Among Pacer fans, Jonathan Bender is a lightning rod. Some consider him a draft bust who never lived up to his potential. Others see a uniquely gifted 7-footer who would have wowed NBA crowds for years if he had better knees.
The truth is likely somewhere in between, but regardless, the onerous contract extension he was given and the chronic injuries he suffered make him a poster boy of sorts for the post-Malice at the Palace Pacers. From Jermaine O’Neal and Jamaal Tinsley to Mike Dunleavy and TJ Ford, it seems that most every notable Pacer of the past five years has been either too injured or too highly paid to help the franchise remove the Eeyore raincloud that has followed the team ever since November 2004.
For Bender, a comeback would help end the talk about what he could have been and allow him to find out what he still is.
“I didn’t want the windows to close on me,” Bender said. “I wanted the opportunity to fight off the demons inside my head … I read these articles that say, ‘He’s the top bust’ or ‘He’s one of the guys who didn’t live up to their potential.’ I don’t want to be 38 or 40 looking back thinking, ‘I should’ve done this.’ “
For Bender, this was a place he never thought he would be. He was 6’7″ at a 13-years-old, eventually growing to a full 6’11″‘ with a vertical leap of 39 inches. He played on the perimeter and had a jumpshot and ball-handling ability that wowed every scout who ever saw him. Back when he was in high school, people thought he could be Kevin Garnett with range. He was supposed to be Dirk Nowitzki with a first step. He was going to be Kevin Durant.
But the cartilage in his knees failed and he was never able to evolve as a player, eventually retiring in 2006 at 25 years old after seven mediocre seasons with Indiana (with him only playing a combined 31 games during his last three “seasons”). In some ways, however, his faulty joints were a blessing in disguise. Soon after he hung up his kicks, he founded the nonprofit Jonathan Bender Foundation and the for-profit Jonathan Bender Enterprises, both of which had a mission of helping rebuild and restore the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In addition to “adopting” local elementary schools and helping young kids improve their educations and overall well-being, Bender’s companies also worked to rebuild homes and sell them to local residents.
Once the properties are completed, Bender’s real-estate management company makes them available for leasing. He’s started with close to 40, and says almost every resident is so happy with their property that they want to buy it. So Bender plans to help them toward that goal as well, having recently partnered with several banks and major corporations to aid in financial assistance and offer the residents free financial literacy courses with community/civic training. “That’s why my foundation has started the home-ownership piece, so we can teach,” Bender says. “Why would you turn down someone who’s going to help you learn about your down payment and managing it?”
According to at least a few area citizens, the Mississippi kid who once had ceiling-less basketball talent has made a much bigger difference off the court than he ever could have done while wearing a jersey.
“If you look around at certain areas in New Orleans, they haven’t been touched, and it’s been over three years,” says Sanchez Goss, Bender’s personal assistant and close friend since childhood. “Jonathan is trying to put it all on him. He’s one man doing something great.”
His impact is starting to be recognized by the community at large, many of whom say Bender is doing more for New Orleans than the state or local government. “I love this kid; he’s just a movement,” Major says. “He’s making people really want to move back to a place we need them.”
Still, despite all his post-basketball success; once a baller, always a baller.
Jonathan has the itch again and is planning to work out rigorously over the next few months in an attempt to make it back to the League. Hopefully, Bender gets everything he needs out of this comeback attempt. Former Pacer GM and current Knick head honcho Donnie Walsh, for one, has already reportedly expressed interest in taking another look at his former player.
Given all the physical stress he’s had to suffer through, it’s hard to believe we’ll ever see him play again, but I’ll definitely be rooting for the guy.
Even if he never makes it back and even though his Pacer years will always be bittersweet, today seems like a good time to just sit back and watch Jonathan dunk on some people’s heads.