I have to admit my ignorance. When I first encountered the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary title Benji, I thought it was a reference to the dog of that same name and so I imagined that it would be a film that focused on the dog’s intense training. Only after reading The New York Times article and viewing the trailer for the documentary did I learn that Benji referred to Chicago basketball sensation Benjamin Wilson. Wilson was ranked the number one basketball player in the nation when he was gunned down on the streets of Chicago in the fall of 1984.
You need to figure out a way to watch this film if you didn’t see it last night. Mike Hale of the Times calls it “absorbing” and I completely agree. Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah, the film’s directors, tell a remarkable and tragic tale of a young black man coming of age during a time when drugs and gangs are ravaging his hometown. Basketball offers hope for a life far beyond violence, but not necessarily beyond Chicago; after all, Chicago became the home of Michael Jordan after the Bulls selected him with their third overall pick in the 1984 draft, merely months before Benji gets gunned down. The story isn’t so much a love letter to Chicago as it is to Benji. He clearly meant so much to the men who were his teammates, family, and friends. I was moved by the players who paid tribute to Benji by wearing the number 25 throughout their careers. It was a great lesson in Chicago sports history.
I couldn’t help but to wonder about Benji’s story alongside Emmett Till’s story, especially given the prominence of their mothers after their deaths. Like Mrs. Till-Mobley, Mrs. Wilson allows her son’s death to become instructive. She even has an open casket funeral like Mrs. Till-Mobley hosted. Ultimately, Mrs. Wilson decided to move her family back to Mississippi some years after Benji was murdered, reversing Mrs. Till-Mobley’s move. What circumstances led her to view the South as a safer place for black boys in the ’80s? Mrs. Wilson’s actions place her son’s story in a historical context beyond the scope of basketball.
Follow this link to the ESPN page about Benji. I hope you get a chance to watch this extraordinary film.