People still walk down the 81st block of South Vincennes Avenue and stare. Cars slow up when they get to 8139 and curious eyes peer out at the School Store. Sometimes the passengers blink, sometimes they dab their eyes with tissue.
It's been nearly two weeks since Ben Wilson was shot and killed in front of the School Store. But Vincennes Avenue still seems to be the most desolate, lonely place in the world, especially for anybody who knew Benji.
Lots of 17-year-olds get shot and killed in the streets of Chicago, 13 this year alone. Chances are nobody even remembers their names. But they remember Ben Wilson, who was 6 feet 8 and called the best high school basketball player in the nation.
Every day, hundreds of phone calls come into Simeon High School, where Wilson was a senior. Companies send money for a Ben Wilson scholarship fund and National Basketball Association stars Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre and Magic Johnson send $1,000 checks. But none of this can stop the sorrow in this cold, hard city, which probably hasn't mourned so much since Mayor Richard Daley died nine years ago.
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Ben Wilson left Simeon with his girfriend and another girl. Perhaps they were walking toward the bus stop at 79th Street when they neared the tiny School Store, which sells T-shirts and notebooks and potato chips and all the other things that sustain high school kids.
Wilson, according to all accounts, accidentally bumped into William Moore, a 16-year-old from nearby Calumet High School. Police and newspapers here report that Wilson said, "Excuse me." After that, police charge that Moore, who was with Omar Dixon, another 16-year-old from Calumet, shot Wilson with a .22 caliber pistol.
Several students ran the one block back to Simeon to tell of the shooting. One girl ran to Barbara Flynn, Wilson's English teacher and mentor, and told her he had been shot.
Late last week, Flynn, who was returning to her classroom for the first time since the shooting, recalled, "I had sent the young lady out to the rest room, and she came back and said, 'Mrs. Flynn, Benji has been shot.' And I told her to have a seat and finish her test.
"But a couple of minutes later, my department chairman came and said, 'Benji's been shot.' There was panic and excitement in everyone's voice and I knew it had to be true."
By that time, Al Scott, Simeon's football coach, had run down the street and grabbed Wilson.
A day or so before, Scott had been worried about Wilson, who was under a lot of pressure for a kid just turned 17. Pretty soon he would have to make a decision, whether to accept a scholarship to De Paul, Illinois or Indiana. Scott had seen Wilson in the hallways and noticed, "I'd see in his eyes, 'I need help.' I was tempted to have a heart-to-heart talk with him because he looked a little distressed to me. But I didn't do it."
And now, there was Scott, holding Wilson in his arms on the dirty concrete of Vincennes, trying to administer first aid. Meanwhile, Scott said and others confirmed, the ambulance was going to the wrong school and taking close to 30 minutes to arrive.
Scott pulled up Wilson's shirt and revealed the bullet wound in his left side.
Ned McCray, Simeon's principal, had reached the School Store by that time. "When I saw the location of the wound, away from the chest," McCray said, "it went through my mind, 'He has a chance.' "
McCray ran back to the school and made an announcement, saying Wilson had been shot, but it might not be that serious. "Well, that's what I told them," McCray said.
Wilson, eventually, arrived at St. Bernard Hospital and underwent a five-hour operation. Barbara Flynn was one of the Simeon family who went to comfort Mary Wilson, Ben's mother.
Flynn kept thinking that since the severed aorta had been sutured, Wilson would recover. "I even had plans for him," Flynn said, steadily blinking, trying to keep her eyes clear. "I thought, 'This child is going to be all right. Whether he ever plays basketball again won't make any difference.' "
But Wilson was pronounced dead early the next morning.
The neighborhood where Ben Wilson went to school has always been a pretty quiet place. It's a quiet, middle-class area with no history of tragedy. Boys fight, yes. But shoot each other, no. Still, in the 1960s and '70s, the only thing parents used to warn their kids about was, "Stay off Vincennes. It's getting rough over there. The kids from Calumet are getting closer."
I know this because I grew up here. We used to play basketball at Simeon, then walk down Vincennes to 76th Street to eat. Our parents didn't want us walking over there, so we'd always lie when we got home and they'd ask, "Where ya been?" That was the first thing that hit me when I heard Benji had been killed only five blocks from where we ate hamburgers.
I didn't know Benji -- he lived in an adjacent neighborhood. But I do know some of the kids he hung out with and they say he didn't belong to the Disciples, the Vicelords, the Egyptian Cobras, El Rukn, or any of the gangs that have turned the fringe areas of my old neighborhood into an all-out battleground.
The kids at Simeon aren't gangsters. Al Scott, the football coach, said his program sends more players to college (and has more graduates) than any other high school in the city. Simeon has rules that no student can wear any gang insignias in its halls. Students with tatoos have been taken to hospitals to have them removed. "We go so far to keep gang influence out of here that it's probably unconstitutional," Scott said.
From all indications, the person charged with killing Wilson didn't even know he was a basketball player. But those who did know Wilson marveled at his potential. John Thompson, the coach at Georgetown, said recently, "Ben Wilson wasn't just good. He was great."
Wilson visited a De Paul practice recently and made 17 of 20 shots 18 feet from the basket. Nobody else on the De Paul team, which is ranked second in the country, matched him.
The thing about Wilson, though, is that he was smooth. At 6-8, he could dribble and pass like a guard, go to the basket like a big man and think like a player five years older.
He could think the game because he played for a coach, Bob Hambric, who is the Chicago high school version of Indiana Coach Bob Knight.
