There is a lot going on in the head of Jonathan Bender. It has always been that way.
When he was a 10th grader at Picayune Memorial High School in Mississippi he was making his plan to be an NBA player. After he completed that task he sat in his car quietly in front of then Pacers team owner Mel Simon’s home, thinking of the difference between “getting paid and making money,” as Bender put it. When his knees failed him and interrupted his playing career, he was trying to find a way to help himself deal with the many injuries he suffered.
Bender is always thinking two steps ahead. He may be described as a former NBA player but he’s been looking beyond that for quiet some time.
“Blazing my own trail. I was on the beginning of my path, and basketball was a stepping-stone. Basketball was my endgame before when I was in high school.“ Bender said. “When I got there and started looking at the businesspeople and the game that really mattered, it wasn’t my endgame anymore. I had a new one and the device has helped me get towards my new endgame.”
The endgame became even more clear when the idea for what became the JBIT MedPro came to him one day in Houston, but it took time to get it from just being an idea to being a product ready for market.
“I knew what I put my mind to would work. I knew I just needed to use my creativity in a better way,” Bender said. “I said, ‘OK, how can I turn this into a product and a business?’ That’s when the research really began.”
But this shouldn’t be too surprising, as he’s always looking for what’s next, always looking to take another step in the right direction. He’s always observing and planning, just as he did on the court. The last seven years he’d been doing research for his product, but for years before that he appeared to be “researching”everything in his life as he watched carefully.
Milk and Donuts
In his sophomore year in high school, he had set his goal to play in the NBA, and just a few years later the Pacers traded for his draft rights from the Toronto Raptors for Antonio Davis. As the fifth overall pick, Bender worked on transitioning from chasing a dream and completing a goal to getting used to it now being a job.
His new boss? Larry Bird.
“It was cool, but when I was young I didn’t watch a lot of basketball, so I wasn’t caught up in a lot of that. I played it so I was always outside,” Bender said with a bit of a laugh. “You have to understand since then I planned on getting to the highest level of what I was doing. So that’s how I trained, approached practice, every game. So when it happened, it wasn’t out of the blue, it was part of the plan. But it was an amazing experience.”
He may not have worshipped Bird the way the people of the Hoosier State did, but he was certainly listening to Larry Legend. Their working relationship began with Bird flying down to New Orleans to watch Bender work out before the draft.
“When I first met him he was a cool and quiet guy,” Bender said.“He took me under his wing and took me through different shooting drills and different lessons of the game, and really helped me as a basketball player.”
As always, Bender was paying attention to more than just Bird was telling him; he was also watching how Bird worked with the team.
“He wasn’t trying to be over controlling. He left you space to do your thing. Same thing with the assistants. He left space for them to come in and give their opinions. He didn’t treat them as minions. He valued their opinions and as a leader made decisions collectively for the betterment of the team.”
Those lessons in management would be filed away for another day as Bender adjusted in his transition from a high school star to an NBA rookie in Indianapolis.
“Anything coming out of Picayune was big,” Bender said. “I did think it was cold though so I quickly worked on making myself comfortable at home. I thought it was cool though and I enjoyed it.”
Bender had a strong debut in 1999 as he scored 10 points in 13 minutes against Cleveland on December 10, the first time a player coming directly out of high school had scored double digits in their debut. Despite the success, he had to fight for minutes in a rotation with Reggie Miller, Chris Mullen and Jalen Rose. Not to mention if Bird wanted to move him to the forward spot he would have been splitting time with Ron Artest or Al Harrington.
“I was playing the two, three and four, but mostly the two and backing up Reggie a lot, so I was running from one end to the other,” Bender said.
Of course, being a rookie came with other challenges as well. One of those was keeping the veteran players happy.
“Being the rookie, I had to go get donuts every morning. I had to go way out of my way to Krispy Kreme; that’s what the specified they wanted, and I had to bring that to practice every morning,” Bender said. “Just something you got to do for the vets: carry bags and get Krispy Kreme.”
Bender joked that they took it easier on the other rookie, Jeff Foster.
“He just had to get milk. He could just stock his refrigerator up at night and then bring it in there,” Bender said
That year the Pacers advanced to the NBA Finals to face the Los Angeles Lakers, putting the young rookie under the bright lights in Hollywood.
“We went that far the first year, so I thought that was going to be the norm,” Bender said. “The lights were definitely brighter being in LA.”
