Jonathan Bender's Long, Winding Road
He had to change a handful of lives, influence a few generations. He had to help rebuild a New Orleans school library that had been decimated by Hurricane Katrina, replace the moldy books, raise money so the students could have computers. He had to finance entire city blocks of land ripped asunder by the storm and move some 36 dislocated families into apartments he designed, and see to it that the details in those apartments allowed the families to feel as if they were living in luxury rather than low-income housing.
He had to make sure his legs were healthy, of course, because he didn't want to broach a comeback if the bone-on-bone knee condition that forced his premature departure from the NBA in November 2005 hadn't completely healed. He had to radically change his workout program, adding special stretching routines and exercises developed specifically for his 7-foot frame.
If he isn't quite the modern-day version of Roy Hobbs, hero of the movie, The Natural, it's only because Bender's philanthropic good deeds in the Gulf coast community across the last few years far surpass the amazing comeback in which he is currently starring. The New York Knicks took a leap and signed Bender in mid-December, and all he has done since is drain 3-pointers and infuse the club with much-needed energy and hope.
Bender's comeback hit what he hopes is a minor speed bump Tuesday night, when a strained hip sidelined him in the second quarter of the Knicks game against Chicago. Bender doesn't think it's serious, certainly nothing like the injuries that forced him into early retirement, but he knows more than most that nothing is guaranteed.
"Anytime I have anything small going on with my leg, no matter how small, it is big to me," he says. "It could trigger something else. Any small thing, they want me to let them know about and shut it down."
He was the fifth overall pick in the 1999 draft, selected straight out of Picayune Memorial High School in Mississippi by the Toronto Raptors. Still in the midst of a growth spurt, with skinny legs trying to catch up to the rest of his lanky body, Bender was then traded to the Indiana Pacers, where he played in sporadic patches for seven seasons. Bad knees forced him to miss 172 games in his final three seasons, until the pain of bone rubbing against bone became too much, and the Pacers waived him. Adding major disrespect to injury, Sports Illustrated rated Bender No. 11 on its list of the 20 biggest busts in modern NBA draft history.
"That was so unfair. It didn't take into account how bad his knees were," says Donnie Walsh, the Knicks president who has come full circle with Bender. A decade ago, Walsh was the Pacers official who took a gamble by trading the veteran Antonio Davis for the 18-year-old Bender, and now Walsh just might have orchestrated the season's best signing. The acquisition of Bender is certainly the most inspiring, especially for a club that could use a team-first good citizen.
In a couple of hours, the 28-year-old Bender will make his Knicks debut -- "a dream come true," he'll call it -- in front of a Madison Square Garden crowd desperate for a reason to cheer. He'll score nine points in 14 minutes in the Knicks' win over the Los Angeles Clippers, his ardent block of Baron Davis' floater a nice bookend to a smooth touch from outside. Bender will record 11 points in his next game, another Knicks' victory, while still trying to find his sea legs and stamina. He puts the ball on the floor, posts up, drives to the basket and fits seamlessly into coach Mike D'Antoni's run-and-gun system.
But for the moment, as Walsh relaxes in the frenetic pre-game madness of the Garden, he isn't completely sure of the sort of player he's acquired. He has no doubts about the person he's getting.
"I kept up with him over the years. I heard from my players that he was coming up to Indiana with tractor trailers to get supplies after Katrina, and I was really proud of him," Walsh says. "But I didn't think he was coming back to the NBA. Then I was at a college tournament in California and his agent was sitting next to me. He said Jonathan was thinking of making a comeback. A few months later, we talked and he said he only wanted to do it if he could be at 120 percent. I told him if he ever gets to that point to call me.
"When my phone rang, we had an open space on the roster. I wanted to at least give him an opportunity to try."
Why risk a precious spot on someone who had been away from the game for four seasons -- an eternity in the NBA calendar? "Because he's a special person, and that counts for something," Walsh says, without hesitation. "We're trying to make sure we've got guys with good character who want to be in New York."
Bender had just left his home in New Orleans for his grandmother's house about 30 minutes away. Cora Mae was celebrating her 70th birthday party, and her grandson was in a rush to get there. "I left my TV on, the lights on. I just took my wallet because I thought I'd be back soon," he says of that August day in 2005. "As I got closer I started seeing police cars at the exit. They wouldn't let anyone turn around. Imagine leaving your house for half an hour and not being able to return for the next two or three weeks."
