While the NBA is one of the toughest challenges to achieve, a certain few make the task look simple and meek. Jonathan Bender was one of the few coasting down what seemed like easy street, until his priorities were shifted, as the 6’11 forward had a career-ending knee injury which allowed him to make a difference outside of the basketball court.
Bender, now 28 years old, grew up in the small town Picayune, MS, where he learned all he had to know in basketball. His father would take him on trips to New Orleans where he eventually began playing basketball. It was there that Bender found his adopted home and fell in love.
At age 12, Benders father passed away leaving a hole where a father figure was needed. It was then Bender met a man who had been around the world six times in Billy Ray Hobley. The Harlem Globetrotter took Bender under his wing.
It was with Hobley that Bender learned about the less fortunate and to take nothing for granted as Hobley was not only a basketball player, but a great person for his community.
His game plan was never forget where you came from and always give back and Bender could relate with the quick success he was receiving as he scored 31 points in the 1999 McDonald's High School All-America Game and was a hot topic among college recruiters.
Bender made a verbal commitment to his hometown school, Mississippi State University but then quickly hired an agent and entered the NBA draft. The same year he also made the move to New Orleans to be with Hobley before having to move to Indiana as he was the fifth overall pick in the 1999 NBA draft.
His career began slow only averaging 2.7 PPG in his rookie year while fellow forward Elton Brand tore up the league with many other names from that draft class as well.
His second year wasn’t much better either seeing limited time on the court in limited games played though the Pacers saw the young forward as potential, not giving up on him and it payed off as Bender put up a personal best 7.4 PPG, 6.6 PPG and 7 PPG over the next three years.
It was then Benders troubles began.
He began to have chronic knee pain that had bothered him in years before but had now become unbar able to play with forcing Bender to play nine games over his next two years leaving Bender with a decision that would ruin his dream of NBA glory.
In February of 2006, Bender announced his retirement from basketball having only played in 237 games and being the young age of 25.
The labels came out quick as he was called a bust and critics were onto him faster than they praised him. The talk of potential had now faded as he was considered a washed up, injury prone basketball failure.
Though the love of NBA fans faded, his love for his adopted hometown grew stronger.
Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans and Bender knew he had to help. Rather than living off the millions he made in his short stint in the NBA, he put money towards reestablishing New Orleans by fixing up homes to the less fortunate.
Bender didn’t stop there as he adopted elementary schools, built real estate ventures, offered free finance classes for some of New Orleans' poorest residents and ran free basketball clinics for teens in the New Orleans region.
Bender thanks Hobley, who died in 2002, for giving him a hometown and also for giving him a heart for the less fortunate. He taught him that life isn’t all about basketball and it paid off for Bender in more ways than one.
Even though his hype never was filled on the basketball court, his heart has filled many off of it.