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Steve Aschburner

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Jonathan Bender is averaging 4.8 ppg for the Knicks this season after sitting out four years.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Big man Bender makes huge strides with small steps


Posted Feb 23 2010 12:20PM

Jonathan Bender is back. Well, not back back, as in showing the form and the promise that enabled him -- as a 20-year-old with the Indiana Pacers when the 2001-02 season began -- to post his third consecutive year of escalating statistics (7.4 points, 3.1 rebounds in 17 starts and 78 games) and impact. But Bender is back, literally, and when you enter the New York Knicks dressing room, it can be like having a time machine step into you rather than the other way around. Just like that, four years melt away.

Bender is attempting a comeback of epic proportions, trying to return to NBA effectiveness after a pain-and-injury-induced early retirement from a career that barely had gotten started.

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Knicks general manager Donnie Walsh -- the Indiana Pacers executive who drafted Bender with the fifth overall pick in 1999 and rewarded/motivated him in 2002 with a four-year, $28.5 million contract -- signed him to a minimum deal Dec. 13. The results have been modest -- Bender has averaged 4.8 points, 2.1 rebounds and 12.2 minutes while shooting 37.2 percent in 21 appearances -- but the satisfaction has been huge for Bender. For Walsh, too, and others who are enjoying this re-write of the player's NBA tale.

Bender is listed at 7-foot and 230 pounds now, bigger than when he arrived (6-foot-11, 205). He is older too and wiser, more centered and appreciative of what had been snatched away. As Walsh said recently: "It was brutal. Jonathan had to make that decision when he really didn't want to make it.''

Since signing for a New York backup role, Bender has played nearly as many games as he had from the spring of 2003 until he shut it all down in 2006. When he scored nine points in 14 minutes against the Clippers Dec. 18, it was his first NBA action since Nov. 5, 2005. When he got 11 points two nights later against Charlotte, it was his best scoring night since Nov, 3, 2004. He had reached double figures three times by the time I spoke to the native of Picayune, Miss., late last month about his comeback and his work away from the court:

***

NBA.com: How realistic -- and patient -- are you and everyone else being about what you're trying to do here?

Jonathan Bender: Everybody knows. Everybody knows what occurred. I'm not here to meet anybody's expectations. I'm just trying to keep myself ready. And trying to improve.

NBA.com: What has been the most challenging part of getting back to an NBA level?

JB: Obviously, I'm getting older. I can't just jump up and just get out there. There's a lot of stuff I have to do to prepare. A lot of extra workouts. So I've altered my routine a lot.

NBA.com: Has the adjustment been greater physically or mentally? Do you trust your body the way you used to? Do you know teams and opposing players as well as you need to after this layoff?

JB: It's really just keeping up with my routine outside of what we do. It's 24 hours, an all-day event pretty much. Outside of practice, when I'm back at the house, I've got to get in a whole 'nother workout. I've got to go into another zone, just to prepare and keep my legs together. A typical day, if we practice from 11 to 1:30, once I'm out of there and reach the house, I've got to do a whole 'nother routine. About two more hours. At the gym, and I've got stuff at the apartment.

NBA.com: Where do you get the drive to do this?

JB: I mean, I knew I was going to do this ever since I left. I'm not a loser, I'm not a quitter. If you fail at something, you want to try again to make sure it's definite. So ever since 2006, when I stopped, I knew I was going to try again one day before I got too old. So I thought this would be the perfect time, even if I did it for a year or whatever. I knew I was going to prepare to make a comeback, to show everybody I was not a quitter and that anything can happen if you put your mind to it.

NBA.com: Nobody was going to attach a character flaw to someone whose career was cut short by injuries.

JB: But [it mattered] to myself. As far as making sure I was mentally able to do this. It's OK now. Even if I didn't play another game, I know I tried, I did what I had to do to try make it back. So it's me, not anybody else. It's good to see those folks and smile and laugh with them, but it's more satisfying to me.

NBA.com: How bad was your left knee?

JB: It was the bone-on-bone in my left knee, after I had my surgery.

NBA.com: I'm unaware of anything such as a cartilage transplant, so it's still bone-on-bone?

