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30 For 30: Benji

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30 For 30

<em>Benji</em>

Season 2, Episode 4

Benji premières tonight on ESPN at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Though well-documented and moving enough as a tribute, Coodie and Chike’s Benji, about the life and death of Chicago high-school basketball star Ben Wilson, is more compelling for all the issues it raises on the margins—about South Side gang violence in the mid-1980s, about gun control, about the horrible gap in healthcare policy that likely cost Wilson his life, and about the huge and sometimes overbearing symbolic value a special athlete can have for his school, his community, and his city. Coodie and Chike follow these little tributaries when necessary, but they keep coming back to the more banal mission of honoring Wilson and cementing his legacy as a Second City phenom whose promise will never be forgotten. It’s a worthy enterprise, just not an enriching one.

Footage of “Benji” in action certainly confirms his hype as “Magic Johnson with a jumper,” a 6-feet-7-inches player with the skills of a point guard, a silky-smooth shooting touch, and a lot of creativity around the rim. Gathering interviews with former teammates and friends, local journalists, his brothers, future neighborhood stars like Juwan Howard and R. Kelly, and other recognizable faces both directly involved (Jesse Jackson) and unrelated (Michael Wilbon), music-video veterans Coodie and Chike cover the basic arc of Wilson’s life and death clearly and thoroughly. And 28 years after his shooting death in November 1984—very close to the 30 For 30 cut-off date—his is a story worth remembering.

Benji takes some care in establishing Wilson as the child of a middle-class family on the South Side, growing up in Chatham, a safe neighborhood full of two-parent homes. But sustaining their lifestyle took hard work: With their father, a postal worker, and their mother, a nurse, working odd hours to pay the mortgage, Wilson’s older brother Curtis recalls changing baby Ben’s diapers in the middle of the night when he was only 9 years old. While Wilson and his brothers were ultimately children of divorce, their mother, an astonishingly strong woman by any measure, brought stability and focus to her children’s lives. The films suggests the threat to Wilson came not from a perilous home life, but on the brazen encroachment of gangs into neighborhoods like Chatham in the early ’80s. And even then, the particulars of his shooting are far pettier than a turf war—just random circumstance and teenage braggadocio.

Coodie and Chike follow Wilson’s rapid ascendancy in high school, where he started as a skinny 5-feet-10-inch guard far down the freshman/sophomore team roster and gained a reputation as his body and his stats shot up. Sometimes growth spurts can divorce young players from their coordination, but Wilson merely added length to a guard’s skill set. In his first game as a starter for the varsity team, his sophomore year, he dropped 17 points for a coach notorious for promoting team basketball at the expense of individual scorers. The film offers the requisite highlight reel of his accomplishments in high school, including a successful run for the state championship in Champaign-Urbana. Going into his senior year, he was considered the best player in the country, and a possible local heir apparent to Michael Jordan, who had just been drafted by the Chicago Bulls.

On November 20, 1984, the day before the first game of his senior season, Wilson was shot a block outside his school in what was initially described as a botched robbery but was more like an unfortunate escalation of tempers. Coodie and Chike get an interview with the shooter and a female witness, and break down the incident with a scrupulousness that’s oddly absent from the rest of the film. And it’s revealing, too, of the view from the other side of the gun and especially of the needless delay in getting Wilson the timely trauma care that might have saved his life. (In practical terms, a rule change requiring ambulances to drive certain patients to a hospital with a fully staffed trauma center, rather than merely the nearest hospital, buffets his legacy more than his accomplishments on the court.)

Between the issues surrounding the shooting, the alternately moving and grotesque frenzy around his funeral, and his mother’s inspiring grace through it all, Benji ends forcefully, capturing the collective grief of a community and a city that had a lot invested in his talent. Oddly enough, it’s Wilson himself who seems most vaguely defined, which is perhaps a natural consequence of everyone talking about him as if they were speaking at his wake. The legend is easier to comprehend than human being. Aside from a few cartoon illustrations and a couple flashes of style, Benji has a boilerplate ESPN style that serves its subject well enough, but not as well as he deserves.

Stray observations:

  • Someone needs to make a 30 For 30 documentary about street basketball, whether in New York or Chicago.
  • Am I wrong in thinking Coodie and Chike needlessly vilified Wilson’s girlfriend, Jetun Rush? They note that she declined to be interviewed for the film. Is this the punishment for that? Am I wrong in thinking the film implies that she’s associated with his downfall?  
  • I enjoy Common and R. Kelly. I don’t care at all about anything they have to say in this documentary. Their celebrity status adds nothing.
  • Sonny Vaccaro’s legacy of supporting/exploiting young hoopsters would make another fine documentary—or better still, a book. Why hasn’t anyone written one?
  • For Wilson’s mother to offer such wisdom and perspective that soon after her son’s death is really the most astonishing thing about this documentary. (“It’s not how long you live, but how well you live.”)

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