The best high school basketball player in the country once played…in the Quad Cities

ROCK ISLAND, Illinois--- ESPN's critically acclaimed 30 for 30 series often start out with the line, 'What if I told you...'

What if I told you the line above...and finished it with the title to this story above?

March 23, 1984

Ben Wilson, a 6'7" forward, also known as Benji, was a junior for the Chicago Simeon basketball team. His team, 27-1 at the time and the Chicago Public League Champions, were playing in the Illinois State Quarterfinals on the day above. Who was playing them? None other...than the Rock Island Rocks.

John Gunter and his daughter Barbara were in the stands that day, cheering on the Rocks, but the two had a much stronger connection to the game.

"Because Benji and I are the same age, I'm a junior at Rocky at the time, and he's a junior at Simeon," Barbara Lewis said.

Wilson and Lewis are first cousins while Gunter is Benji's uncle. We showed them a copy of the game we received from two of Rocky's '84 players, Devon Binion and Kedric Prince.

"Some of the things that he was doing early on in that game weren't things that a 6'7" guy would be doing," Binion recalled. "It was actually things that we had never seen the entire season, like putting the ball on the floor, floating in with a soft touch, rebounding, blocking shots. He did everything."

On March 23, Benji lead all scorers with 16 points. The Wolverines beat the Rocks by just four that day, going on to win the state championship that year.

"The state tournament was Benji's coming out party," Prince said. "It was also his opportunity to showcase in front of all the media and the state of Illinois how well he could play, how good of a shooter he was, how he could block shots, defend and play, and he was confident at what he could do."

In July of that year, he was named the best basketball player in the country, and things were riding high into his senior year, but later that fall, things took a turn for the worst.

November 20, 1984

"We were actually going to go to Chicago for Thanksgiving," Lewis said. "I remember my sister Cheryl and I coming home from school. We were going to go to the mall, and get some stuff and get ready to go, and my dad was like, 'Benji's been shot.'"

The following morning, Benji died after he was shot outside his high school after a run-in with two kids from another school. The story made headlines across the country.

"You hear people talk about what he could have been, what this and what that," Gunter said. "To me, he was just my nephew, and he was good at basketball."

What you may not have known

Benji would come to the Quad Cities as a kid and hang out with his cousin Barbara. Both she and her dad have memories of him coming over in the summer, and they'd get together at their family home on 12th Street in Rock Island.

Benji would play basketball at the old Hawthorn Irving Elementary, which is now the Rock Island Academy. At the time, people like Prince had no idea he was here.

"How we missed him being here is weird because we played all over, everywhere," Prince said. "Knowing the fact that he was here in the Quad Cities is kind of a unique situation. I knew he had family here later in life, but to know that he played here in the parks is unique because I would have loved to have been a part of that, and just knowing that we could have played with him."

Watching games like the one from March 23, 1984, are hard for Gunter and Lewis to do, but they're also glad his legacy lives on through the Quad Cities, to this day.

"We all know what probably could have been, but still, it's in the past now," Gunter said. "That's the way I look at it. It's a part of history."

You may have heard of Ben Wilson's story for 30 for 30 documentary on him. ESPN featured him in a documentary back in 2012. Much of the video from Assembly Hall is of Simeon's game against Rock Island.

In the 30 for 30,  directors Coodie & Chike say, Simeon 'coasted through the first game,' but that's not true at all. Rocky had a chance to make it a two-point game with just :44 left. As stated above, the Rocks lost by just four. That would be the closest game Simeon played in the state tournament that year. Simeon beat Aurora West 67-58 in the state semifinals and Evanston Township 53-47 in the state final.

What could have been? 

Many wonder how far Wilson could have gone had he not been shot and killed. In his immediate future was a chance to play college basketball after his senior season. In our interview with Prince, he believed Wilson would have gone to the University of Illinois to play for Lou Henson, but many times during our interview with Lewis, she believes her first cousin would have gone to the University of Indiana to play for Bobby Knight. The Hoosiers went on to win the national championship in 1987. Wilson, would have been a sophomore in college.

For more on Ben Wilson's story, click here.

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