PRO BASKETBALL; A Dead Friend, a Living Memory
By IRA BERKOW
Published: February 14, 1993
CHICAGO— The day Nick Anderson last saw Benjy Wilson, his closest friend and one of his high-school basketball teammates, it was sunny but cold in Chicago, and it was windy.
The date was Tuesday, Nov. 20, 1984. The wind was blowing down South Vincennes Avenue, where the lunch-time crowd of students had spilled out from Neal F. Simeon Vocational High School, a three-story red brick building that is a converted cookie factory.
Anderson was a 6-foot-4-inch junior and Wilson a 6-8 senior. Wilson, at 17, was widely considered the best high-school basketball player in the country. Anderson, 16, was not far behind.
The happy shouts and cries of high school kids on the street that day eight years ago seemed to hang in the brittle air, as did the roar of the train from the nearby Illinois Central tracks, which run overhead and sweep in front of the school at 83d Street.
Now, eight years later, Nick Anderson is a starting guard for the Orlando Magic of the National Basketball Association. But the memory of what happened that day on that crowded, windblown street remains vivid for him.
Anderson, who had gone into a candy store, heard screams outside. At first, he thought there had been a car accident. “Then someone started hollering: ‘Benjy’s been shot!,” he said. ” ‘Benjy’s been shot!’ “
Anderson ran out of the store and saw a crowd gathering on the sidewalk about 100 feet away. He raced over and saw Wilson slumped against a wire fence in front of a one-story house. Wilson was wearing a new trench coat, a knit cap in the school colors of blue and gold and white sneakers. “He was bleeding through the coat and gasping for air,” Anderson recalled recently. “I didn’t know what to do. I was so scared. And things get a little hazy, but I remember that the ambulance was there almost immediately.”
Amid the hysteria, Anderson learned that two teen-age boys from another school had shot Wilson. It turned out that Wilson had bumped into one of those teen-agers, who turned to his companion and said, “He pushed me; pop him.” The other teen-ager took out a .22-caliber pistol and fired it at Wilson.
Soon after the shooting, paramedics loaded Wilson into the ambulance and rushed off to St. Bernard Hospital, about three miles away.
Wilson lay in the emergency ward, his aorta severed and his heart and liver punctured from the bullet shots. He was eventually wheeled into an operating room, where doctors worked for several hours in an attempt to save his life.
“We stayed up all night, wondering whether Benjy would live or die,” said Robert Anderson Sr., Nick’s father. “Nick was crying. Finally at about 6 in the morning, the phone rang. It was Benjy’s mother. Nick took the call. She told him Benjy had passed.”
Ben Wilson’s death made national headlines. The random, senseless, terrible tragedy of a young man of huge potential touched people everywhere, and seemed to symbolize the awful direction in which much of the country, particularly the inner cities, was headed. “The Chicago public schools and the city of Chicago have lost one of their best hopes for the future,” said the Chicago School Superintendent, Ruth Love.
There were also high hopes for Nick Anderson. And now every time he slips on his No. 25 jersey for the Magic, every time he goes out to play in bright N.B.A. arenas filled with cheering fans, he thinks of Ben Wilson, his laughing and intense high-school friend.
When he was a college star at the University of Illinois, Anderson chose to wear No. 25, the number Wilson wore in high school, and he continues to wear it in memory of his friend.
Three days after the shooting, at a wake in the school gym on Friday, members of Congress, state senators, Mayor Harold Washington and college basketball coaches like Joey Meyer of DePaul and Lou Henson of Illinois, who had hoped to recruit Wilson, were among the 8,000 people who stood in line in the cold outside, then filed past Wilson’s coffin, which was strewn with flowers.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke at Wilson’s funeral. He called for gun control and it brought cheers from the mourners. “But his demands that parents take responsibility for their children brought foot-stomping agreement and deafening applause,” The Chicago Tribune reported.
Mary Wilson, Ben’s mother, would go before the Chicago City Council and appeal for gun control and an end to gang violence. The council listened and promised action. “Nothing really was done,” she later recalled.
Police statistics in 1984 showed that 119 young people between the ages of 11 and 20 had been murdered in Chicago by the end of October. Wilson’s death was one of more that increased that figure. Similar numbers were recorded in cities across the country.
In 1993, the problem remains critical. In 1991, the latest year for which statistics are available, 229 people between 10 and 19 were killed in Chicago. Nationally that year, there were 2,992 murder victims in that age group. By that time, homicide had become the leading cause of death of young people in the inner cities. Nightmare Intrudes On the Dream
For days and weeks and months after Ben Wilson’s death, Nick Anderson had nightmares and daily fears. Besides Benjy’s, he had witnessed the killings of other people in his neighborhood. At one point, his father remembered, Nick was crying in the night, saying, “Daddy, I don’t want to die.”
Anderson worried that he was “going crazy,” his father recalled. The family was concerned and took Nick to Lawndale Hospital, where he was kept for 15 days. At the end of that time, Nick and his parents were reassured by their doctor that Nick was all right.
