New 30 for 30 on Ben Wilson recalls memories of surreal night in Rockford

The upcoming 30 for 30 documentary on Ben Wilson brings me back to a horrible night in 1984.

The powerful film (ESPN, Tuesday, 8 p.m.) tells the tragic story of a Chicago phenom, who was ranked as the top high school recruit in the country. A 6-8 guard, Wilson was drawing comparisons to Magic Johnson as he was about to begin his senior season at Simeon High School.

Then it all ended when Wilson was shot down in a senseless act of violence. His death rocked Chicago and became a national story.

Here’s a link to the trailer.

I wasn’t much older than Wilson, having just turned 25. I was looking forward to covering Wilson during my first year on the boy’s basketball beat for the Chicago Tribune. I never got to see him play.

Wilson died on Friday morning. Simeon made the decision it still would play that night against Evanston in a game at Rockford. I was assigned to cover that game. Of course, there would be no game detail in my story.

My friend and former colleague, K.C. Johnson, now the Bulls beat writer for the Tribune, also was there that night as a player for Evanston. He appears in the film.

I just remember the whole evening being surreal. There was the scene of the players coming out to the court just hours after their good friend was slain. Nobody knew how to react. Then during the moment of silence for Wilson, there was the unforgettable image of Simeon coach Bob Hambric, who rarely showed emotion, wiping a tear away from his eye. That picture ran across the entire country.

Everything else was a blur. I didn’t have time to write a conventional story. I quickly pieced the story from one deadline to the next.

Coming off Simeon’s victory for their friend, my story began: “The healing process has begun for the Simeon basketball team.”

It probably was a bit too optimistic. Simeon had many painful days ahead.

I didn’t know it back then, but the Tribune editors submitted my story from that night into the Associated Press Sports Editors contest. I won second for best news story.

The award helped my career. The following year, I was assigned to be one of the beat writers for the 1985 Bears.

My family and friends were excited about the award. They framed the story along with the blurb about my second-place finish in the APSE contest.

I had it on my wall for a while, but then took it down. The story was about a young boy dying. I just saw sadness every time I looked at it.

Looking back, I wasn’t out to win an award during that night in Rockford. I did what I had do. Like everyone else, I wish I was just there to cover a normal basketball game.

I would have given anything to have seen Wilson flying across the floor, making us wonder if he was another Magic Johnson.

Tuesday: I speak to the directors of the film and discuss the stunning interview that occurs at the end.








3 thoughts on “New 30 for 30 on Ben Wilson recalls memories of surreal night in Rockford

  1. Had hoped you’d inform everyone of the senseless act of violence and whether the culprit(s) were arrested and proven guilty.

    But I will google the kid’s name and find exactly what happened and so forth. Btw, congrats on your award.

  2. Very good read…thanks for sharing….Do you perhaps have a link to your original article that won you the award? I would love to read it, if so. Thanks again for sharing.

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