"Fit to be a star
Bender hopes to smash injury bug with workout regimen
Indiana's Jonathan Bender (24) has averaged just 5.7 points and 2.2 rebounds in five NBA seasons. Offseason work could help him turn the corner. -- Sam Riche / The Star
Pacers season preview
By Mark Montieth
October 31, 2004
Call Jonathan Bender on his cell phone and this is what you hear: "This is J.B., also known as the Golden Child. Greatest Show on Earth coming soon, 2004-2005. Holler at your boy."
It's quite a stance from a player who has averaged 5.7 points over five NBA seasons . . . a player who has missed 89 games the past two seasons because of injuries . . . a player who hasn't come close to living up to the expectations of someone taken out of high school with the fifth pick in the 1999 draft.
Golden Child? Many Indiana Pacers fans view Bender more like a rusted-out appliance, a 7-foot lemon that broke down before it became useful.
Greatest Show on Earth? Bender was compared to Kevin Garnett coming out of high school, but he has yet to become even the next Al Harrington, whom the Pacers drafted a year before him.
As his voice greeting indicates, the 23-year-old Bender remains undaunted. He is coming off his most productive offseason, one spent with noted fitness guru Mackie Shilstone in New Orleans. And while Bender's inner motivational reserve appears to be greater than people might assume because of his laid-back demeanor and history of lingering injuries, he also finds outside sources of inspiration when needed.
One is "Golden Child," the 1986 movie starring Eddie Murphy. It tells the story of a wonder child with magical powers who is kidnapped. Only Murphy's character can free him.
Bender can relate to the kid's plight. But unlike the boy in the story, he hasn't waited for a savior.
"I felt like everybody I've touched has been aiming toward helping me, but I had to help myself first," Bender said.
Bender started that process by hiring Shilstone for two months of intensive work in August and September. Shilstone, who calls himself a sports performance manager, has trained more than 1,000 professional athletes. His clients have included boxing champions Roy Jones Jr. and Riddick Bowe, baseball Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith and NBA players such as P.J. Brown, Ralph Sampson, Donyell Marshall and Marcus Camby.
Shilstone says he put 38 pounds on former NBA center Manute Bol early in the 7-6 center's career, and took 25 pounds off New Jersey forward Rodney Rogers last year.
Bender needed weight. He was listed at 202 as a rookie and just under 220 at the end of last season. After working with Shilstone, he plans to play around 235 this season.
They got there through a five-day-a-week program. Working at Tulane University and Shilstone's facility, Bender embarked on an ambitious, tailored schedule of running, weightlifting and plyometrics.
"I got a trainer that everybody hates to work with," said Bender, who worked with Shilstone after his senior year in high school but then struck out on his own. "He's one of those type of guys where you say, 'I don't think I'm going to work out with him.'
"He pushed the hell out of me and I pushed myself. I don't back down from a challenge."
As an example of the technical nature of Shilstone's regimen, he and Bender warmed up every morning at 9 with a mile run. Bender wore a heart monitor, and Shilstone was able to receive a radio signal that provided Bender's heart rate. They tried to keep it at 162 -- an approximate target heart rate for young professional athletes wanting to improve their cardiovascular system -- and made sure not to go over 175, a level that provided no additional benefit.
"On Mondays, just by looking at the heart rate, it would tell me what kind of weekend he had and if he didn't eat enough," Shilstone said.
The weightlifting was functional in nature, with emphasis on core stabilization. Bender performed his weight training while walking or while mimicking shooting, passing and rebounding motions. For example, he would drop his legs to a quarter squat while holding weights and then lift his arms above his head as if shooting.
Bender also learned more about nutrition. Through testing, Shilstone discovered he wasn't getting enough carbohydrates. So Bender began drinking more water, switched to a sports drink better suited to his body's needs and ate more bananas.
Bender says that simple change has enabled him to maintain his weight and store more energy.
"I never used to think fluids were that important," he said. "I used to only drink them when I was tired. Now I pay attention to how many ounces I drink every day to keep myself hydrated."
Point of emphasis
With the trade of Harrington to Atlanta for Stephen Jackson, Bender figures to get his first opportunity for consistent and extended playing time this season. For that reason, along with his vast reservoir of untapped potential, he was the focal point of the Pacers' offseason.
Coach Rick Carlisle, special assistant Chuck Person and conditioning coach Bill Dean combined to make several trips to New Orleans to monitor his progress and help work him out, and Shilstone was in constant communication with the Pacers' training staff and front office.
"I've never seen an organization devote so much attention to a player as the Pacers have," Shilstone said.
It's no wonder. The Pacers extended Bender a four-year, $27 million contract that went into effect last season. He'll be the team's third-highest-paid player this season, behind Jermaine O'Neal and Austin Croshere.
Given what they owe him, and his potential as a 7-footer with a 39-inch vertical jump and 3-point shooting range, they don't want to let anything go to waste.
Neither does he, despite the impression that might have been given while he has been watching games in street clothes while on the injured list much of the past two seasons.
Bender broke his right wrist in his first preseason game as a rookie and was on the injured list for the first 17 regular-season games. He missed just one game to injury the next season and none in his third season. He missed 30 games because of a strained calf muscle his fourth season and 59 games last season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in October.
Carlisle and others in the Pacers' franchise who have witnessed Bender's summer workouts don't question his pride or work ethic. And they write off his injuries to ill fortune.
"He's had bad luck; he really has," Carlisle said. "His injuries have been the result of bad luck and situations. They're not congenital, degenerative things. He's just been in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Shilstone, who calls Bender "one of the most gifted athletes that I've seen," agrees, and offers an example of his recent streak of flawed fate.
Bender went to Atlanta one weekend over the summer to escape the hurricanes that were forecast to hit New Orleans. They hit Atlanta instead. Not only that, Bender collided with Hawks guard Jon Barry in a pickup game and bruised his left knee, an injury that kept him out of most of the preseason workouts.
Carlisle, however, believes this might be the year for cursed athletes to prosper.
"I just happen to believe that if the Red Sox can beat the Yankees, then Jonathan Bender can get to the point where the injury bug goes away for him," he said. "I'm optimistic this can be the year.""