Q and A with Bob Sakamoto about Benjamin “Benji” Wilson

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Last month, ESPN aired a special 30 for 30 documentary “Benji,” about Benjamin Wilson, a basketball star at Simeon High School, who was the first Chicago-area player to be ranked number one in the nation. He led the school to its first state title in his junior year and was considering DePaul as a prospective college he would attend. However, that all changed on Nov. 20, 1984. Wilson died of gunshot wounds that night after an altercation outside of his school, leaving one of the most talked about legacies in Chicago history.

DePaul’s own Bob Sakamoto, assistant director of media relations for DePaul athletics, actually lived directly with the story, and the DePaulia sat down with him to talk about his experience with Benji.

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The DePaulia:Talk about the experience you had covering Benji.

Sakamoto:I was a sports writer for the Tribune for 32 years. In 1983, I saw a lot of Benji’s games and Mabrick (Coach of Simeon at time) had a policy where his players weren’t allowed to talk to media. He thought they’d be portrayed poorly and the players would be trash talking other teams to the media. Ben and I talked informally and Wilson asked just to talk on the phone once a month about basketball and his life. He might have just wanted to be friends with someone in the media but everything was off the record.

In 1984, the summer before his senior year, I was put on the Bulls beat. I was traveling with the Bulls, but the Saturday before he died, Ben told me he was going to the game at home. I told him he could come down to the locker room to meet up with Michael Jordan since that was his first year there. He met Michael and I told him that he was the number one high school player in America and they chatted about basketball. That night was the last time I ever saw him. I didn’t help write the story of his death, I might have been on the road but I was stunned. The Ben I knew was not the Ben I heard about. It was just a horrible thing to happen. A young man with so much talent and so much promise, it never seemed like he could hurt anyone. He reminds me of Derrick Rose in so many ways. He didn’t try to act like a thug, and he just tried to be modest.

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DP:What did you know about Ben Wilson at the time as a player? How about as a person?

BS:I covered him when he was coming up. He wasn’t the most dominant player, but you could see the potential.  Simeon’s such a team-oriented program, so because of the program, Ben could have been scoring 25 points a game his sophomore year. That all changed around his junior year.

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DP:How did the story of his death affect you? What affect did it have in Chicago?

BS:It really hit home a couple days later. I suddenly realized he wasn’t going to call me anymore. It’s not often the number one player of the country is in Chicago, so for that to happen like that is a real tragedy. It’s not like he died from cancer or a car accident. Someone consciously took his life away. One thing I didn’t know that I learned from the 30 for 30 was that it took that long to treat him, but with the technology today they could have saved him. It’s a shame someone got to the top of the mountain of basketball and got it taken away.

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DP:What was your opinion of the “Benji” documentary?

BS:I think they did a really good job at it. The actual footage was great. I always think of the scene in the locker room where they are just lost when they are told that Benji got shot. The one time someone comes along to brighten up those kids lives, it gets taken away and these kids were probably just thinking that there’s no hope.

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DP:What do you think DePaul’s basketball players could learn from this story?

BS:I think the most important lesson is to not take your gifts for granted. Whatever teams you are playing for, savor it and cherish it. In an instant, it could all be taken away. Appreciate the life you have. A tribute to his legacy is the people who pass on his name and his story. Hopefully young athletes should learn that like Rose and Parker did. His memory will never fade.