Wilson had been shot the day before the first game of a new basketball season, a season that Anderson and Wilson had dreamed about. They had dreamed of playing together to win the state championship, and of then going on to play for the University of Illinois and then in the N.B.A.
Wilson was pursuing a second consecutive state high school title. The season before, he had led Simeon to the Class AA Illinois schoolboy championship. In the Nike high school all-star camp at Princeton University over the summer, he had been rated the top player. And Simeon, in large measure because of Wilson, was the No. 1-ranked team in preseason national polls.
Anderson had transfered to Simeon. Even though the school was about an hour and a half by bus and elevated train from his home, he had been persuaded by Wilson to enroll there. So Anderson left Prosser, the high school on the West Side where as a sophomore the season before he had been the high scorer in the state with a 28-point average.
“Benjy told me we’d win the state title again, and together,” said Anderson. “And I knew we would.”
Wilson and Anderson had gotten to know each other on the playground courts of Chicago, teaming up and facing off, developing mutual admiration and respect. They, along with Tim Hardaway, then of Carver High School and now with the Golden State Warriors, played together on the high school division team that won the Prairie State Games, an Illinois Olympics, in the summer of 1984.
“Nobody could touch us,” Anderson recalled of that team. “We went undefeated.”
“Benjy was Magic Johnson, but with a jump shot,” Anderson said. “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.’ And he had a saying he learned from a basketball coach: ‘If it’s to be, it’s up to me.’ “
Mary Wilson, concerned that her son might be setting himself up for disappointment, once said to Benjy, “Wanting to be No. 1 is asking a lot.”
He replied, “You always told me to set high goals.”
Ben Wilson had also said to his mother: “Nick wants to be good as much as I do. Some guys just want everything handed to them. But Nick’s willing to work.”
Anderson said: “We played one on one a lot. Benjy usually won. ‘Maybe next time,’ he’d say to me, but not arrogant. Hopeful. And then we’d go to his house, or to mine, and either eat his mother’s famous cabbage with onions, or my mother’s specialty, macaroni and corn bread.”
The boys had grown so close that once one of them was at the other’s home, he was reluctant to leave. The mothers, Mary Wilson and Alberta Anderson, would have to shoo either Nick or Benjy back home. Two Families Work Against Odds
The families lived several miles apart, the Wilsons in a brick bungalow on the South Side, a fairly middle-class setting, and the Andersons in a small wood-frame house on the West Side, in a tougher area. But each family lived in a neighborhood where crime and drugs and killings were not uncommon. “It was like a wild jungle where we lived,” recalled Robert Anderson Sr. “We tried to make the best of it.”
Both families were working families. Wilson’s parents had separated when he was 5, but his father, Ben Wilson Sr., a barber, stayed close to the family of five sons, with Benjy being the middle boy. The two older sons were employed, and Mary Wilson worked as a nurse.
Nick Anderson’s parents, meanwhile, both worked in a steel mill just west of Chicago. His father was a crane operator and his mother was an expediter. Sometimes they wouldn’t get home until 11 P.M., but they had given strict orders for Nick and his younger sister, Zirlee, to be in the house by nightfall. “We were young parents and we made some mistakes with not enough discipline with our two older boys,” said Alberta Anderson. “We weren’t going to repeat that with our two younger kids.”
About her two older sons, Alberta Anderson said, “We lost them to the streets.” They were in rival gangs, Patrick in the Vice Lords and Robert Jr., known as P. J., in the Black Gangster Disciples, she said. Each had been in and out of jail.
Nick had seen all this and didn’t care for the life styles of his brothers. “I thought it was stupid to be in jail,” he said.
Seeing how deeply agonized his mother was by the troubles of his brothers, he told her one day, “Mama, I’m gonna be somebody some day, and make you proud of me.” Representing Ben As He Represented
At noon on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 1984, only hours after Wilson had died in the hospital room at St. Bernard, a memorial service for Benjy was held in the school gymnasium. It was an hourlong service attended by the school’s 1,800 students. Many of them, along with school officials, wore buttons that read “Replace black-on-black crime with black-on-black love.”
There had been talk in the neighborhood that some boys from Simeon were planning to get even for Wilson’s death. Mary Wilson heard this and spoke to a packed school auditorium.
“I heard screaming and angry and bitter talk,” she recalled. “And I told the students: ‘Let’s represent Ben the way he represented us. He was always on his best conduct. Ben would not want more killing.”
In this particular case, her words were apparently heeded, although the killings in the neighborhoods continued as part of the social fabric.
The night after Wilson’s death, Simeon played against Evanston in a Rockford, Ill., tournament.
“It was so quiet when our team was introduced, you could hear a pin drop,” Anderson recalled. “And most of us on the team had tears in our eyes.”
Simeon won that game, and made its way to the semifinals and final, both of which were to be played on Saturday, the day of Ben Wilson’s funeral. After their morning game, the players drove in a bus for nearly two hours to get to the funeral. Then they drove back to Rockford — and won the tournament.
At his funeral, Wilson’s body was dressed in his Simeon basketball uniform: blue warm-up pants, blue shirt and gold jacket with blue lettering and his No. 25. His mother wished for him to be buried in his basketball uniform. “He wasn’t much of a suit person,” she explained.
