Jonathan Bender has always been a unique case. He sprang out of near-anonymity to break Michael Jordan’s single-game points record the 1999 McDonald’s All-Star Game, and was the subject of much scrutiny when the championship-contending Indiana Pacers traded an eventual All-Star center Antonio Davis to Toronto for the high schooler’s draft rights later in the year. Bender was supposed to be the franchise talent to carry the Pacers in the post-Reggie Miller years, a sort of proto-Kevin Durant.
Bender never panned out, though, due to crippling knee injuries that curtailed his career before he ever got a chance to play major minutes as a go-to guy. He could have been great, too, because Bender’s combination of hops (he appeared in the 2001 Slam Dunk contest), shooting, size and touch should have eased him into stardom.
Instead, Bender decided to create his own fortune as an inventor, and investor. Bender is making waves with a device meant to strengthen the knees that failed him as a player. From the Indianapolis Business Journal’s Anthony Schoettle:
After announcing his retirement from the Pacers in 2006, Bender was sitting in a Houston park watching people run and walk by when it hit him.
In his mind, he could see a device that acted as an external hamstring, which could exercise the hips, glute and quad muscles without putting pressure on the knees.
With duct tape, ankle weights, thick rubber bands and office binder clips he bought at an area drugstore, Bender made the prototype for what he now calls the JB Intensive Trainer. Bender invested a little more than $80,000 into his invention, which he now contracts to have made in China and sells for $130.
As it turns out, Bender was doing more than sitting on a training table getting treatment during those years in Indiana. He was watching closely and listening, including to Dr. Dan Dyrek, a Boston physician who has worked on numerous Major League Baseball and NBA stars, including Pacers executive Larry Bird during his Boston Celtics playing days.
“I watched and learned from what they did and what they said about things like injuries and muscle structure,” Bender said. “I soaked it all in.”
One of the more remarkable stories of the 2009-10 season was Bender’s return to the NBA after four years away, playing for a New York Knick team run by general manager Donnie Walsh, who traded for Jonathan some 11 years before in Indiana. Jonathan had basically been advised to retire some four years before, after playing just 30 games total in the previous three seasons, and yet out of nowhere here he was in New York, looking no worse for wear.
It was the equivalent of Brandon Roy hopping onto whatever team Kevin Pritchard is working for in 2017, and holding his own. And it appears Bender’s invention may have had a lot to do with the return. If you have any doubts about his device, take a look at this anecdote, as reported by Schoettle:
Over the next three years after that day in the park, Bender worked on his device, wearing it to strengthen his own legs. So impressed was Walsh, he decided while working in the New York Knicks front office to give Bender another tryout. There was no shortage of skeptics.
“When I went there, I was proving a point to myself,” Bender said. “I wanted to prove my product worked.”
Knicks doctors at the time said Bender had the strongest lower extremities on the team. Bender averaged nearly six points a game during his season in New York. It was a long way from an all-star-caliber season, but not bad for a guy medical experts said would never play again.
Bender’s return in 2010 may have seemed like another Knick oddity, another expiring contract in place in the months before LeBron James hit free agency, another favor from a good man in Donnie Walsh.
His statistics (4.7 points in 11.7 minutes per game; we know the IBJ said “nearly six points a game,” but that’s a typo) wouldn’t blow you away, but for someone to return to the NBA after having played just 114 NBA minutes over the previous six years is remarkable. And to hear the Knick doctors tell it, his homemade device is the reason why.
We’re not here to shill for Bender, or his invention (which can be viewed and/or purchased here), but this is remarkable story from IBJ worth reading. From a rags to riches teenager, wondering how his billionaire boss made the money he did while sitting outside Pacer owner Mel Simon’s mansion in a car, to an NBA flameout to a possible breakthrough in the field of medical science? Not a bad start to a second career, Jonathan Bender.
Related coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
• Lakers may cut ties with Metta World Peace
• Cleveland Cavaliers offer Andrew Bynum $24M
• Chris Kaman announces Lakers agreement with a Twitter flourish