On March 23rd of 1999, Kevin Durant was a 10-year old kid and his future favorite player, Dirk Nowitzki, was still a relatively unknown 2nd-year player coming off a disappointing rookie season that began with boos from fans who wanted Robert Traylor on draft night instead of Dirk. But on this night, Dirk had a breakout game with a career-high 31 points against the Houston Rockets. Mavs fans took notice, but not even the most die-hard Dallas fan thought Dirk would one day change the game and inspire near 7-footers like Kevin Durant to play like shooting guards.
The very next day, a lanky 6’11” kid named Jonathan Bender also scored 31 points, in 31 minutes, breaking Michael Jordan’s 18-year-old record of 30 at the McDonald’s All-American game. What is rarely mentioned about this performance is Bender also had 10 assists, 3 blocks and two 3-pointers in the game. That was enough for every college and NBA scout to take notice.
Although the Maroon Tide player from Picayune, Miss. originally agreed to play for Mississippi State, he changed his mind two months after the All-American game and announced he was taking his talents to the NBA.
“I bring quickness. I think I can jump pretty well. I got a little shot, I can dribble a little bit. I can defend the ‘3.” said a modest Jonathan Bender when describing his game.
ESPN’s Jay Bilas was a little more flattering when describing it.
“Jonathan Bender is every bit 6-11 and he is long. Bender is a wonderful athlete that can stroke it from beyond the 3-point line, and can really run the floor. He has a nice touch and has shot-blocking ability.”
The Raptors drafted Bender with their 5th pick, then traded him to Indiana for power forward Antonio Davis — one of the strongest and toughest players in the league and the complete opposite of Bender. During the first practices and camp, Bender impressed the Pacers’ staff, including Larry Bird, who was shocked by Benders ability to “jump pretty well.”
“He took off, jumped with the ball in his right hand, in midair switched to his left hand and did a windmill dunk from the free-throw line,” Bird recalled with a hearty laugh. “I couldn’t believe it.”
As much as I would like to believe that story, I don’t!
We do know Bender can jump from the free throw line because he did it in a high school dunk contest and in the 2001 NBA Dunk contest, but his left-handed free throw dunk wasn’t that impressive and Bender finished fifth in the event.
Despite flashes of brilliance here and there, Bender failed to meet the great expectations people had for him. And after seven injury-plagued seasons, he decided to call it quits in 2006. The news headlines about his retirement were full of words like “wash-out” and “bust.” Far from the “shooting guard in a big man’s body” headlines and praises once associated with his name and always associated with All-Star Dirk Nowitzki.
2006 was also the year Dirk went to the NBA finals and a tall linky college kid out of Texas with a nice shooter’s touch made himself eligible for the NBA draft. I’m assuming you know who I’m talking about?
After a 3- year hiatus, Bender returned to the NBA for a 25-game stint with the Knicks, where he actually averaged as many or more points and rebounds than four of his previous seasons. The highlight of the final year was a win vs the Timberwolves, when he scored 14 points with four 3-pointers in 12 minutes and a season-high of 16 points in 19 minutes against OKC and a young Kevin Durant. Durant scored a game-high 30 in that game and made all of us that remembered that linky kid from Picayune with hops and a deadly shot think what could have been.
“Of all the guys I’ve ever seen in this league, in 20-plus years, in terms of basketball ability he’s in the top 1 or 2 percent,” said Dallas Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle.
This may sound like a could have, should have, would have sob story but it’s not. So don’t feel bad for Bender because he’s doing just fine. He’s currently living as a “social entrepreneur, humanitarian, mentor, author and inventor” in Houston, TX and you can check out his invention, the JB Intensive Trainer, and all of the great things he’s up to on his website http://jonathanbender.com.
As for that other tall linky kid named Durant that’s doing great things in the NBA….well, you don’t have to look very hard to see or hear what he’s doing.