- Anna Katherine Clemmons
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He always knew he was different.
A long-limbed forward with a 39-inch vertical leap, Jonathan Bender stood 6-foot-7 by the time he was 13 years old. When the soft-spoken teen graduated from Picayune Memorial High School in rural Mississippi, those who saw him play called him the next Magic, the next Jordan.
But Bender, skilled enough to forego college for the NBA, had struggled with his arthritic knees, which soon became his Achilles' heel. After only six professional seasons, he had to walk away from basketball.
He could have squandered his remaining millions or succumbed to depression over being labeled a "has-been" before his 25th birthday. But this player was also an entrepreneur who'd watched the business-savvy NBA team owners, thinking 'I can be like them.'
So in New Orleans, with the Gulf Coast still struggling two years after Hurricane Katrina, he established the nonprofit Jonathan Bender Foundation and the for-profit Jonathan Bender Enterprises. With both, Bender's idealism has manifested itself through initiatives like adopting elementary schools, building real estate ventures and offering free finance classes for some of New Orleans' poorest residents.
He says he's only begun, inspired by a dream that he always knew was different. He just didn't think he'd realize it so soon.
Growing up in Picayune, "Jonathan was an easy boy and always into sports," his mother Willie Mae says. He took frequent trips into New Orleans with his father, Donald, until Donald passed away when Jonathan was 12.
While Willie Mae worked to support their family (Bender has an older sister, Valerie, and an older half-brother, Donnell, who was raised by a different mother), Bender focused on AAU basketball in New Orleans and befriended Harlem Globetrotter Billy Ray Hobley, who became a father figure to the teen.
In 1999, Bender leaped onto the national stage when he broke Michael Jordan's scoring record in the McDonald's All-America game, totaling 31 points in what is considered the marquee event for America's most talented prep players. He committed to Mississippi State University but instead entered the 1999 NBA draft. The Toronto Raptors made Bender the fifth overall pick before trading his rights to the Indiana Pacers, who signed him to a three-year, $7 million contract.
On December 10, 1999, Bender scored 10 points in 13 minutes against Cleveland, becoming the first high school draftee to reach double figures in his NBA debut. But his struggles began soon afterward.
While his play peaked at 78 games in 2001-02, he saw action in only 46 the following year. Then 21. Then seven. In 2005-06, only two. Ultimately, Bender averaged just 5.6 points in 237 regular-season NBA games.
Following the 2001-02 season, he'd signed a four-year, $28.5 million contract extension. When he announced his retirement in February of 2006, the Pacers said the remainder of his contract would be paid out through an insurance policy.
"One thing I looked at when I was playing ball -- not to knock ball because I love it -- but you know, it's entertainment," Bender says. "I wanted to investigate how the owners could be paying me this much money so I started studying everything they did."
Along with his entrepreneurial mind, Bender felt compelled to give back, one of the many lessons Hobley had taught him. Bender had bought a home in the New Orleans suburb of Kenner in 1999, in part to be closer to Hobley (who died of a heart attack in 2002) and his grandmother, Cora, who still lived in Picayune.
Returning to New Orleans four years later, Bender began his Foundation, which focuses on providing disadvantaged children the tools to address their educational, health and social needs. He chose Mattie Hobley, Billy Ray's widow, as his Foundation's director.
When Bender's Foundation adopted Joseph S. Maggiore Elementary School, Bender bought and distributed Christmas presents to the 430 students. But he also plans to establish an after-school program he named "Being Busy and Cool After School," where students will have 30 minutes of tutoring followed by lectures from professionals discussing their careers. Bender offered up the example of glass blowers, saying, "Most of these kids don't know that there's a career in blowing glass. They may say, 'I like that, that's what I want to do.' I want to help them identify their passion and work toward it."
The Foundation is just one of Bender's many endeavors. Some of his many others include: an Italian wine imports company; investment in several high-end real estate projects; inventing and seeking a patent on a fitness device he's calling Bender Bands; owning part of an island and some commerical property in the Caribbean; owning Studio 5504, a New Orleans recording facility; and running free basketball clinics for teens in the New Orleans region. He wants to start a mentor program for NBA rookies, and he's developing a reality show, "Brand New Orleans," based on his projects.
Much of the reality footage would focus on Bender's for-profit construction company, Kingdom Homes, which has been buying and restoring flood-damaged properties in New Orleans' worst neighborhoods.
But Bender isn't just returning the residences to form; he's improving them, adding oak cabinets, hardwood floors, marble and granite countertops and accent lighting. Bender reviews every detail, ensuring that each property meets his high standards.
"I looked at a house that Jonathan was doing and I wanted to cry, because this young man did a house that he would live in, with nice things," says 58-year-old Barbara Major, a board member for both NORA (New Orleans Redevelopment Authority) and the Bender Foundation. "It's incredible. No one builds houses like that for people who can't afford it."
Once the properties are completed, Bender's real-estate management company makes them available for leasing. He's started with close to 40, and says almost every resident is so happy with their property that they want to buy it. So Bender plans to help them toward that goal as well, having recently partnered with several banks and major corporations to aid in financial assistance and offer the residents free financial literacy courses with community/civic training. "That's why my foundation has started the home-ownership piece, so we can teach," Bender says. "Why would you turn down someone who's going to help you learn about your down payment and managing it?"
To ensure that the work is done efficiently, Bender employs his close friends and relatives. An entourage, it isn't; Bender says the minute someone slacks off, he'll make them pay out of their pocket to correct it.
"My cousin Corrie brought in some of his boys to paint [a property], but when I saw the lines in that wall, I told them they're doing it again, and the money for the paint is coming out of his pocket," Bender says. "It's got to be right. He might fuss at first, but me being tough is doing nothing but helping him." Case in point: Corrie now has his own business based on the initial properties he developed for Bender.
If someone doesn't have the skills for the job, Bender sends them to real estate licensing school or financial-management classes. He won't hire them until they demonstrate their seriousness toward learning the craft. All say it's paying off for them and New Orleans at large.
I believe he [Bender] enjoys this more than the NBA. He wakes up every day at 6 a.m. and wants to go non-stop. No one can keep up with him. It's his passion and he loves it.
--Sanchez Goss, Jon Bender's assistant
"If you look around at certain areas in New Orleans, they haven't been touched, and it's been over three years," says Sanchez Goss, Bender's personal assistant and close friend since childhood. "Jonathan is trying to put it all on him. He's one man doing something great."
His impact is starting to be recognized by the community at large, many of whom say Bender is doing more for New Orleans than the state or local government. "I love this kid; he's just a movement," Major says. "He's making people really want to move back to a place we need them."
When asked if he misses the NBA, the 27-year-old is quiet before answering. "That's a tough question," he says. "I probably would have still started all of this at one point, but probably not this soon."
He admits that he avoids watching NBA or college hoops games because he sometimes finds them "depressing." He does, however, attend Hornets games to support his cousin, starting forward Morris Peterson.
"I don't think he's sad about not playing, because he enjoys what he's doing now," Goss says. "I believe he enjoys this more than the NBA. He wakes up every day at 6 a.m. and wants to go non-stop. No one can keep up with him. It's his passion and he loves it."
A passion that perhaps has made his family and friends prouder of Bender the man than Bender the basketball player. "It's such a pleasure to see the things he's doing and how he's giving back," Willie Mae says. "I never thought I'd learn so much from my son."
Bender, however, doesn't have time for reflection. He's moving on to the next project, with the same tenacity he once reserved for basketball. "I was already different as a basketball player," Bender says. "Now I'm way different."
Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine.
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