The horrors, as they do for most everyone who survived Hurricane Katrina, come back in a rush: "It looked like Bigfoot had just come through and kicked down the stores. I got to my subdivision (in Kenner) and it was like being on a set in a Western movie. Roofs were gone, the streets were deserted. It was completely devastating."
Something tugged at Bender. He had a fierce longing to make a difference, a need to strengthen and empower his homeland. Growing up in Picayune, a dab of a town on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, he developed at an early age a love for what he calls "social entrepreneurship, " a compelling fixation for a kid who also happened to be blessed with a talent for sports.
Katrina's destruction also triggered his business acumen, an interesting path for him to follow considering his formal education ended in high school. He began buying flood-ravaged apartment buildings, single-family homes and triplexes, renovating the properties, and renting them to families living on Section 8.
"I always wanted to learn about real estate, so I just jumped in headfirst," Bender says. "Before long I was employing numerous amounts of people, many of them from underprivileged backgrounds. I was able to make housing available for at least 35 or 36 families who lost their homes in the hurricane. All of them are still in their homes now."
Bender's tenants say he's not just a real estate mogul looking to make a buck, or an absent landlord. Rented at a low cost, his buildings have high-end details. The tenants rave about the marble countertops, the ornate light fixtures, the oak cabinets and manicured grounds. The fine touches might not seem that important, unless you've lost everything.
"Anything that needs to be fixed, he gets to it," says Ijel Cheneau, one of Bender's tenants whose home was destroyed by Katrina. "When we first came here, he told us how he was trying to help people and make a difference. It wasn't just talk to him. It's who he really is."
Cheneau says she only recently learned that Bender was quite the basketball phenom. She knows nothing about his storybook comeback. She does know that Bender has been a fine role model for her four boys, with his encouragement to find their passion and create their own empowerment.
Bender was 12 when his own father passed away. A few years later, the shy teenager met Billy Ray Hobley, a Harlem Globetrotter -- he was known as "Supertrotter" -- for 22 years and a bon vivant about town. "They became literally inseparable," Mattie Hobley says of Jonathan and her husband, who died of a heart attack seven years ago. "They were like father and son. Jonathan never hung around a lot of kids his age, he always seemed to be with older people. I used to tease him and say, 'Why are you hanging out with this old man?'
"He wanted to learn all the things my husband could teach him. My husband had a very flamboyant personality. He came up with some incredible ideas. Jonathan was just a sponge, always learning. He learned to be a business man."
Mattie Hobley is now the Chair of the Board of Directors for the Jonathan Bender Foundation, a non-profit charitable corporation established in the wake of Katrina. One of Bender's finest moves occurred when his foundation adopted the Joseph S. Maggiore Elementary School in Metairie, La. The school's library was closed following the hurricane, its books destroyed by water, its floors and walls turning toxic because of dangerous, creeping mold.
Now there are new computers for the children, stacks of books for them to peruse. Because of Bender and his team, the environment is safe and clean, the walls stripped of mold, the floors refurbished, fine touches that only mean everything to kids not used to such luxuries. There are after-school literacy programs and fresh basketball rims and a large flat-screen TV and a giant chair reserved for Bender when he stops by to read to the kids. Last Christmas, he gave presents to all 432 students, and on Easter he hid all the eggs. Bender has plans to build a 24-hour recreation center, to adopt more schools, to keep creating suitable housing for families just getting back on their feet. There is not enough space in the hemisphere to hold all of Bender's dreams.
"What I was able to do in New Orleans with the housing and the school, it wasn't just a selfish act to make myself feel better," Bender says, when I ask him what in his life makes him the proudest. "Everything is done with the intention that if you affect one person, they can influence someone else and pay it forward. You change generations by changing one person.
"I'm not saying I went down there and made a miracle happen. But I definitely laid a footprint to move forward."
So why the need to scratch his NBA itch? With such a successful, meaningful career outside of basketball, why would he put his body through more painful rehab, with no assurance it won't lead to additional heartbreak? The Knicks have an obvious motive – to protect cap space for next year, to leave room for Lebron James in case he's interested, the team chose not to upgrade its roster through free agency. The innovative, unexpected signing of Bender was a no-brainer.
"I can't live with the fact that I didn't try to make this work," Bender says. "Even if I fail, and hopefully I don't fail, I won't have a fight with myself when I'm 37 or 38 years old and wondering why I didn't at least try."
A bust, as Sports Illustrated once proclaimed? The world of sports could use more busts like Jonathan Bender.