Hambric saw Wilson come to Simeon as a 5-11 ninth-grader. He was the 12th man on the freshman team. "He only got in the game when it was either already won or already lost," Hambric said, laughing. "But we kept him around because anything might happen with a big man."
Wilson came back the next summer, having grown to 6-3. He bugged Hambric about playing. "He wanted, so badly, to improve and develop," Hambric said. "To what extent, I didn't know at that time. But he asked me what he was doing wrong, how he could improve his game.
"I told him the basic things I tell all the kids and let it go at that. Most of them half-listen and that's the end of them. Ben made me take time with him. From that point on, I recognized his skills and potential and I would work with him before and after practice. Plus, he was dedicated and would do everything you asked."
By the time of his junior year, Wilson had grown to 6-6 and was making Simeon into one of the best high school teams in the country.
He told Terrance Smith, a Simeon baseball star, that he wanted the basketball team to win the city championships, just as the baseball and football teams did.
Mary Wilson peeked into his room one night and heard her son talking into a tape recorder. He was saying, "I'm Ben Wilson. I'm 6 foot 7 and the baddest basketball player in the world and I'm gonna be a professional basketball player."
Wilson would sleep with that tape, play it over and over, and shoot 100 jumpers a day after practice. He told Flynn he would be one of the five best basketball players, and before he could finish the thought, Flynn said, "Oh that's nice, Ben, for you to become one of the five best players in the city." And Wilson said, "No, Mrs. Flynn, I mean one of the five best in the country."
And Flynn recalls saying, only a few days after Wilson had been declared the nation's best high school player, "Oh no, Benji, not the country."
Simeon, with Wilson, won the Illinois AA state championship last season. With him, the Blue Machine would have been ranked the No. 1 team in the nation this season.
Now none of it matters. Most people, when you ask them about Ben Wilson, don't talk about basketball.
Athenia Wimes, a teacher's aide at Simeon, didn't know for the longest time that he was a basketball player. She saw him trying to go to his locker one day when he should have been in class and said, "Ben, it's hard to sneak anywhere at 6-8."
Flynn, who might have taken Wilson's death harder than anyone outside of his family, sees him walking through the halls of Simeon, always smiling.
"He was 6-8, but not the least bit intimidating," she said. "He had dancing eyes and there was just something endearing about him. The whole class would take on his personality. He wanted something out of life and he was willing to go after it."
Wednesday afternoon at Simeon, the Blue Machine played Inglewood. The stands were full of people and Simeon won its 33rd straight, all five of those this season without Wilson.
Bob Hambric has a saying: "It's amazing how much can be accomplished when nobody cares who gets the credit." Wilson's old teammates play that way. They do what Hambric says. They dive on the floor for loose balls, even though the court is concrete covered by only one-eighth inch of rubber and patches of concrete have no rubber at all.
People are wondering how Simeon can be undefeated through all this. They wonder why Hambric decided to have his team play in a Thanksgiving tournament in Rockford the night after Wilson was shot.
Hambric wasn't insensitive. The first person he would see every morning when he walked into his office would be Wilson, sitting in a chair and ready to talk. But he remembered when he was 17, in the same month of November, when his mother died and his Parker High School team was scheduled to play St. Elizabeth's, a city power.
"The coach didn't play me that night because he thought I couldn't function properly," Hambric said. "But a kid fouled out with a couple of minutes left. The coach wanted to win, so he looked at me, and I said, 'Yeah, I'm ready to play.' It must have been some kind of justice that took over because I hit the game-winning basket."
Wilson died Wednesday morning. That night, Simeon beat Evanston.
Hambric spends several hours a day opening cards wishing him well. He wants the senders to know that Wilson was just a regular kid with a talent.
"The biggest problem Ben had was me," Hambric said. "I'd challenge him all the time. He'd pout, stay away from me for a day or two, then come to practice and dunk on everybody, block everybody's shot, run the whole floor. He could do everything Magic could do, except Ben could shoot better.
"You know, I've been trying to figure things out for a week. I really believe he must have been put here for a certain period of time. Something, in some form, was going to happen at age 17 to him. I wonder if he chose this form because he wanted to point to something that was bothering him, all this violence.
"You know, kids get shot down every day in Chicago and, as Jesse Jackson said, become the forgotten kids. But the begotten kid, when that happens, it wakes everybody up."
Wilson's death has had just that effect. Politicians here have acted quicker than they ever have in previously violent times. Anti-handgun petitions and crackdowns on street gangs have come swifter than anyone would have imagined.
Mary Wilson has been so rock-steady that she already has traveled to the state capital to help with the anti-handgun drive.
Hambric says he doesn't think the kids at Simeon are scared. Several youngsters interviewed said they will go about their usual business, even if it means walking down Vincennes past the toughs who've drifted onto the neighborhood street corners.
Terrance Smith, known in the neighborhood as "Spunk," lives about 10 feet from where Wilson was murdered. He didn't hesitate to say he'll be glad when it's time to leave Vincennes and go back to the Pittsburgh Pirates' spring training camp in Florida.
"It's getting so scandalous, so wild around here now," he said. "It just shows you it doesn't make a bit of difference, whether you're a basketball player or anything else. Ball couldn't save him.
"But you know, it still don't make no sense. He was going to college and he was just trying to get on with his life. And I keep thinking, 'Why this man? Why did God have to take this man, a good person with all this talent? Why not take those punks and hoodlums?' It's a puzzle, all right."