Interview: Jonathan Bender and I Talk Business, Growing up and the Malice at the Palace

About two weeks ago, I was presented with the opportunity to interview former Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks player, Jonathan Bender.

Naturally, I was interested because he’s a former NBA player and learning about the game, especially from those with first-hand experiences, has always peaked my interested. The problem with Bender, however, is that his career went unfulfilled due to a number of nagging knee injuries that sent his promising career into a downward spiral.

The problem I was presented with was how I talk NBA experiences with someone who had played in 262 games and played in more than 60 games once in an eight-year career, which included a return to the league after a three-year absence.

Little did I know was that I was going to delve into a one-on-one with one of the most inspiring and admirable life-after-sports stories I’ll ever hear.

Bender grew up in the small town of Picayune, Mississippi, consisting of a population of 10,000, and drew a nation’s worth of attention for his unique playing style. Despite being 6’11”, however, Bender did not consider himself a forward or a center.

He was a basketball player.

Bender was the fifth pick in the 1999 draft of the Toronto Raptors, taken straight out of Picayune Memorial High School in his hometown. A month after getting drafted, he was traded to the Indiana Pacers for Antonio Davis.

Injuries hit Bender’s career hard. He played only 24 games as a 19-year-old rookie and averaged five minutes of playing time. He would peak in his third season, playing 78 games, starting in 17, and would average 7.4 points on 43 percent shooting overall and 36 percent three-point shooting to go along with 3.1 boards per.

Bender would play 76 games over the next four years before hanging it up for the first time. He would make a stunning comeback in 2009 with the New York Knicks, playing 25 games and even going off for 16 points in a 20-minute effort.

In between the first retirement in 2005 and the comeback in 2009, Bender was concocting and stitching together ideas that would lead to his invention of a device that could prevent injuries, as well as investing in real estate that would create homes in homes ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Jonathan and I talked for 20 minutes about his life outside of basketball and the person he’s become as a result of it, but not without also getting into his account of the memorable of the Malice at the Palace.

John Friel: I’ve been told about what you’ve accomplished since your basketball career has ended and it’s really astounding. Were you always interested in life outside of basketball? Did business savvy always play a large part in your life? Did you learn that once became closer with high-profile people in the NBA?

Jonathan Bender: Well, not even when I became associated with high-profile people because a lot of those high-profile people were high-profile employees. They just got paid a lot of money. My thing was I’m always the guy who wants to know who is the puppet-master. Who’s pulling the strings? Coming from Picayune, I didn’t know a lot. I thought the NBA was everything there was. To get to the NBA and, you know, figure out the business end of it and just find out it’s another company out there along with the rest of them. I really started taking a look at our owner. They would come to our games every now and again, and I just thought this was the only business they had. This was their wealth. But after doing some investigating on them, come to find out this was not their primary business but a side-model for them. They were into malls and construction and all of those things but it was really bringing home the cheddar. The big cheddar. They were able to build capacity and that’s what I wanted—capacity—but I didn’t see how I could do that in the game because I was an employee. I was always fascinated with how I could create some capacity. During that time, I’m a very competitive guy. The athlete was no longer my competitor. It was more of them (the owners). But to be able to compete with them, you had to start where they started: from the ground. Can’t hire somebody to do it. Can’t depend on anybody else to do it for you. You had to take that hard-nosed dive, and start from the ground up and learn everything you can. That’s the path that I’ve been on.

JF: In the middle of becoming an NBA player, dealing with the injuries that plagued your career, you were picking the brains of like the Indiana Pacers owner for instance?

JB: Yes. I didn’t get to the point where I would have conversations with them. I would just watch them. I did some investigating and reading up on them. I would drive past their home and sit outside and just marvel at it. I would drive past their malls. Everywhere we would go and play there was always a sign with their name on it, in front of one of the malls. I was just very intrigued with the process and the capacity they had built because it was long-term. Being in the NBA and a person having money is nothing without a profit. I was put in a situation where I gave a lot of money away to my family. I’m thinking I’m helping them, but in the end I’m really hurting. The only way you can truly help someone is to help them figure out who they are and help them create a career for themselves. I could do neither one of the two because I was just a guy with money. I started to understand the guy with the process is the one handing the guy with the money because the guy with the money will always have to give it to the guy with the process to create a return. I wanted to become a person who could create a return. The only way I can do that is if I put my head down and create a process and that’s what I’ve been doing through creating products.

