Friday, January 18, 2013

Thoughts on Benji by Ryan Nar

Better late than never...

Twenty-eight years ago a teen named Ben Wilson was murdered in the South Side of Chicago before his homeroom period. He was the top high school player in America at the time, as rated by noted talent scout Bob Gibbons. ESPN’s 30 for 30 recently aired an episode on his (brief) life titled BenjiThe documentary focuses primarily on the moment Wilson morphed from simply being the best high schooler in the land to a mythical character of epic proportions. It happens that way sometimes, in life, when the cameras and barbershop talk blow enough helium into the tale that it no longer remains bound by gravity. It just up and floats away like a fairy becoming a figment of the most optimistic of imaginations. The downside of this is that the true essence of the subject disappears in the ether. The reality no longer has any tangible association to the ideal. The subject is resistant to normal human constraints. In this instance, he doesn’t run a 4.5 forty meter dash- he flies down the track faster than you can blink your eyes. He doesn't have range from the three-point line- he can shoot from half court. He doesn't dunk over people- he soars over them like an eagle. The upside to all this is that your subject is now limitless. You can fashion him into whatever you want. He is now a symbol of all your hopes and dreams.

The directors take full advantage of this mythologizing by fashioning a film based more on the legend than a real person. Focusing primarily on his brother, Curtis Glenn, and the teammates who lived with him, we are shown the tale of this sweet kid who became one of the greatest high school players in history. Testimonials from Tim Hardaway, Nick Anderson, and even R&B singer R. Kelly, describe a player who is best described as “Magic with a jump shot.” Wilson is a player who lit up a room, doted on his mother, and even took out the garbage to boot. From the talk of everyone in this film the only street Ben belonged on was one with a basketball hoop. Players came from all over the city to play him, and he would put on shows for packed parks. He was destined for greatness. Glenn looked after him and was proud of his baby brother.

And if there was ever a city where you needed a brother looking out for you, it would be Chicago. Nicknamed Chiraq (pronounced shy-rack) because of the high murder rate (there will likely be over 600 murders in Chicago by the calendar end of this year), Chicagoans have forever had their crime issues ignored by the national media at large. However, to the residents of South Side the high crime rate was too omnipresent to overlook. At times, Wilson would have to call Glenn to help him walk home because gangsters were ready to beat him up for the most innocuous of reasons. Glenn relayed stories detailing how whenever Wilson would veer towards the street life, their mother would call on him to set Ben straight, and the brother always obliged.  Yet, in a city as violent as this one your brother can only help you so much. That fateful day Glenn wasn't around and the result was a street altercation that left Wilson bleeding on a city sidewalk.

Benji's death had a major impact on the city as everyone from then mayor, Harold Washington, to 1984 Presidential Candidate, Jesse Jackson, used him as an illustration of young black youth dying needlessly. Similar to his deification on a basketball court, in death, he became a saintly figure. Not just another kid murdered, he was now the prime example of a city gone gun crazy. He was now a national story, a martyr for all that is wrong with the urban landscape, a life cut too short. 

The movie could have chosen to end here, leaving Ben as a shining representation of the wasted potential of so many lives in the inner cities. To its credit it does not. The directors go further, tracking down and interviewing the guy who killed Wilson, Billy Moore. They provide a redemptive ending for the most unlikely of persons, a murderer. Although unexpected, this is a nice twist to the typical story you see about people who reach an untimely fate in dire circumstances. However, it is too short to truly resonate.  

All in all this is a great documentary and one that is definitely worth watching if you care at all about building your sports knowledge to include the legends who didn't make it, yet are still as much of an icon in the eyes of those in the know. Some guys get just as popular and touch just as many hearts precisely because they did not make it. Their stories are no less important, perhaps we need these myths even more than we do reality. They provide ideals to aim for that are untarnished by the messiness of life.  Benji does a great job of hammering that point home.

Ryan Nar writes for Docksquad Sports and can be found on Twitter @ryannarsayshi

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