The death of a young athlete inspires a specific kind of tragedy, born partly from the reminder that even the youngest, most athletic bodies are mortal. More haunting, though, is the notion of unrealized potential—what greatness could this athlete have achieved? The question lies at the heart of Benji, a documentary that revisits the murder of 1980s high school basketball phenom Ben Wilson.
In 1984, Wilson was a 6’8” senior at Simeon Vocational High School in Chicago’s South Side. Ranked by a talent scout as the nation’s top high school basketball player, he was a local celebrity and a strong prospect for coaches around the country. In November of that year, however, he was fatally shot just blocks from school—by a volatile youth who he’d accidentally bumped into. Thousands attended his wake while the media cited the story as an example of growing street violence. Since then, pros like Derrick Rose have adopted Wilson’s shirt number, 25, in his memory.
Benji, which premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, is ultimately too rhapsodic—Wilson’s legacy could easily have been preserved without so much mythologizing. In the end, though, it effectively captures that wistful sense of what-if: What if Benji had lived? He would be 45 years old, perhaps a retired pro like his classmate Nick Anderson of the Orlando Magic. Or perhaps he’d have burned out early. It’s a futile question but a powerful one that gets asked time and time again when athletes die in their prime.