When you’re 18 years old, 6’11”, 200lbs, and you can play basketball, there will definitely be some attention thrown in your direction. When you break Michael Jordan’s scoring record in the McDonald’s High School All-American game, you will attract even more attention. And when that performance serves at the catalyst for you to be drafted with the number five pick in the 1999 draft by the Toronto Raptors (later traded to the Indiana Pacers), not only is much expected of you, but it is expected rather quickly.
But when you never average double figures in points or rebounds, you are dogged by knee injuries, and you’re forced to retire at the age of 25, things change drastically. Expectations fade, the word “bust” gets thrown around, and you’re grouped with the likes of Kwame Brown and Sam Bowie.
That was the first seven years of Jonathan Bender’s NBA career.
After his retirement, Bender focused on philanthropy, and he created the Jonathan Bender Foundation, that assisted youth in both the Southern Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast areas . He also dedicated a tremendous amount of his time and money to rebuilding those same areas who were hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. Still, the desire to play basketball never died and the “what if” questions still swirled in his mind.
So Bender got himself into shape, did extensive training with former Olympic high-jumper Charles Austin, and when former Pacers, now New York Knicks general manager, Donnie Walsh offered him a second chance, he did not turn it down. On December 13, 2009, a little more than 10 years after his NBA debut, Bender returned as a New York Knickerbocker. Through 17 games, Bender is averaging 12 minutes, four points and two rebounds per game, as he slowly works his way into the Knicks rotation.
Prior to the Knicks/Wizards matchup, Bender had a quick chat with Hoops Addict about what made him come back to the game, how he thinks he’s progressing, and if he will stay in the NBA beyond this season.
Rashad Mobley: Are you able to do all the things you did prior to your temporary retirement?
Jonathan Bender: Um, as far as what?
JB: In spurts. Sometimes I feel it, sometimes I don’t.
RM: Did you play at all while you were away from the NBA?
JB: Yeah off and on. A lot the last year, but mostly just training.
RM: So ultimately, what made you decided, ok I’m going to come back or at least try to?
JB: Just as soon as I stopped [playing] I knew I was going to try to come back…you know throughout my lifespan before I got close to 30. So I knew I was going to attempt it again. I was thinking of doing it last year, but I held off another year and decided to make it happen this year.
RM: So you’re going to come back next year too?
JB: We’ll see.
RM: When you say we’ll see, what exactly will determine whether you’re going to come back?
JB: Me. Myself. I’ve accomplished my goal of getting back here. That was my goal to get 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 and that’s where I’m at.
RM: So if the Knicks or another team says, we like we what we saw, we really want you to come back, how much would that play in your decision?
JB: I’m not even thinking about that, I’m not thinking that far. Understand that for today, I’m in this moment right now. Not thinking about later on…day by day.