Can’t-Miss Prospect Who Did Returns at 28
By HOWARD BECKPublished: December 24, 2009
GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Jonathan Bender was the quiet one, introspective and inconspicuous, despite his sinewy 7-foot frame and his outlandish skills. The impromptu dunk contest was not his ideaHoward Beck
Barton Silverman/The New York Times
Jonathan Bender has been reunited with Donnie Walsh, the Knicks’ president, who traded for Bender in Indiana in 1999.
The Indiana Pacers had just finished practice, and one of the veterans wondered if anyone could dunk from the foul line. Jeff Foster, a rookie center, was the first to convert, albeit running full speed from halfcourt.
Coach Larry Bird then turned toward the soft-spoken teenager from Picayune, Miss.: Hey Bender, what about you?
Bender hopped up, jogged toward the foul line and launched himself.
“He took off, jumped with the ball in his right hand, in midair switched to his left hand and did a windmill dunk from the free-throw line,” Bird recalled with a hearty laugh. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Ten years ago, the practice court was a playground, a studio for Bender’s athletic artistry. He soared over the rim. He traded 3-pointers with Bird and Reggie Miller. He drew comparisons to Kevin Garnett, another teen wunderkind with a center’s height and a guard’s skills.
“Of all the guys I’ve ever seen in this league, in 20-plus years, in terms of basketball ability he’s in the top 1 or 2 percent,” said Dallas Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle, who was Bird’s top assistant in Indiana.
If not for chronic knee problems, Bender might be padding a Hall of Fame résumé by now. Instead, he is methodically resurrecting his career, one jump shot at a time, with the rebuilding Knicks.
After four years away from the N.B.A., Bender returned 12 days ago to begin an improbable comeback at age 28. He is bigger and stronger now, and more vulnerable to gravity. But his jumper has lost none of its silkiness.
Bender scored 20 points over his first two games, in just 29 minutes. He made his first four 3-point attempts and drove confidently to the basket. His third game was cut short because of a cranky hip, leaving him questionable for the Knicks’ game against Miami on Friday. The injury is not considered serious. But Bender’s caution is understandable.
When he retired in February 2006, Bender could hardly walk a flight of stairs without intense pain. He had lost most of his cartilage in both knees and had played in just 30 games over his final two and a half seasons. But he never fully surrendered.
“I had in my mind, ‘It ain’t over,’ ” Bender said of his thinking on the day he left the N.B.A. “ ‘I’m going to try it again some day.’ ”
His journey back is filled with the same sense of wonder and inspiration that once accompanied his dunks.
Over the last four years, Bender has recast himself as a businessman and philanthropist — “a social entrepreneur,” in his words — primarily in New Orleans, not far from his hometown, Picayune.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Bender worked with developers and nonprofit groups to restore more than 30 damaged homes. He adopted a flood-ravaged school in Kenner, La., in an impoverished neighborhood near the airport. He had the school library renovated and restocked with new books and computers. He paid for holiday parties and distributed hundreds of presents at Christmas.
“He’s always been a big-hearted person,” said Bender’s sister, Valerie McDowell, who also works for him.
The goal is not just charity, Bender said, but empowerment. He is working with local nonprofit groups and a program at Dillard University to help low-income families eventually purchase the homes he has renovated.
“They learn about budgets, they learn about their credit score and all that stuff,” Bender said. “And then months down the line, maybe years down the line, after they pass those classes and get themselves in order, now we partner up with a bank so they can purchase the house.”
Bender calls this “social self-empowerment.”
“We have to take responsibility to empower them mentally and financially and educate them on how to actually own a house,” he said.
Bender, who never attended college, acquired his business skills solely through hands-on work and an inquisitive mind. He read books and sought out mentor figures. He met with bank presidents and asked a lot of questions.
“I felt dumb, but I learned a lot,” he said. “And I started understanding exactly what they were saying.”
None of this comes as a surprise to the teammates and coaches who worked with Bender during his six and a half seasons in Indiana. Donnie Walsh, who was then running the Pacers, had assembled a group of former high school stars: Bender, Al Harrington and Jermaine O’Neal, each of them bursting with talent and expectations. The three became fast friends. But Bender was different.
“Quiet dude,” said Harrington, now a teammate on the Knicks. “Very serious about his business.”
Carlisle described Bender as pensive and reserved, despite his flashiness on the floor.
“He was not extravagant with spending and those kinds of things,” Carlisle said. “For a kid that was a direct-from-high-school player, he had a wisdom and I guess sort of an awareness of life that was beyond his years.”
Walsh traded Antonio Davis, a valued veteran center, to acquire Bender from the Toronto Raptors, who made him the fifth pick in the 1999 draft. It was the highest any high school star had been drafted to that point, and Bender had the background to justify it.
He averaged 23.1 points, 15 rebounds, 5 blocks and 4 assists in high school and scored 31 points in 31 minutes in the McDonald’s All-American Game, breaking a record held by Michael Jordan.
In his early practices with the Pacers, Bender routinely made plays — a rebound, a block, a dunk — that left teammates awestruck.
“The other guys would stop and go, ‘Did you see what he just did?’ ” said Walsh, who is now the Knicks’ president. “The whole team would stop.”
In his N.B.A. debut, Bender scored 10 points in 13 minutes, helping the Pacers beat the Cleveland Cavaliers. But like most teenage stars, he needed time to grow and adapt to the N.B.A. game and played sparingly as a rookie.
There were flashes of greatness in his second year, including a 20-point, 5-rebound, 4-block game against Orlando, in just 24 minutes. He scored 19 points in 19 minutes in a 2004 playoff victory over Boston, and helped lock down Paul Pierce.
But injuries defined most of Bender’s career. He missed 36 games in 2002-3 because of a torn calf muscle. His knee problems, which began in high school, became more debilitating over time. Bender played just 21 games in 2003-4 and 7 the next season. He played only two games in 2005-6 before retiring.
“It was heartbreaking for everyone,” Carlisle said.
Bender began plotting his return about a year and a half ago. He invented his own resistance training device, Bender Bands (which are now under development at Purdue University), to help strengthen and balance his legs. He also began working with Charles Austin, the former Olympic high jumper, who overcame his own knee problems to win the gold medal in 1996. Bender said he had compensated for the lack of cartilage with an abundance of muscle.
Bender made more than $30 million with the Pacers and has managed his money well. He does not need the N.B.A. for fame or riches or self-fulfillment. Yet here he is, spending hours in the weight room and on the court, working on that picture-perfect jumper, trying to wring another game, another month, another season out of a once-promising career.
There are no lofty goals and no expectations of stardom now, just a Gulf Coast kid empowering himself to dream again. Bender said he wanted to set an example for the underprivileged children he worked with back home, that “you can fight and come back from bad situations.”
“If I fail, I’ll face it,” he said. “But I can’t live with not trying.”