Monday, September 29, 2008

A Baller Who Actually Gives Back.

One thing that really sticks in my craw is when folks insist that professional athletes should "give back more to the community". Sure, athletes are paid, but merely making millions of dollars and being on TV doesn't automatically qualify you to speak on social issues, endorse political candidates, or save the starvin' chill'rens of North Philly. All it means is you've got a greater tax burden than the rest of the nation, and it's good PR to drop some of that money on a "foundation", which nearly every athlete has. I don't think it's reasonable to ask much more of these guys, many of whom don't even have a college degree. Besides, if we were all doing our part, there would be no need.

Still, it's quite refreshing to see an athlete who "gets it". And something tells me that former Pacers forward Jonathan Bender would have "gotten it" had he never even picked up a basketball.

I can't really do this story any justice without quoting the entire thing, so I'd encourage you guys to read the ESPN The Magazine article in its entirety on their site. It's really just that good.

A long-limbed forward with a 39-inch vertical leap, Jonathan Bender stood 6-foot-7 by the time he was 13 years old. When the soft-spoken teen graduated from Picayune Memorial High School in rural Mississippi, those who saw him play called him the next Magic, the next Jordan.

But Bender, skilled enough to forgo college for the NBA, had struggled with his arthritic knees, which soon became his Achilles' heel. After only six professional seasons, he had to walk away from basketball.

In 1999, Bender leaped onto the national stage when he broke Michael Jordan's scoring record in the McDonald's All-America game, totaling 31 points in what is considered the marquee event for America's most talented prep players. He committed to Mississippi State University but instead entered the 1999 NBA draft. The Toronto Raptors made Bender the fifth overall pick before trading his rights to the Indiana Pacers, who signed him to a three-year, $7 million contract. On December 10, 1999, Bender scored 10 points in 13 minutes against Cleveland, becoming the first high school draftee to reach double figures in his NBA debut. But his struggles began soon afterward.

While his play peaked at 78 games in 2001-02, he saw action in only 46 the following year. Then 21. Then seven. In 2005-06, only two. Ultimately, Bender averaged just 5.6 points in 237 regular-season NBA games. Following the 2001-02 season, he'd signed a four-year, $28.5 million contract extension. When he announced his retirement in February of 2006, the Pacers said the remainder of his contract would be paid out through an insurance policy.

He could have squandered his remaining millions or succumbed to depression over being labeled a "has-been" before his 25th birthday. But this player was also an entrepreneur who'd watched the business-savvy NBA team owners, thinking 'I can be like them.'

So in New Orleans, with the Gulf Coast still struggling two years after Hurricane Katrina, he established the nonprofit Jonathan Bender Foundation and the for-profit Jonathan Bender Enterprises. With both, Bender's idealism has manifested itself through initiatives like adopting elementary schools, building real estate ventures and offering free finance classes for some of New Orleans' poorest residents.
The quotes above only scratch the surface of the enormity of what Bender is doing in New Orleans, and I'd encourage each of you to peep the full article.

Well done, Jonathan.

Question: Do you think pro athletes should "give back more to the community"? Is expecting so much of people who might be ill-equipped a good idea?

Bender helping hurricane victims recover, rebuild [ESPN]

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