Part of the appeal of Los Angeles is all the stars, and Bender said he particularly remembered seeing Beyonce before one of the games.
“It was just a huge stage. All the lights, all the actors. It was a who’s who at the game sitting on the sidelines watching us,” Bender said.
The Pacers eventually lost the series 4-2 to a Lakers team that included Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant as well as Robert Horry and Rick Fox.
His sophomore season, he spent more time on the floor but Indiana spent less time in the playoffs as the Philadelphia 76ers eliminated the Pacers in the first round. However, one of his highlights that season included his appearance in All-Star Weekends Dunk Contest, where he threw down a Dr. J style dunk from the free throw line.
In the 2001-02 season, Pacers fans began to get more of a glimpse of what Bender was capable of. He played just over 21 minutes a game, averaging 7.4 points while shooting a .538 True shooting percentage. Unfortunately the Pacers were eliminated in the first round, this time by the New Jersey Nets.
Bender continued to improve as a player in 2002-03, but the knee issues were starting to become more and more apparent as he went from playing in 78 games the year before to only 46. The playoffs were another disappointment as Indiana was eliminated by the Boston Celtics in the first round.
“It is not as frustrating now knowing it was for a bigger purpose. Obviously I had to go through that, and it was frustrating, but now I know why it happened. If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be doing this today,” Bender said.
Bender said he’s a Christian and that helped him see it all as part of a bigger plan for him now, but doesn’t deny it wasn’t easy to deal with it. “Of course if I look back and put myself in that space; yes it was frustrating.”
In the 2003-04 season Bender posted his career best 15.7 PER and continued to shoot well but his knees limited him to only 21 games. In the playoffs that season Bender had 19 points against Boston to help win Game 3 in the first round sweep of the Celtics.
“That was very cool,” Bender said. “It actually felt pretty easy, it was pretty simple. But I had fun doing it.”
After next dispatching the Miami Heat the Pacers advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals to face the Detroit Pistons. Both squads grinded out a six game series, but Indiana lost to the eventual champions.
“Mr. Big Shot for the Pistons, I remember him causing problems, and Ben Wallace; those were good times,” Bender said.
A year later the two teams again made headlines, but for all the wrong reasons.
“I remember Ron (World Peace) running into the stands, so those were some weird times,” Bender said. In the oral history of the “Malice in the Palace” on Grantland, Bender said he was trying to get in front of O’Neal after he dropped a charging Pistons fan with a punch, forcing Bender to play peacemaker. Unfortunately that was one of the last times people would glimpse Bender with the Pacers. He only saw the court seven times in the 2005-06 season and two the next. He was waived by Indiana in 2006 and it appeared his time in the NBA was over for good.
He had been expecting to play basketball for a long time, but obviously that was not the case anymore.
“At that point it didn’t even matter,” Bender said. He said the injury problems had already been causing him to start planning ahead for life after basketball. He said it was tough, but not as tough as you might expect when it was time to leave. “I was frustrated because of the injuries, and mentality I was frustrated because I had seen a different vision of what my endgame was suppose to be.”
A Second Career
Even before the injury, he knew a career in the NBA wasn’t something he could plan on for the long term. Years before he drove to Mel Simon’s house and began to think about how the team’s owner had made his money. Bender said that moment in front of the Pacers owner’s house grew into him wanting to build, create, and own something.
“It overtook me. I wanted to be have the power to be able to give back to others and provide opportunities to others. From then on my mission in life became to find that next thing,” Bender said.
Bender researched how Simon had made his money and began to make plans of his own. He had some missteps with a record label, concert promotions and real estate, but he always tried to remember to learn from those mistakes and keep thinking about what’s next.
In 2007, he was a year out of the NBA and still looking for traction in the business world. But on a park bench in Houston he had his moment of clarity both in wanting to physically help himself and for his financial future. He watched the movement of people walking an running around and recalled all the time he had spent with trainers working on his own knees and it hit him. He said he had always loved working with resistance training and cords so he began to think how he could use a resistance cord to engage the quads, glutes and hip muscles, the ones that had been the source of his own problems. His brain began putting it all together, and he went to a drugstore to pick up the parts he needed to bring his idea to light.
“I’m very visual; I was drawing in my mind in the same time while I was watching these people,” Bender said. In his head he pieced together the bands, belts and braces that would make up his device, even a little duct tape and zip ties to hold it together as he began to test it on himself.
