Prior to the Wizards-Knicks game, Rashad Mobley of Hoops Addict and myself stopped to chat with Jonathan Bender of the New York Knicks, a man on a long-shot comeback attempt. Rashad has his piece posted on Hoops Addict, mine is posted below.
Jonathan Bender broke Michael Jordan’s McDonald’s All-American game scoring record when he dropped 31 points in the 1999 game, besting his Airness by one point.
That performance was on the stage Bender needed to forgo his verbal commitment to Mississippi State University and enter the NBA draft, becoming who I believe is the first modern-day high school player to jump to the NBA after actually committing to a school. They say Kobe Bryant would have gone to Duke, but he never offered his commitment. Today, despite being called one of the 20 biggest busts in modern NBA draft history by Sports Illustrated in 2005, Bender doesn’t think twice about the choice he made over 10 years ago to follow in the prep-to-pros footsteps of those such as Kevin Garnett.
“Once I made the decision, it was made,” Bender said without hesitation from the Knicks locker room before last Saturday’s match-up against the Wizards.
Just three seasons removed from an appearance in the 1996 Final Four, that 1999-2000 Mississippi State Bulldogs team Bender would have played on had some talent, such as Derrick Zimmerman and Tang Hamilton, both of whom had brushes with the NBA, and Robert Jackson, who later transferred to Marquette, becoming a 2nd Team All-Conference USA performer and joining Dwyane Wade to lead the Golden Eagles to the 2003 Final Four.
Reeling from losing out on Bender, Coach Rick Stansbury‘s Bulldogs underachieved, finishing the season with a 14-16 record. Stansbury is currently in his 12th season with the school and has an all-time record of 247-133 and counting. That ’99-00 season, his second as head coach, was the only below .500 campaign of Stansbury’s tenure. The coach also has the distinction of getting two other high school players, Travis Outlaw and Monta Ellis, to commit to his program, only to see them opt for the NBA draft instead. I don’t think any other college coach has that closely missed out on so much talent which never ended up seeing an NCAA court.
“We would have been real good, everyone was long and athletic. It would have been a good system,” said Bender of Mississippi State’s prospects had he attended there. A player of Bender’s stature surely would have helped the Bulldogs stand out amongst the other stars of the SEC conference in that day, such as Chris Porter (Auburn), Joe Johnson (Arkansas), Stromile Swift (LSU), Marcus Haslip (Tennessee), Dan Langhi (Vanderbilt), Udonis Haslem (Florida), Tayshaun Prince (Kentucky), Keith Bogans (Kentucky), Jamaal Magloire (Kentucky), current Wizard Mike Miller (Florida), and former Wizards draftee, Rod Grizzard (Alabama).
On how much breaking Jordan’s record factored into his ultimate decision, Bender said, “I think it made a big difference, because I got hotter and hotter and there were a lot of teams that wanted me out there. So, I just went ahead and went for it.” Bender said he kept up with Coach Stansbury during his first couple of years in the NBA, but now his only relationship with Mississippi State is following the team if they happen to be on television. Otherwise, he doesn’t pay too much attention to college basketball.
The Picayune, Mississippi native was taken fifth overall in the 1999 draft by the Toronto Raptors, but was soon traded to the Indiana Pacers. As a lanky 6’11″ player with perimeter skills and athleticism, Bender showed a ton of early promise, but his career became increasingly beset by injuries, mostly due to chronic knee problems which at one point rendered him unable to walk stairs without experiencing pain.
With the sans cartilage bone-on-bone knee condition, Bender retired from the game in February of 2006. But in doing so at just 25-years old, he always knew he would scratch that itch down the road. “As soon as I stopped, I knew I was going to try to make one comeback before I got closer to 30,” said Bender, indicating that he seriously though about coming back last season, but held off for one more year.
While away from the court, Bender wisely saved money and invested in the for-profit Jonathan Bender Enterprises, which is involved in everything from real estate, to importing wine, to a New Orleans recording studio. More importantly, he established the nonprofit Jonathan Bender Foundation which provides assistance, education, and a multitude of other community services to those in Southern Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast area who were affected by Hurricane Katrina, especially focusing on children in need.
On December 13, 2009, Bender made good on the comeback attempt he promised himself years ago. New York Knicks president Donnie Walsh, familiar with what kind of person Bender was from their days together in Indiana, signed the 28-year old to a minimum contract. On December 18, Bender appeared in his first NBA game in over 1,500 days. He scored nine points in 14 minutes. In his 17 total appearances with the Knicks this season, Bender has averaged 4.8 points and 1.9 rebounds in 12.5 minutes per game. He’s shooting 41.4% from three-point land, making 0.7 per game, but his overall field-goal percentage is struggling at 37.5%.
Bender feels good about his physical progression after being away from the game for so long. “I don’t put too many expectations on myself. My goal was to make it back and I did.” He feels that he can physically perform like he used to in spurts, obviously hoping to build consistency and trust in his knees which rely on the surrounding muscle for support.
When it comes to his basketball-playing future, Bender simply answered, “We’ll see.” The soft-spoken, recently turned 29-year old conveys a medium demeanor that won’t allow him to get caught up with the “ifs” and “whens” of professional basketball.
“I’ve accomplished by goal of getting back here. I don’t think too far in the future, I just take it day by day. Keep up with my training, keep in shape, keep feeling good about the whole situation. That’s where I’m at right now.”
Additional Sources/Suggested Reading:
- ‘Bender Announces End Of Career’ By Conrad Brunner, Feb. 4, 2006 – Pacers.com
- ‘Can’t-Miss Prospect Who Did Returns at 28′ By Howard Beck, Dec. 24, 2006 – New York Times
- ‘Bender helping hurricane victims recover, rebuild’ By Anna Katherine Clemmon, Sept. 23, 2008 – ESPN The Magazine
- ‘Jonathan Bender’s Long, Winding Road’ By Lisa Olson, Dec. 24, 2009 – NBA FanHouse