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Sports Films to Watch Out For: ‘Benji’, ‘Head Games’

Steve James’s new documentary about sports head injuries screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and a new film about Chicago basketball legend Ben Wilson and his 1984 murder is part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series.

* One of my favorite things in all of television is ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, generally well-made and often quite moving sports documentaries. Around these parts, Steve James’s No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, a very personal film about the basketball star, is probably the best known; I also highly recommend The Best That Never Was, about high school legend Marcus Dupree, and Tim Richmond: To the Limit, the stock-car driver whose death from AIDS was as shocking and significant to southerners as Magic Johnson’s diagnosis was to the country.

Now there’s a forthcoming 30 for 30 about Ben Wilson, Benji, which should be of interest to Chicagoans, and not just sports fans. Wilson was a Simeon star and the top basketball prospect in the country; like future stars Nick Anderson, Bobby Simmons, and Derrick Rose, Wilson wore Simeon jersey 25, a traditional honor on the school’s team. And in 1984, Wilson was shot and killed near the school. In videos, Wilson reminds me of Len Bias (subject of another 30 for 30), whose cocaine overdose was a seminal moment in my childhood and a turning point in the war on drugs. Similarly, Wilson’s murder drew national attention to crime in Chicago, as K.C. Johnson recounted for the Tribune 25 years later. Johnson himself played on an excellent Evanston high school team that Simeon had defeated in the state championship a year before:

Wilson’s death touched a nerve in Chicago and beyond, producing outrage and demands for street violence to end. Roughly 8,000 attended his wake in Simeon’s gym two days after he died. The following day, 10,000 crammed into Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH headquarters for his funeral.

Jackson, Chicago mayor Harold Washington and the world screamed for lessons to be learned from this waste.

I’d kept mine to myself. It was time for that to change.

It runs on ESPN next month. CSN did a short documentary on Wilson awhile back:

* Speaking of Steve James, he’s got a new film out on head injuries in sports (one of my ongoing interests), Head Games.

It screens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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