JB: Yeah, but [being able to play on that] has to do with switching up of routine. Taking a couple years off to rest and let everything die down. Because it was all real sharp -- it was like walking on two knives. After a while, it started to dull up. I started to work out. I switched up [the workouts], started working with different equipment. I went from a lot of pounding stuff to just keeping up [my body].

NBA.com: I know you've trained with former Olympic high jumper Charles Austin, who had his own knee troubles, to improve how you run and jump. But did you have a "Eureka!'' moment when you got out of bed one morning and were pain-free?

JB: No. It took a while.

NBA.com: This would seem like a summertime move, yet you signed in December. Your cousin [Morris Peterson of the New Orleans Hornets] and friends were encouraging to try it sooner.

JB: Well, it was [meant to happen last summer]. I had been keeping in touch with Donnie the whole time I was off. He kept in touch with me personally. He's a cool guy. It is [a special relationship]. So, I actually kind of put it out there during the summer. Then I changed my mind coming up to training camp. I came to New York in the summer, made a visit, but then when I was going to make a decision, I played the coward's role for a second. "Do I really want to do this?" Then a little later I was like, "Look, if I'm going to do it, I put all this work in, go ahead and see what happens." Two weeks later, I went ahead [and called Walsh].

NBA.com: Why do you think Walsh stayed so involved and gave you this chance? He's got pressure enough just to build a winner in New York.

JB: Donnie is a special guy. He's not only about the business, he's about caring about the person. The human beings. So he's a different type of general manager. I haven't talked to many GMs, but I'm assuming there aren't many out there like him.

NBA.com: Has it been fun, seeing people around the league who didn't expect to be seeing you up here anymore?

JB: That's very fun. You see people who kind of gave up on you, and when they see you, they've got to be thinking, "Hey, he really put in some work to make that happen." That's the type of person I want to be, and for them to see that.

NBA.com: Have you gotten your head around the fact that, after the injuries and with age, there are things you won't be doing on a court anymore?

JB: There are frustrations. I've got to understand where I'm at, because things I was able to do naturally, they come and go now day by day. One day I'll feel good and I'm able to do those things. The next day, they go away.

NBA.com: How has the game changed for you when you're out there?

JB: Uh ... I think I've calmed down a lot. I'm trying to take advantage of my length without doing all that crazy jumping that I used to do. More focused on my energy and my effort. Try to be more efficient -- using that burst when you need it. ... I wouldn't call myself a below-the-rim guy, but I am for right now.

NBA.com: Some people will jump to the conclusion that you need to be back for money. But my understanding is, you were smart in planning for your post-basketball future, even if it came a lot sooner than you expected. And I sense you're not back for the attention.

JB: No, no. To me, it's all inside. It's about me satisfying myself mentally. Once I do that, I'm cool. I'm not looking to come in here and be a big deal. I was blessed to be in a situation where I could sustain myself. And to merge over into an area of being an entrepreneur and being in business.

NBA.com: Your charitable works are impressive and have gotten a good amount of acclaim. The Jonathan Bender Foundation in New Orleans has helped out elementary schools, offered personal financial classes to underprivileged residents there and staged basketball clinics. You have a construction company [Kingdom Homes] that has provided housing for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Has your comeback as a player pulled you away from your work in civilian life?

JB: Still doing it. Still doing it down in Mississippi and Louisiana. About to head off to Indianapolis and do some things there. In my off time, when I'm not working here, that's what I'm doing. I'm with my team but I still can make calls and get stuff done.

NBA.com: This hasn't been a check-writing or a photo-op thing for you, right?

JB: We're still there. We've put close to 40 families in homes. We're looking to do a bigger picture in Indianapolis. A couple more markets as well. It's coming to a head. We're definitely providing houses, providing jobs down [in New Orleans]. After so much devastation, being a part of that makes me feel good.

NBA.com: As we talk, the New Orleans Saints are headed to the Super Bowl. That might not do as much for the city as having the game itself in town, but can it help otherwise?

JB: It's still going to be good for the city, because the energy level, the confidence level of the city has changed. I don't watch too much football, but since they're from New Orleans, I call them my team [laughs].

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.

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