JF: How did growing up in a town like Picayune, Mississippi play a role in the person you are today?

JB: The humbleness. I try to stay humble. I was introduced to God there. We always went to church. My mother would always take me to church even if I did what I was told. She was helping me understand faith. A small town like that introduces you to holding your word. The town is so small that you can’t really lie to someone or you can’t do anything too wrong because everyone knows everyone. I would say humbleness and keeping your character together in tact and being a man of your word.

JF: If I want to start a business and I have an idea, what does Jonathan Bender suggest I do?

JB: Go right away. I think people get caught up into thinking and doing they’re investigating before they move. You have to understand the more that you lose is equal to the more that you win. A lot of people play to lose. They say, I want to do all this investigating and I don’t want to make mistakes. Well, really the person who makes the most mistakes is going to be the winner because he knows what not to do. So just go. Find a mentor, someone who has done what you’re trying to do and pick their brain. Be consistent. Be dedicated. Make sure to do research on your idea. If you’re creating a product, create it. I don’t care what it looks like. Get it to where it works. It doesn’t matter if it looks like crap, but if it works you’re going to get people’s attention. People are going to start helping you if you have 100% confidence behind your idea. There’s no time to wait, even if it’s a service. Move. Get started. Start asking. Take a poll. Ask 100 people what they think of your idea.

JF: How did you come about creating such an item as the JB3? I read the original prototype was made out of duct tape, ankle weights, thick rubber bands and office binders. How were you able to take those pieces and say, “I’m going to make a revolutionary piece of equipment with this”?

JB: It was the JB3 and we changed the model into the JB Intensive Trainer. Part of the story is right, I was sitting at the park watching how bio-mechanics work watching people walk and watching them jog. When I just imagined a band running down the back of their legs; add resistance, concentric sort of exercise movements or natural walks. I just wanted to know what it would do. So I went to the store, CVS, Wal-Mart, Craft Store, grabbed some bands, duct tape, a belt and ankle braces. I came home and put it together and it looked like crap. Total crap. But it worked perfectly. I had to make some adjustments to it. We had about 6 generations of the product before it came to a point where I could actually show people. But it worked very well. It definitely had us to the next point where it’s figuring out the intellectual property part of it. Develop those pieces and file for a patent and move forward.

JF: Did you have any sort of engineering experience before this?

JB: No. When I was young, I was always putting stuff together like taking radios apart and just looking at pieces. I was a playful kid, but always interested in how things worked and moved. I’m very good at seeing things in my mind and I can put it together. It may not work how I see it in my mind, but it’ll be close.

JF: For those who are yet to be aware of this product, what services can it provide to an athlete?

JB: For athletes, it can help with injury prevention. It can also help with increased balance and also speed and agility. The main market that we go for is the older people with back and knee problems, and nerve problems as well that need core strengthening and need a product that can unload the knee and the hip joints.

JF: Are there any NBA players using your product?

JB: George Hill uses our product. My cousin, Morris Peterson. Tracy McGrady. A couple of athletes, but we don’t particularly market to the athletes. We’ve gotten a lot of joy from watching the older people really be able to avoid pain with this product.

JF: If injuries played less of a factor in your NBA career, do you think you are still making products like the JB3 or investing in real estate?

JB: Yes, I think I would. It’s just the person who I am. I would have eventually figured it out. Because I looked at a lot of the NBA guys and the way we peak, we peak so high financially and then we just drop-off once the game is over. That’s not really a process. It’s not a long-term process. That’s not a way  into wealth. That’s when you have to turn back into normal employees. In my world, I want to keep growing, growing, growing. Only way I can do that is through capacity, so I would have eventually figured it out. Even at age 40. I definitely think the route that I’ve taken early has helped because I had to run into some hard times and struggle to figure out who I was.

JF: So even as an NBA player you were still thinking ahead to life after basketball?

JB: I was thinking ahead, but the injuries really gave me time to sit and really think.

JF: What was the most difficult part of the transition from out of the NBA to entrepreneur?

