I was filling out my brackets the other day in my annual futile attempt to prove my basketball prescience, and the site asked me for a team name. After a few seconds of trying to be too clever, and then some reflection of what “college hoops” meant to me, I typed in the words “Number 25” as my team name. You see, I went to Illinois.
Ben Wilson played ball for the legendary Simeon Vocational High School in Chicago in the early 80’s and was the top prep prospect nationwide at the time - rumors at the time were that he was leaning toward playing at Illinois. They say he would have been another Magic Johnson - a 6’7” all-court magician while still just a junior in high school.
Ben was shot and killed one November afternoon outside his school in a run-in with some local kids. It was a huge story at the time - discussions of inner city violence, Jesse Jackson got involved, talk of what could have and should have been. It was all very sad.
Ben wore number 25. Since then, many top Simeon players have worn number 25 - some of the more prominent being Nick Anderson (who went on to play in a Final Four at Illinois and was the first pick of the Orlando Magic franchise in 1989) and Derrick Rose (who lights up cold Chicago nights for the Bulls not far from where Ben played). Many Illinois players have worn it since with pride. There is no number 25 on the roster at Illinois this year. But there will be again.
You may have seen it, but for those who want to go a little deeper on this, there is an amazing ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about the whole Ben Wilson story.
Illinois plays Colorado at 4:40pm EST today in Austin. I’ll be rooting for them like I always do, and remembering all the great players the school has had over the years - and one that they might have had.