the 1989 Flyin’ Illini? And what if the Illinois basketball program had been able to market the super-smooth Windy City baller as its trademark NBA superstar for the past two decades?
What if …
In November 1984, the 6-foot-8 Wilson was on top of the prep basketball world, as “Benji” captures in gripping detail. The previous spring, he had led Simeon to the first state championship in school history. That summer, he was tabbed as the nation’s No. 1 high school player. The following spring – likely after winning a second state title – he was planning to announce his college choice.
However, on the eve of the first game of his senior season, Wilson was involved in an exchange outside Simeon High School with two students from Calumet High, one of whom shot Wilson twice in the abdomen. Hours later, the budding hoops legend was dead.
In the film, “Benji” does a stellar job of delving into the events leading up to Wilson’s death – including sharing with viewers a riveting interview with his convicted killer. The truth of what happened that day along a sidewalk on the Chicago’s South Side remains murky. But what has always been clear was Wilson’s immense talent.
In 1998, Jeff D’Alessio of the Champaign News-Gazette revisited Wilson’s tale for the newspaper, writing: “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 basketball player that I ever saw play basketball … including Michael Jordan,” former Illini Ervin Small said. “And that’s the truth.”
At Simeon, Small played alongside Wilson. Future Illini superstar Nick Anderson was set to do the same, having transferred to Simeon from Chicago’s Prosser High to join his pal Benji for the 1984-85 season.
Many Chicago hoops observers believe that Wilson would also have joined Small and Anderson for college in Champaign. And if he had it would have been in large part due to his close relationship at the time with Illini assistant and lead recruiter Jimmy Collins.
According to the News-Gazette story, no coach spent more time around Wilson than Collins, who first met the youth while working as a hearing officer for the Cook County Probation Department in the early 1980s. It wasn’t trouble with the law, however, that brought Wilson and Collins together – rather, the two were introduced by Collins’ daughter, Erica, who was Benji’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.”
So close that after Wilson’s death a shaken Collins skipped Illinois’ trip to the Great Alaska Shootout so he could spend time with Wilson’s family.
Another member of the Flyin’ Illini – Lowell Hamilton of Chicago’s Providence-St. Mel – believed that Wilson was indeed bound for Champaign, based on what Benji told him in the Fall of ’84.
“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.”
The News-Gazette story reported that even Joey Meyer, DePaul’s basketball coach during Wilson’s high school heyday, believed that Benji was planning to pick Illinois over the Blue Demons and Bob Knight’s Indiana program that coming spring.
However, on Wednesday, longtime state talent evaluator Roy Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-eye tweeted that he always thought Wilson’s college choice would have been DePaul. After I inquired why, Schmidt told me that his opinion was based on what many people close to Wilson had said about his college preference.
For the sake of argument, though, let’s imagine that Wilson did choose to join his Simeon pals down in Champaign. And let’s imagine even further that Wilson stuck around until his senior year in 1988-89, even though his high school coach Bob Hambric once said: “No, I don’t think Ben would have been a senior. Because he would have gone to the pros after two years. Quite easily.”
If Wilson had come to Illinois and stuck around, I suppose it is also possible that Kenny Battle – whose West Aurora team Simeon had beaten in a fierce match-up during the 1984 IHSA state semifinals – might not have transferred from Northern Illinois to become part of the Flyin’ Illini.
But let’s imagine the core of the 1988-89 Illini remained intact with Wilson’s immense talents merely added to a roster that also included fellow Chicago products Hamilton, Anderson, Small and Marcus Liberty along with Kendall Gill, Stephen Bardo, Battle and Larry Smith. With that much talent – all from in-state – it’s difficult to imagine how any team could have beaten the Illini that season.
Heck, teams had enough trouble beating them as it was without Wilson as Illinois rattled off wins in its first 17 games – including a remarkable stretch where it scored at least 105 in four of five games.
That 17-0 season-opening burst culminated with a 103-92 double-overtime win over Georgia Tech at Assembly Hall that pushed Illinois to No. 1 in the national rankings. The Illini’s stay in the top spot was short-lived, however, as Gill suffered a stress fracture in his foot against the Yellow Jackets helping lead to three losses in the team’s next four games – all on the road in the Big Ten.
In the eight games after Georgia Tech, Illinois went a pedestrian 4-4. Once Gill returned, however, the Illini tore through the final weeks of the season, beating ranked Indiana, Iowa and Michigan in consecutive games to close out the conference slate and then storming their way through the NCAA Tournament to the Final Four.
It was there, of course, that the Illini fell 83-81 to a Michigan team it had already beaten twice during the regular season. The Wolverines went on to win the national title.
Nevertheless, even in spite not of winning the national championship – or even reaching the title game – the Flyin’ Illini are still considered one of the most iconic teams in college basketball history. And with Ben Wilson’s talent, it’s entirely possible the squad could have become champs – and perhaps considered the best ever.
If he lived up to his billing, there’s no telling what Wilson’s legacy in Champaign could have done for the stature of the Fighting Illini program today.
After all, just think about Michael Jordan did for the UNC basketball brand. And imagine, if you will, what a Midwestern version of MJ – or “Magic Johnson with a jump shot,” as Hambric once described Wilson – could have done nationally for Illinois hoops.
If Benji Ball had taken over in Champaign, we might be living in a different hoops world today. And it’s just an enormous shame that Ben Wilson didn’t live himself so we all could have found out.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.