Millionaire interrupted: NBA player turns career-ending injury into business triumph

6/26/2013, 10:13 a.m.
When Jonathan Bender skipped college to go play for the Pacers in 1999, he became an instant millionaire.

When Jonathan Bender skipped college to go play for the Pacers in 1999, he became an instant millionaire. Not just millionaire, but multi-millionaire earning nearly $7 million for his first three years on the team. For a baller coming straight out of a town like Picayune, Mississippi, even $1 million would have been an extraordinary amount of money–let alone seven. Overnight he had literally become the richest man from his hometown. What’s more, only a few basketball superstars had made the transition straight from high school to the NBA successfully, the likes of Moses Malone, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant. While the odds were seemingly against Bender, he realized early success in the NBA. Then his knees started to give out.

So debilitating was the pain in his knees that, after seven years in the league, Bender took a four-year retirement. Not one to sit idle or suffer helplessly, during this time Bender worked with scientists and engineers to painstakingly develop a first-of-its-kind rehabilitative product to address joint pain and physical limitation problems that, even today, cannot be rectified with any other physical therapy intervention of device on the market. While using his own product prototype—now coined the “JB Intensive Trainer”—Bender became fit enough to re-enter the NBA, where he played for another year with the New York Knicks. When the team doctors did strengthening tests on Bender, they discovered he had the strongest lower extremities on the team! But, this time around things had changed. Bender had the entrepreneurial bug and the game just didn’t mean as much to him as it used to. So, at the ripe age of 29 and to the surprise of many, Bender again retired and the former NBA hopeful seemed to be at a career crossroad.

Suddenly the “boy wonder” who had shocked everyone by making the top-five of the ’99 draft was yesterday’s news. Fan support and media attention was no more. Without an MBA, let alone a college degree, he was already at a distinct disadvantage. But, Bender had always been one to beat the odds. And so he did...again.

According to the NBA Players’ Association, “60 percent of retired NBA players go broke five years after their NBA paychecks stop arriving.” When Bender retired he was determined not to become just another statistic. He channeled all of his energy and stunning work ethic into further developing, refining and marketing his JB Intensive Trainer product—a unique mechanism that serves a dual purpose by relieving pressure from the joints by acting as an “external hamstring” while also allowing for constant resistance for rehab on-the-go. The device adapts to a person’s natural movements for daily wear to relieve chronic knee, hip and back pain and/or to reach fitness training goals. The JB Intensive Trainer has been so well received, it’s now merchandised nationally in brick-and-mortar “Relax the Back" retail outlets.

Also wanting to give back to the community, Bender also established a non-profit organization, The Jonathan Bender Foundation, which strives to empower children in his community by providing them with the tools to obtain life skills that address their educational, health and social needs.

“Over the years many people commented on my ‘transition’ from athlete to businessman..." Bender recalled. "Just because I became a millionaire overnight didn’t mean I hadn’t earned it–or could rest on my laurels.

"I worked every day to earn every penny. I invested in myself and started my own companies that aligned with my passions. I was determined not just to cross the strict athlete-businessman barrier but to blur the lines forever and create my own path to success. I knew the millions I’d earned in basketball in my early-to-mid 20s wouldn’t be enough to sustain me forever, but it would give me the ability to take business risks and learn from my mistakes along the way. Retiring at 25 with a big bank account certainly didn’t mean I’d start letting grass grow beneath my size-16 sneakers. It was simply time to close one chapter of my life and begin another.”

Bender now shares his inspirational personal business plight and his blueprint for professional success and overcoming setbacks with others who are achievement-minded. He speaks to audiences across the country sharing that it's never too late to start succeeding and never too late to overcome setbacks.