Growing up in the town of Picayune, Mississippi, Jonathan Bender was anything but the average teenager. Sparked by a growth spurt in high school, the 6-11 forward started to garner national attention for his amazing skills on the basketball court. As a senior at Picayune High School, Bender averaged 23.1 points, 15 rebounds, five blocked shots and four assists per game. His stock rose even further when he scored a record 31 points for the West at the 1999 McDonald's High School All-America Game, breaking the previous mark of 30 set by the legendary Michael Jordan in 1981.
The media was so impressed that they started calling Bender the next Kevin Garnett, and his decision to go straight to the NBA from high school further helped those comparisons. In 1999, the Toronto Raptors selected Bender with the fifth overall selection of the NBA draft. He would eventually be traded to the Indiana Pacers prior to playing his first professional game.
But Bender would never reach the same echelon as Garnett, spending most of his seven-year NBA career on the sidelines due to chronic knee problems. The constant injury problems finally forced Bender to call it quits at the age of 25, as he announced his retirement from the league on February 4, 2006.
Bender's chronic knee problems have widely been rumored to stem from a growth spurt while he was a teenager, as it moved his knee out of alignment and also caused slippage of the hamstring. The problem gradually worsened during his NBA career, during which he played in only 271 regular season and playoff games.
Today, Bender has turned to his passion for music, where he has big plans for his label, Akright Records, which he started shortly after turning pro in 1999. In our interview, Bender speaks about the challenges of his NBA career, as well as the new challenges facing him today in a music industry that he describes as cutthroat.
ASM: So I see that Ebony recently selected you as one of America's most eligible bachelors.
Bender: Yeah, it was a nice promotion. They picked a young lady out of Houston and she was excited and it was a cool little thing. It's cool, because I don't go out on many dates. It was a nice little date and they took pictures and stuff. It turned out pretty cool.
ASM: Let's go back to when you were in high school and there were a lot of rumors flying around about whether you were heading straight to the NBA or not. What led to you signing with Mississippi State?
Bender: Actually, I had a lot of media on my back. They heard a rumor that I was going to the NBA straight out of high school. In order to get all the reporters and media off my back, I had to go ahead and sign with a college. But the NBA was my plan all along.
ASM: You were the fifth overall selection in the 1999 draft by the Toronto Raptors, but you were traded to the Indiana Pacers about a month later for Antonio Davis. Was that trade expected?
Bender: Yeah, I already knew the trade was going down. Actually, I had the pleasure of picking the team that I wanted to go to. The Clippers were going to get me, but I wanted to go to a winning team. My agent told me that Toronto was going to pick me and I was going to get traded to Indiana. I said, 'That's OK.' I knew it was going to happen before they drafted me.