The youth who killed Wilson — William Moore, 16 at the time — was convicted of murder and given a maximum 40-year sentence. Omar Dixon, also 16, whom Wilson had bumped, received a 30-year sentence as an accomplice.
Ben Wilson was buried in a simple grave in Oakwood Cemetery. After the funeral, a memorial was arranged in the Simeon lobby, with another of Wilson’s uniforms and photos of him, in a display case. But it was removed after a few weeks.
“We just didn’t want a shrine,” said the Simeon basketball coach, Bob Hambric. “We all had to get on with our lives.”
Wilson left behind not only many memories, but also a 10-week-old son — much to his mother’s, and coach’s, disappointment — with his girlfriend, Jetun Rush. In this regard, he seemed no more perfect than many other teen-agers.
Without Wilson, Simeon returned to the Illinois state tournament, but lost in the quarterfinals by a point. The next season, Simeon lost in the city final.
After his senior season, in 1986, Anderson was named Illinois’ Mr. Basketball. He had grown to 6-6, and he enrolled at Illinois. Anderson knew Wilson would have gone there, too. He was now, in a way, living for the two of them.
Anderson was uneligible to play in his freshman year, because he hadn’t made the required standardized-test score upon entrance, but by his junior year, he had succeeded academically and was the Illini’s leading scorer and rebounder.
In 1989, he led the Illini to the Final Four of the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, where they lost in the semifinals by 2 points to the eventual winner, Michigan.
At the tournament in Seattle, Anderson, No. 25, was asked about Wilson. “The day Ben left us,” said Anderson, “my thought was I have to strive that much harder for excellence. I’m doing just that, striving to be the best I possibly can.” An Indirect Route To Orlando Arena
It has been only recently, Nick Anderson said, that he has been getting over the pain of the murder of Ben Wilson.
“But sometimes I still wake up at night thinking about the last time I saw him, seeing him lying up against that fence, gasping for breath,” said Anderson. “And of course every time I put on my basketball uniform, I think of him.”
Anderson left Illinois after his junior year, and was a first-round draft pick of the Magic. He is now in his fourth season as a pro, playing guard and small forward; he was the team’s leader in scoring and steals last season, and this season he is second in scoring and rebounding.
He is at the end of a contract and plans to sign another with Orlando. His agent, Bill Pollack, believes that $3 million a year for the next four years is likely.
He lives in a condominium with his mother, who has separated amicably from her husband and moved to Florida. Anderson contributes to helping other family members, but has given up on his eldest brother.
“I got him jobs, I sent him money, but he just goes back in the gangs,” said Anderson. “I’ve stopped throwing good money after bad with him.”
Before every home game, Anderson drives to Orlando Arena by an out-of-the-way route. He drives through a section called Parramour, which is dominated by wooden shanties and flop houses.
“I see all the drugs and gangs and people hanging out night and day and looking for trouble, and I remember how hard it was for me to get out of my situation in Chicago,” said Anderson. “I take that ride every time because I don’t want myself to forget how lucky I am.”
Anderson thinks of Ben Wilson, too, and how unlucky Wilson was. “I see him sometimes in my mind’s eye,” Anderson said, “playing in the N.B.A., which he could have done after only two years in college.” Back in Chicago, Timely Reminders
When he returns to Chicago, Anderson sometimes visits his old neighborhood, and Simeon as well. He and some other N.B.A. players from Chicago have adopted schools in Chicago, and contribute money toward sports teams and classrooms.
In Chicago, Anderson doesn’t visit Mary Wilson, because she has moved away. She returned to the place of her birth, Columbus, Miss., with her two youngest boys.
“Things kept getting worse in Chicago, and I didn’t want what happened to Benjy to happen to my other little boys,” she said. “But there are shootings here, too, and crime. It seems you can’t escape it. That’s what has shocked me. I ask myself, ‘Lord, how are we failing?’ “
But she does follow Anderson’s career. “Whenever Nick’s on television,” she said, “me and my family sit there and just scream for him.”
Ben’s son, Brandon, now 8, lives in Xenia, Ohio, with his mother, who went to college there and is now an elementary schoolteacher.
At Simeon, as students go in and out, two relatively new signs at the entrance warn: “This school is equipped with metal detectors. You may be subjected to metal-detector screening upon entering the building.”
Inside, there are a couple of reminders of Wilson: The new school gym has been named in his honor, and a painting of Wilson by a student hangs on a wall with pictures of several other noted alumni, including Johnny Mitchell, a football player now with the Jets, and Wes Chamberlain, a baseball player with the Phillies.
Beyond that, however, there is no special mention of the best-known young person from Simeon to die a senseless death.
“Life goes on,” said Hambric. “There have been so many tears shed for kids and people being killed on the streets since then, that few people have the time to remember Ben Wilson.”
But Anderson does. “I’ve dedicated my career to his memory,” he said.
At Simeon, there is a glass case that displays the No. 25 that Benjy Wilson made famous. But the “25” is on an Orlando Magic jersey.
Nick Anderson has come home, and so, too, has Ben Wilson.