JB: When you couldn’t let your family off, you get to your finances and you don’t really know about it and you have to listen to a bunch of people and you don’t understand it. That’s really frustrating. You have a lot and you have to rely on other people to save you in every category. I don’t think that’s living, depending on other people. That’s what I hate to do. My goal was to set out and understand every part of life and every part of finances as much as I could to be a person that can build a process and not have to worry about that ever again and to understand what the financial guy does and actually bring a return like they’re supposed to bring. To understand if they’re shooting me some bull or not.

JF: Were there any moments along the way that tested your faith and commitment? To whatever you were doing? Your NBA career to becoming the businessman you are today?

JB: Yes. My four years out before my comeback in 2010. When your bank account doesn’t look the same, you want to go back to work. I definitely wanted to get back because of the fact that I wanted to prove myself that I wanted to get back. You have to fight what’s there. That’s where you learn who you really are and how much faith you do have in the creator. You’re on the right path and in the place you are because you’re supposed to be there. If you believe in yourself, you can do whatever you want.

JF: Are you a believer in everything happening for a reason?

JB: Absolutely. I’m in a place right now because I’m supposed to be there.

JF: Are you exactly where you want to be?

JB: Absolutely. I’m on the path and moving towards the person I want to be.

JF: Do you want to help current NBA players in realizing their value off the court once their careers end?

JB: Absolutely. That’s one of the biggest things, but I ican’t help if I’ve never been there. If I have to go, then I could show them what not to do.

JF: How was the pressure of being a high school kid going into the NBA?

JB: I don’t really deal with pressure. I don’t really know what pressure is to tell you the truth. When people say there’s pressure, that’s just people talking. It’s just critics. People try to put pressure on you. But what’s the worst that could happen? Your dreams don’t come true and you work with something else. I don’t think there was any pressure for me. I just went out and did what I did everyday and, like I said, I think God’s hand was on me to fulfill that destiny in that time of my life and it was already ordained.

JF: So there was never a moment you were thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m out here playing against these guys when I was just attending class not even a year ago?”

JB: No, because I had planned that. After 10th grade, I was looking at the NBA, looking at the high and low. People told me I had the skills and I got out there and knew I had to perform. Even today, it reminds me of my product. My product reminds me a lot of me. Even with what we’re doing now, the press and the interviews, it’s just the same thing that was happening before I got into the NBA. There was no pressure. I was just enjoying the moment and doing what I do, continuing to work hard.

JF: Did you emulate your game after anybody?

JB: Not really. It’s probably hard to believe but I didn’t watch a lot of basketball when I was younger. It was just gifted. I was really gifted at the game. I’d watch some of the playoffs and everybody watched Michael Jordan, but I kind of had my own style. I was a little different. Real tall guard. I really just had my own game.

JF: Sounds like it was better you didn’t watch. You didn’t know if you were a guard or a forward or a center. You were just playing basketball, right?

JB: Yeah, that’s it.

JF: Do you think you could have continued playing after your second retirement?

JB: Yes. I could still be playing today. I work out every other day. I’m not working out to do anything, but I’m just going to do that the rest of my life because I’m a workout fanatic. I feel like I could get back out there now, though. But I’m learning a lot more out here. It’s going to help me in my long-term plan, where I’m here now.

JF: You were a member of one of the, for lack of a better word, eccentric rosters in those Indiana Pacer teams in the early 2000’s. Can you give me one lockerroom story involving yourself and those guys?

JB: The most memorable is not too good. Over in Detroit. That was a heck of an experience and a scary one, as well. That big fight that broke out.

JF: Were you on the bench at the time?

JB: Yeah, I was there. That was pretty crazy. The lockerroom was pretty tense afterwards. That stands out in my head the most.

JF: After the dust had settled, what was the lockerroom feeling like?

JB: Everybody was pretty excited and tense, and then it got real calm. Because you know you got 17,000 people out there going crazy and you don’t know what to expect. That was a moment where, “OK, you had a bunch of excitement, a lot of adrenaline and now we’re coming down and coming back to reality and we’re figuring out we’re still in this building.”

JF: Did you play any sort of role?

JB: It was weird, but I was trying to be more of a peace guy. I was a peacemaker. If somebody would have came running up to me, I would have had to defend myself.

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