Simeon Career Academy retires No. 25 worn by Ben Wilson and Derrick Rose
Story and photos by Adam Fluck | 11.14.2009
When Derrick Rose was born in the fall of 1988, former Simeon Career Academy standout Ben Wilson should have been preparing for his senior year of college, possibly at the University of Illinois in Champaign. In that scenario, with his high school teammate and best friend, Nick Anderson, at his side, Wilson surely would have flourished at that level.
Instead, Wilson’s life was tragically cut short on November 20, 1984, when he was shot in broad daylight during lunch break just a few steps from his school on 83rd and Vincennes. At the time, Wilson, or Benji as he was called, was regarded as the best player in the country, and his team owned the No. 1 national ranking after capturing the IHSA Class AA State Boys Basketball Championship his junior year.
On Saturday, 25 years later, the school officially retired Wilson’s No. 25. In what became a tradition and an ongoing tribute, the number was reserved for the best Simeon players, including the Bulls' Derrick Rose.
“I was honored to have that number,” said Rose prior to the ceremony. “Playing here and wearing that number came with a lot of responsibilities. You’ve got to go out there and play hard when everybody is coming at you. You’re on the court almost every possession.”
Rose, better known as “Pooh” by nearly everyone at Simeon, and members of his family were on hand as Head Coach Robert Smith and the boys basketball team held their first practice of the year during a Midday Madness event. Three of Wilson’s brothers were also in attendance, along with several of Wilson’s teammates from the 1984 state championship team that went 30-1.
Rose first learned of Wilson’s story during his freshman orientation at Simeon when he read a book by Wilson's mother, Mary, about her son's life.
“It scared me at first, knowing anything can happen,” he recalled. “But you can’t live your life assuming that something is going to happen to you. You just have to take every day and feel blessed that you’re here. Try to put yourself in a safe and positive environment and try to do everything right.
“It can all be taken away from you just like that,” Rose added.
To this day, Smith shows his players tape of Wilson from the team’s 1984 semifinal matchup in Champaign to help them understand and get a sense of how he played.
“He was before his time,” said Rose of Wilson, citing his size and versatility.
The day was also without Bob Hambric, Simeon’s legendary coach who won 551 games in 24 years and never had a losing season. He passed away in August at the age of 69 after a long battle with cancer. Smith was Hambric’s assistant and took over upon his retirement in 2004. Behind Rose’s leadership, Simeon won back to back state championships in 2006 and 2007.
“He took me under his wing when I was a player for him and as a coach,” said Smith. “He taught me the right way to do things. It’s hard not to see him on the sidelines. We’re definitely dedicating this season for him and hopefully we can win a state championship for him.”
For Rose, the jersey ceremony was special, but so was the simplicity of going back to Simeon. He ranks the team’s two state championships at the top of his growing list of accomplishments – at least until an NBA title trumps them. But he misses the little things as much as anything.
“Just having fun,” Rose said of his time at Simeon. “Sometimes I reminisce and want to go back. Just to be around my friends and walk through the hallways.”
With the official retirement of No. 25 at Simeon, a longtime tradition comes to an end. But a new one is just beginning. Effective this season, the team’s best player will wear No. 1, a tip of the cap to Rose, of course. Point guard Tywon Pickney owns the honor of wearing it this year, while freshman Jabari Parker, who Smith expects to be one of the best players in the country, is next in line.
Given Wilson’s legacy and Rose’s success, they’ve got big shoes to fill. So how does Smith respond when his players ask him about Wilson?
“I tell them he was Magic Johnson,” said Smith. “He could put the ball on the floor and shoot the three. He could do a lot of things. Even though there wasn’t a three-point line when he was playing, he shot the ball well from the perimeter. He played all five positions and that’s what we instilled in players who wore that number. We want them to be all-around basketball players.”
In many ways, Rose is living the life that Wilson never got to experience.
“That’s why we gave him the number,” said Smith. “That’s what we expected from the guys who wore it. Some of them made it, some didn’t. But Derrick definitely upheld the number the way it should have been. He did the things we thought he was going to do with it.”
The game of basketball was deprived 25 years ago when Wilson lost his life and the chance to carry on with his career. But for Derrick Rose and all of those who put on a Simeon jersey, his memory lives on as a constant symbol of hope.