30 FOR 30: BENJI (TV)

Summary

One in this series of sports documentaries presented by ESPN about important figures and events in athletic history. This program explores the brief life of Chicago basketball prodigy Benjamin "Benji" Wilson. Wilson's older brother Curtis Glenn describes how he assisted in raising Benji, born March 1967 as one of five brothers, due to their parents' busy work lives. Neighbors and friends comment on their love of basketball, for which they used trash cans when hoops were unavailable, describing Chicago as a "breeding ground" for talented athletes. Coach Robert "Hope" Reid and former teammate and singer R. Kelly discuss young Benji's determination to improve his skills through practice, though Glenn recalls having to discipline his brother to stay on the "right path," as gang violence was on the rise in Chicago. Benji enrolled in Simeon Vocational High School, known for its strong athletic program, in 1981 and, aided by his eventual height of 6'7", worked hard to impress the notoriously strict coach Robert Hambric. Benji developed citywide fame for his "smooth" playing style and exceptional jump shot, with teammates and friends recalling how he "made the game come to him."

The city's street violence began to affect the schools' athletics, however; in December 1983, Simeon's game with a rival school, Farragut, turned into an all-out brawl after a foul against Benji. Benji continued to enjoy his popularity, particularly with young women, and his star rose yet higher when he helped Simeon to beat Martin Luther King Jr. High School to become the city champions. The inner-city teams were perceived as "five-ring circuses" by suburban Chicagoans, though they strove to prove their discipline and ended up winning the state championship against Evanston, a team that featured star player Kenny Battle, who would go on to a professional career. Glenn recalls Benji giving him his championship medal, and the Simeon players remained "celebrities" through 1984. Benji was then recruited by famed talent scout Sonny Vaccaro to the top-tier Athletes For Better Education summer camp program, and he soon received many tempting offers from assorted universities. His family was shocked when his serious girlfriend Jetun Rush gave birth to his son, Brandon, and though Benji was excited about the prospect of fatherhood, the couple frequently argued and Benji was suspended from school after accidentally striking a teacher during a confrontation.

On the morning of November 20, 1984, Benji was escorting Rush to the bus stop when he was shot by two strangers. He was taken to the nearest hospital, St. Bernard, though it was not equipped with a trauma unit and he was forced to wait several hours for surgery. Benji's friends recall their shock at hearing of the incident, and though he was said to be stable in the evening, he worsened in the night and his mother Mary, a nurse, eventually made the decision to remove his breathing machine, aware that he would not waken from his vegetative state due to the lack of oxygen to his brain. The city reacted with horror and the story made the national news, and two teens, Omar Dixon and William Moore, were quickly arrested for the crime. Mary spoke at a Simeon school assembly on the day after Benji's death and awed the students with her strength and composure, and the rest of the basketball team headed off to their season opener against Evanston, which they managed to win despite their grief. Hounded by the press, Mary sought refuge at Reverend Jesse Jackson's home, and Benji's open-casket wake and subsequent funeral drew thousands of attendees. Some friends express frustration at the "circus" surrounding his death, and R. Kelly recalls Benji's highly emotional burial, at which he himself sang "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday."

Many mourners expressed a desire to kill Benji's murderers, though Moore and Dixon's friends describe the two as "mellow" youths who rarely caused trouble. Moore, however, explains that he began behaving recklessly after his father's death and states that he and Dixon were loitering near Simeon on the day of the murder when Benji, conversing with Rush, collided with Moore on the sidewalk. They argued and Moore, apparently alarmed by Benji's size, impulsively shot him twice, though Rush and the media would later describe the incident as a premeditated mugging-turned-murder. He describes his fear and regret at learning of Benji's demise, and defense attorney Isaiah Gant notes the impossibility of receiving an unbiased trial in Chicago thanks to Benji's fame. Though Dixon recanted his confession of robbery, he was found guilty and sentenced to thirty years and Moore to forty. Mary went on to advocate for stronger gun-control laws in Chicago and also sued St. Bernard for the delay in Benji's care, with help from Vaccaro in projecting Benji's potential future earnings from a professional career. The city changed its emergency room policies for gunshot victims, and Simeon has honored Benji's memory throughout the years by giving his jersey number, 25, to its most promising players, including famous Chicago Bulls player Derrick Rose and Milwaukee Bucks player Jabari Parker. His friends and admirers discuss his representation of "a promise unfulfilled," reflecting on what he still means to Chicago culture and to professional sports.

The film concludes by explaining that Dixon is serving a sentence in an Illinois prison for a separate 2007 charge, though Moore was released in 2004 and now works in convict rehabilitation. Rush declined to be interviewed for the film, though her son Brandon went on to play basketball for the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Glenn named his son after his late brother, noting his happiness at hearing his brother's name spoken in his home once again. Commercials deleted.

Details

  • NETWORK:
  • DATE: October 23, 2012 8:00 PM
  • RUNNING TIME: 1:21:35
  • COLOR/B&W: Color
  • CATALOG ID: 114765
  • GENRE: Sports
  • SUBJECT HEADING: African-American Collection - Sports; Biography; Sports
  • SERIES RUN: ESPN - TV series, 2009-
  • COMMERCIALS: TV - Commercials - Buick automobiles^TV - Commercials - Bank of America

CREDITS

  • Keith Clinkscales … Executive Producer
  • John Dahl … Executive Producer
  • Connor Schell … Executive Producer
  • Bill Simmons … Executive Producer
  • Beth Sternheimer … Chicago Coordinating Producer
  • Erin Leyden … Producer
  • Scott Siebers … Producer
  • Amani Martin … Producer, Writer
  • Ted Schillinger … Producer, Writer
  • Ryan Goldberg … Associate Producer
  • Mario Coleman … Assistant Producer
  • Michael Walton … Assistant Producer
  • Kenny Clay … Field Producer
  • Coodie (see also: Clarence Simmons Jr.) … Director
  • Chike (see also: Chike Otah) … Director
  • Alexander Cardia … Animation
  • Mike Marsicano … Illustrations by
  • Mechalie Jamison … Music by
  • Steve "Silk" Hurley … Music by
  • Wood Harris … Narrator
  • Curtis Glenn … Interviewee
  • Robert "Hope" Reid … Interviewee
  • R. Kelly … Interviewee
  • Sonny Vaccaro … Interviewee
  • Jesse Jackson … Interviewee
  • William Moore … Interviewee
  • Isaiah Gant … Interviewee
  • Jabari Parker … Interviewee
  • Kenny Battle
  • Omar Dixon
  • Robert Hambric
  • Derrick Rose
  • Jetun Rush
  • Benjamin Wilson
  • Mary Wilson
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