If you remember Jonathan Bender at all, you probably think of him as one of those high school prodigies who never went to college and washed out quickly in the NBA.
Selected with the No. 5 pick in the 1999 NBA Draft, the lanky 7-foot teenager was destined to become the future of the Indiana Pacers, that weight to be slung on his shoulders in the post-Reggie Miller era.
You might remember the promise Bender once had; the guard-like quickness with which he moved his 7-foot frame, or how he could explode to the basket and throw down some of the prettiest-looking dunks you’ve ever seen. His wingspan would have made Jay Bilas blush, his perimeter game a primitive-age predecessor to Kevin Durant.
You probably don’t remember much about him on the court in the NBA, as he flamed out in just seven seasons, falling victim to a massive knee injury that virtually ended his career. And that’s probably where you forgot about him.
Jonathan Bender, his story blending into the common narrative about high schoolers coming out too early, blowing their fortunes and ending up vagabonds in the basketball economy. With no college education and a poverty-stricken upbringing, you might think Bender ended up like Darius Miles, a former high school star who fell into bankruptcy.
You probably think his story is a sad one, a cautionary tale you’d tell your kids about when explaining the value of an education.
But you’d be wrong.
Jonathan Bender is a self-made millionaire.
And he didn’t do it with his basketball skills. He did it with his brain.
There he was, sitting on a park bench in Houston just months after nagging knee injuries had finally forced him to call it a career, watching people walk by and wondering what might have been if things had turned out differently.
“The sky was the limit,” Bender said of his career, though there’s no trace of lament in his voice.
His time in the NBA started out well, as he became the only high schooler to score in double figures in his first game (10 points in 13 minutes). But he came along slowly, averaging minuscule minutes in his first two years before emerging as a solid contributor in 2002, putting up 8 points in 21 minutes per game. Bender signed a four-year, $28.5 million contract extension that offseason, and he figured to fit squarely into the Pacers’ plans going forward.
But that’s when his knees gave out. A major knee injury sidelined him for half of the 2003 season, and he was never the same, playing in just 30 games in the next three years. He retired following the 2006 season, a washout and a bust in the eyes of Pacers fans who had hoped he’d become the NBA’s next teenage star.
He wound up on that bench in Houston just months later. Though he was deep in thought on that particular afternoon, Bender wasn’t at any movie-like crossroads or stuck in the middle of a quarter-life crisis.
Unlike the stereotypical professional athlete (“we’ve been raised not to really use our brains,” he says), Bender had always been a deep thinker. He remembers an epiphany he had while sitting on another bench, at the Pacers game in 2005. He looked over at then-owner Mel Simon, in one of the few games the billionaire attended, and started to wonder how the mall construction magnate had gotten there.
“Those guys,” Bender says, speaking of NBA owners, “I always thought owning the team was their big business.
But when I did some investigating, I realized this was just a side thing to them. It was like their board game,” he said.
He drove past Simon’s house and marveled at the way the billionaire lived. “He had an 18-hole golf course in his front yard,” Bender recalls. “I was just amazed at how this guy functioned.”
So, he did some research, reading about Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan and the like. “I wanted to get into their mentality,” Bender said.