I was a junior in college in March 1984 the first time I saw Ben Wilson play, in the Class AA quarterfinals against Rock Island at Assembly Hall in Champaign.
The next afternoon, my high school, West Aurora, and its star, Kenny Battle, played Simeon in one of the greatest state semifinals ever. Simeon used a 13-point third-quarter run to lead by 12 early in the fourth quarter. Battle’s steal and dunk narrowed it to 52-48, but West Aurora never got closer. Wilson scored 21 points in Simeon’s 67-58 victory.
Later that night, the Wolverines beat Everette Stephens’ undefeated Evanston team to win their first state title.
That summer, during Wilson’s ascension as the No. 1-ranked player in the country, I covered him at the first Prairie State games. Wilson was free and open. His personality, engaging if a bit circumspect, proved as electric as his game.
In the Prairie State semis, Wilson destroyed Springfield Lanphier star Ed Horton with a dazzling array of jump shots, back-to-the-basket moves and open-court flair. In the gold-medal game at Assembly Hall, Wilson’s Chicago team played Battle’s west suburban team. Battle was the leading scorer, but the Chicago squad, led by Wilson and Nick Anderson, won.
That was my last time seeing Ben Wilson alive.
His tragic death initiated coach Bob Hambric’s policy of shielding his players from the media.
There has always been a certain joylessness about Simeon’s greatness that is a wrenching consequence of Wilson’s basketball legacy.