While he was sure from his own experience that his device worked, he knew it was going to take more than the word of a retired athlete to get it to market.
“I had done my research, I had gone to humans, the people who had these problems, and tested it over and over,” Bender said. “I actually got paranoid that people were just telling me this just because I was a basketball player and they didn’t want to stomp on my idea. I was having third parties do it and making sure they didn’t say I had anything to do with it.”
He knew the testimonials weren’t enough either, so in 2010 the device was tested at Purdue University, and the testing confirmed that yes, it was taking weight off the knees. He said it also has been shown to bring relief to the back and other areas of the lower body, as well as it helping evenly distribute the forces and pressure on the body.
“I wasn’t surprised when the results come back,” Bender said. “I hustle and get in and grind and do my research. I knew the research (at Purdue) would help it cover more ground, but I had been doing my own before then.”
Bender has made sure people know this isn’t a George Foreman Grill type of celebrity endorsement; it is the fruit of his labors. “You have to fail to learn. Once I learned that, it got easier. It is just another chance to get better.” Bender said. “The idea was easy; it took five minutes. Doing what I had to do to prepare to bring it to market is the hard part. But it’s fun.”
Part of the process of bringing it to market was learning about the ins and outs of the business world. That part of the process included brushing up on his golf game. He used that as a tool to meet and pick the brains of businessmen.
“I’m a 26-year-old African American kid coming from a small town; I didn’t have a lot in common with big business people, but I was taught the game of golf by my father figure, Billy Ray Hobley. He told me to learn this game because it is going to take me a long way. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I did later on.”
Hobley, a former Harlem Globetrotter, had taught Bender about basketball and life from when Bender was in high school until Hobley died in 2002. Bender credits his drive and the things Hobley shared with him to what he became as a man. Learning the game of golf was one of those things, and Bender used it to open doors to the business world. Despite coming from a different background from many of his fellow businessmen,the common bond of golf was all he needed and he began to ask as many question as he could think of.
Now he’s out working to make his company a success story as he tells people about what his device did for him. How it helped get him back on an NBA roster with the New York Knicks in the 2009-10 season, when he played 25 games. A finger injury and his drive to get back into business led him back out of the league but perhaps he had already made his point. He turned down any further contracts despite interest in him the following season. Bender admitted part of the reason he did make a comeback was because he wasn’t sure of his business interests.
“A little fear had creep in. You were the fifth pick in the draft, and you are now trying all these things outside of basketball and nothing is working, so you wonder if you did make the right choice,” Bender said.
Considering his season back in the NBA came in 2009, a year after the biggest economic downturnin American since the Great Depression, it’s hard to blame him for wanting make sure he still had that option available.
But it wasn’t the way he was playing on the court that made him decide to leave.
“I had felt like I had taken 20 steps back as far as the other things I wanted to accomplish, and only because of fear,” Bender said. He said he enjoyed New York, but it and the NBA weren’t his home anymore.
Keeping an eye on basketball
He’s still keeping tabs on the current Pacers squad while he travels around the country.
“I think the squad is strong when they’re together and they can go all the way. I think it has been their focus. It isn’t something the coach can do. It is something they have to do collectively. They have to come together as a team and get the chemistry back to where they first started. There isn’t anything wrong there; they just have to sync back up.” Bender said. “It has to be something that they do collectively.”
The next step
Right now he’s focused on keeping the Jonathan Bender Foundation going and getting his product out to the masses. He’s looking to produce a more sporty model of his device for athletes. The current device is set up specifically for the medical benefits but when the company releases the sports model in the future, people will see a heavier duty model made to not just take pressure off the knees, but to make the user a better athlete. He said he’s looking forward to getting back in the world of sports with the new version of the product.
While he’s proud of his time in the NBA, it is part of his past and more importantly it is part of his learning experiences.
When you talk to Bender, you don’t get any impression that he thinks about the “what if’s” or what could have been his basketball career. He’s fine with being a former player. He sees it as a stepping stone to where he is now.
“Without basketball I wouldn’t be here. Without basketball, I wouldn’t have been in Indiana, without it I wouldn’t have seen the Simons, I wouldn’t have been able to research them. I wouldn’t have had my vision changed. I had to go through basketball, so I’ll always be fine with being ‘former NBA player.”
And judging from Bender’s past, he’s probably planning his next few steps as well.