Men's Basketball
Nunn Carries On 'Benji' Legacy

March 12, 2014

By Lexi Shurilla, fightingillini.com staff writer | @SusanAlexisS

Ben Wilson's Legacy

Ben Wilson was murdered in 1984, but his basketball legacy lives on through his jersey number.
Chicago is a basketball city. Through generations of amazing athletes, Chicago has produced players of NBA caliber for decades. Who comes to mind when you think of the best players in the history of the NBA? For some, they might not know the story of a high school player from Chicago's Chatham neighborhood on the South Side, a 17-year-old that was ranked the No. 1 player in the country - the first ever in Chicago - and was shot the day before his senior season. Benjamin "Benji" Wilson is still one of the most notable basketball names in Chicago even 30 years after his death in 1984.

A high school basketball phenom, Wilson led the Simeon Wolverines to their first state basketball championship at the University of Illinois' Assembly Hall his junior year before being senselessly killed on November 21, 1984, the eve of his senior season. After the tragic incident, then-Mayor Harold Washington spoke to grieving students, denouncing gun violence in the city and promising a new gymnasium for the school, to be named in Wilson's honor. The gymnasium was completed in 1987.

He built a legacy that will never be forgotten and he has a legacy that's built on the court forever.

- Kendrick Nunn on Ben Wilson

"Definitely in high school, during my four years [at Simeon] I heard about it," said Illinois freshman and Simeon alumnus, Kendrick Nunn. "I just felt like it was a sad story. He built a legacy that will never be forgotten and he has a legacy that's built on the court forever."

In the years following Wilson's death, only players that reached a certain standard of excellence were given the honor of wearing No. 25 for the Wolverines. In 2009, Wilson's No. 25 jersey was retired at Simeon Career Academy, 25 years after he was killed. Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose was the last player to wear the number.

At the University of Illinois, Nunn continues Wilson's legacy from Simeon in his own No. 25 Illini uniform. Nunn helped Simeon to four straight state championships, equaling the IHSA's record for consecutive titles. Illini teammate Jaylon Tate teamed with Nunn on Simeon's final two state title teams. Together, Nunn and Tate carry on the Simeon tradition at Illinois, where many great Simeon players chose to follow their collegiate dreams.

Number 25

    Slideshow - Simeon Alumni Who Wore #25 at Illinois
Kendrick Nunn
2014 - Present
Calvin Brock
2005 - 2009
Bryant Notree
1995 - 1997
Deon Thomas
1990 - 1994
Nick Anderson
1988 - 1989
The Illinois program has benefited from a recruiting pipeline to Simeon Career Academy that began in the 1980s. Nick Anderson, a star on the 1989 Flyin' Illini Final Four team, was the first player from Simeon to come to Champaign-Urbana after Wilson's death. Anderson had been best friends with Ben in high school and he started the tradition of former Simeon players wearing Wilson's No. 25 at Illinois. This tradition continued with former Simeon players Deon Thomas, Bryant Notree, Calvin Brock and now Nunn all donning jersey No. 25 for the Fighting Illini.

By the time Nunn was at Simeon, Wilson's jersey had already been retired. However, Nunn was eager to carry on the tradition of wearing No. 25 when he arrived on the University of Illinois campus.

"I think that the greatest players at Simeon wear that number. Being there, you can't wear 25 now, so going on to another school, No. 25 is definitely the number you want to wear," Nunn said.

Following his career at Simeon, Nunn had his No. 20 jersey retired by the Wolverines. He decided to come to Illinois to build on the Chicago-to-Champaign pipeline and continue Simeon's legacy at Illinois along with Tate.

"I definitely decided to come here first, and then I kind of dragged Jaylon along," Nunn said with a smile. "I committed first, and I wanted the No. 25. Jaylon, he's always been wearing No. 1 as a point guard, so that worked out."

Nunn was recently named to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team and, so far, is living up to the hype from high school. In fact, since Nunn and fellow freshman Malcolm Hill entered the starting lineup on Feb. 9, the Illini have gone 5-3, including road wins at No. 18 Michigan State and No. 24 Iowa. Nunn has been on a tear, averaging 12.1 points per game and shooting over 50 percent from the field and from three-point range during that span.

"It means a lot," Nunn said of his late-season recognition. "It's a blessing that people recognize how hard I work, so it's an honor."

Remembering Benji

Since Ben Wilson's death, Simeon has won six state titles, including four straight from 2010-13. Those teams were led by current Illini Nunn and Tate and No. 1 prep player Jabari Parker, who currently plays for Duke.

"Simeon is a winning organization, and I wanted to go somewhere where I knew I could develop as a player and win," Nunn said of why he chose to become a Wolverine.

Simeon has done its part to keep Wilson's memory alive. The school mandates that its incoming students read "To Benji, With Love," a book about Wilson's life written by his late mother, Mary Wilson. Nunn said that they sometimes show the ESPN Films 30-for-30 special "Benji" in the auditorium, while Wilson's pictures, jersey and trophies are still on display in the Simeon halls.

Programming Note - The ESPN 30-for-30 special "Benji" airs Wednesday, March 19 at 5:30 pm CT on ESPNU

Wilson was the 669th murder victim of the year in Chicago in 1984. Even though his life was cut short, as a result of his death, the city of Chicago revised its emergency policy and changed from previously taking gunshot victims to the nearest hospital to now taking gunshot victims to the closest fully staffed trauma center. Wilson's mother became an advocate for anti-gun efforts, and with 17,000 signatures for a petition against gang violence, she helped call for tougher regulations on handguns. These changes have helped saved hundreds of lives.

There will always be speculation as to what could have been for Benji. Recruited by college heavyweights, including Illinois coach Lou Henson and Indiana's Bobby Knight, Wilson - known as "Magic Johnson with a jump shot" by all who knew him - had a talent that couldn't be matched. The number of Illinois players that had a connection to Wilson still feel a loss from the tragic accident, but Simeon players today continue to play for his legacy. The value of Wilson's life is lived on through his family and friends, and the players that want to live up to the standards he set on the court.

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