Bender plots NBA comeback

Updated: July 27, 2009, 4:42 PM ET
By Anna K. Clemmons | ESPN.com

Former Indiana Pacers teen prodigy Jonathan Bender is plotting an NBA comeback after a injury-forced retirement.

Bender
Bender

Bender left the Pacers midway through the 2005-06 season because of persistent knee troubles that limited him to just 237 games in seven NBA seasons. But he recently revealed his intent to put a growing business career on hold to give professional basketball one more shot.

"My potential is still enormous and I can still do a lot for a team," Bender told ESPN.com. "If it happens, then everything flows. And if it doesn't, at least I tried."

Now 28, Bender has developed various entrepreneurial ventures in Houston and New Orleans. When asked in March 2008 if he missed playing basketball, Bender replied by saying it was a "tough question."

That question, though, has since been answered.

"I thought about it last year for last season, but I was still doing a lot of learning and having fun with my various projects," Bender said by phone over the weekend.

The No. 5 overall pick in the 1999 draft said he was encouraged by cousin Morris Peterson of the New Orleans Hornets and various friends to make a comeback.

"I didn't want the windows to close on me," Bender said. "I wanted the opportunity to fight off the demons inside my head ... I read these articles that say, 'He's the top bust' or 'He's one of the guys who didn't live up to their potential.' I don't want to be 38 or 40 looking back thinking, 'I should've done this.' "

Bender said he also wants to be an example to children that "nothing is impossible" no matter how bad one's injuries are.

Drafted fifth overall out of high school by the Toronto Raptors, who then traded his rights to the Pacers, Bender signed a three-year, $7 million contract in 1999.

Following the 2001-02 season, Bender then received a four-year, $28.5 million contract extension from Indiana. But recurring knee problems prevented him from establishing himself even after the Pacers began to rebuild the veteran team he joined initially.

Bender averaged just 5.6 points in his career. When he announced his retirement in February 2006, the Pacers said the remainder of Bender's contract would be paid out through an insurance policy.

As for his damaged left knee, where cartilage was removed, Bender insists that there are no lingering problems after considerable therapy and training. Bender believes that the years of rest paid off in giving his knees a "break" from basketball, which he hadn't experienced since he was 12 or 13. He gradually began to work out again and over the past six months has trained six days a week alongside Olympic high jumping gold medalist Charles Austin, who has also dealt with knee injuries.

Austin trains Bender through a track-and-field approach while incorporating a method of running that Bender says takes a lot of the pressure off of his knees. They also focus on agility work, biometrics and aerodynamics.

"It's about keeping the upper body more cut than big and bulky; you're shaped like a carrot with weight up top," Bender said.

Over the next month, Bender will focus more on full-court competition and less on cross training with his sights set on trying to earn an invite to an NBA training camp. He posts weekly updates of his workout progress on www.rawskills.com, which he says is also where he'll direct interested teams and coaches. He still sees a doctor and works daily with his physical therapist before training, he said.

Bender is under no obligation to the Pacers and free to sign with any team. Given his injury history, it's doubtful that Bender would initially command more than the league minimum, which would be $959,111 next season based on his service time.

Although no concrete NBA interest in Bender has yet been established, it's believed that former Pacers general manager Donnie Walsh -- now running the New York Knicks -- will consider signing him again.

When asked if any teams had expressed interest in him, Bender declined to offer specifics, saying only that his agent had been in contact with various organizations.

"I don't want to put the cart in front of the horse," he said.

Bender also realizes that if and when he returns to everyday play, he might feel -- and others might see --less-than-desired results. He cites Allen Houston as an example of a player who left and successfully returned to the NBA, choosing not to focus on those whose attempts largely failed.

"You still have your moments because no one goes out there and doesn't feel anything," Bender said. "I feel a little something here and there but in the game, everyone runs on your legs so we're all going to have aches. There's nothing I can't bear."

Anna K. Clemmons is a writer for ESPN The Magazine.