Higher Education Can Jonathan Bender, a sweet-shooting 6'11" string bean who was the No. 5 pick in the draft, make the great leap from Picayune Memorial High to NBA stardom?

July 11, 1999

After a whirlwind trip to Indianapolis last week, Jonathan
Bender arrived back home in Picayune, Miss., with a suitcase
full of Indiana Pacers paraphernalia, a few encouraging words
from coach Larry Bird and a healthy respect for president Donnie
Walsh. "That man," Bender told his half brother, Donnell
Spriggs, "is slick. He looks like one of those mob guys."

"What kind of suit was he wearing?" Spriggs asked.

"No suit," said Bender. "Just suit pants. Silk shirt,
unbuttoned, no undershirt. I'm telling you, slick. Smoking
cigarettes. But, see, he was using this ratty, cheap lighter. I
told him, 'Doctor, I'm going to get you a new, expensive
lighter.'"

Considering the confidence that the Pacers have shown in Bender,
perhaps a small token of appreciation for the team capo would be
appropriate. On June 30 Indiana agreed in principle to swap
veteran center-forward Antonio Davis for the rights to the 6'11"
Bender, whom the Toronto Raptors had taken earlier that day with
the No. 5 pick in the NBA draft. The 18-year-old Bender is not
the first to join the NBA straight out of high school, of
course, but he is the first, as Spriggs notes, to jump directly
from the PBA. That's the Picayune Basketball Association, the
unofficial confederacy of playground luminaries in their small
town hard by the Louisiana border.

Indeed, Bender's story, compared with those of other schoolboys
to make the jump recently, has a delicious off-the-beaten-path
aspect. Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Garnett, the No. 5
pick in the '95 draft, played his senior year at much chronicled
Farragut Academy in Chicago. Kobe Bryant, who was picked 13th by
the Charlotte Hornets the following year (and immediately traded
to the Los Angeles Lakers), played in suburban Philadelphia and
had a well-known former pro, Joe (Jellybean) Bryant, for a
father. Bender loves his hometown of 10,633 but admits, "Not
many make it out of here." As far as his direct exposure to the
NBA goes, that commenced on April 1, when he and the rest of the
high school all-stars in Magic's Roundball Classic were taken to
see the Detroit Pistons play the Chicago Bulls at The Palace of
Auburn Hills.

Bender's fame had begun to grow two weeks earlier at the
McDonald's All-America game at Iowa State. First, the Picayune
Pistol electrified the crowd during the slam-dunk contest with a
take-off-from-the-foul-line jam. Then he scored 31 points (one
better than the record set in 1981 by somebody named Jordan),
grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked three shots in 31 memorable
minutes.

Suddenly a bunch of NBA scouts were ready to go off on a Bender.
It's commonly--though mistakenly--believed that Bender,
convinced he could play with the pros, chose to back out of his
letter of intent to Mississippi State after that game. In truth,
he had decided to bypass college much earlier. During his senior
season he had confided to Picayune Memorial point guard Ricky
Bennett that he was almost certainly going to skip college, and
his former summer league coach and close adviser, a man with the
bayou-flavored name of Thaddeus Foucher, knew weeks before the
McDonald's showcase that Bender was making the jump.

So why did he commit to Mississippi State? Call it a combination
of uncertainty and butt-covering. "It just seemed so, you know,
final to say I was going pro, when something could always
change," says Bender. "I'm sorry it happened the way it did."
Not as sorry as Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury, who had made the
three-hour drive from Starkville to Picayune to speak at
Jonathan Bender Day on April 30, two weeks before Bender told
him that he wasn't coming. Still, Stansbury has not spoken ill
of Bender in public and says, "I think he'll be an NBA All-Star
in three years."

That may be a bit strong. Indiana is an excellent fit for Bender
because of its veteran makeup, but the Pacers haven't been built
to turn him into an instant All-Star, the way Minnesota was
tailored for the talents of Garnett; swingman Jalen Rose is the
Pacers' current star-in-waiting, and even he fights for minutes.
Bender's shortcomings are obvious: His skinny, 210-pound hide
will be beaten like a rug whenever he ventures inside, and when
he's in a shooting slump, he will learn that the distance from
the PBA to the NBA is measured in basketball light-years.
Foucher (foo-SHAY) played a major role in Bender's decision to
skip college, but he concedes, "The one thing Jonathan missed is
learning how to play in front of 18,000 hostile fans. That's a
long, long way from playing in front of 400 friendly ones in
Picayune."

Still, Bender is a truly gifted player, "a freak of nature," as
Michigan State forward Morris Peterson, his second cousin, puts
it. At least three other NBA teams--the Lakers, the Houston
Rockets and the Phoenix Suns--were reportedly trying to trade up
to land Bender, and a reliable source says that the Bulls
coveted him, although they weren't comfortable using the No. 1
pick on a high schooler. His outstanding attributes are shooting
range and quick-jumping ability, the former extraordinary for
someone his size, the latter essential for a shot blocker. Bird
told him during their meeting in Indianapolis that his value
lies in his versatility. "Coach said he wanted four players who
could play every position but center," says Bender. "He has me,
Jalen and [second-year forward] Al Harrington, and he wants to
get a fourth somewhere."

The major criticism of Bender's game is that he's soft, but
that's a predictable comment. Stringy types who are comfortable
on the perimeter--it's hard to imagine a 6'11" guy talking
seriously about playing four positions with center not being one
of them--and who have Bender's placid disposition on the court
are always labeled soft. Maybe they are, to a degree. The
challenges for Bender are to develop a back-to-the-basket game,
play aggressively but under control, and do the dirty work that
earns teammates' respect. If he does a poor job on those things,
he'll become the next Brad Sellers. If he does a fair job, he'll
become the next Derrick McKey. If he does a great job, he'll
become the next Kevin Garnett.

There are also whispers that Bender is lazy, but that's
ridiculous. Four or five times a week last summer--and two or
three times a week even during his high school season--Bender
made the 50-minute drive from Picayune to New Orleans to sweat
through the arduous workouts of famed fitness instructor Mackie
Shilstone. Bender is still working with Shilstone, trying to add
stamina, muscle and another 25 pounds to a frame that last year
carried only 173. Off the court, the Pacers would seem to have
even fewer worries about Bender. The latest member of the NBA's
callow corps stays out of trouble, presses his own clothes,
tells his family members daily that he loves them and even keeps
his room clean. In a bulging scrapbook kept by his mother,
Willie Mae, is a letter sent to him recently by Diane Seal, one
of his high school teachers. "I've never heard an unkind comment
about you, and I'll always remember you as a gentle, polite,
hardworking, unassuming gentleman," she wrote. "The Lord could
not have chosen a finer or more worthy ambassador than you."

Spriggs says Bender gets high, "but it's on playing ball,
fishing, crabbing, shopping and going to church"--and one other
thing: getting his hair cut. It's not unusual for Bender and the
25-year-old Spriggs to have a 3 a.m. appointment at the Hair
Gallery in Picayune, or to roust their favorite barber, Durell
Thomas, out of bed for an unscheduled wee-hours trim. Spriggs
calls Thomas Marly-Marl, his own riff on marvelous.
"Marly-Marl's the best barber in the world," says Spriggs, "and
I'm through talking."

"My hands are up," adds Bender in agreement.

Those are two of their pet expressions, applicable as an
exclamation point to any pronouncement about which they are
absolutely positive. "All right, good enough" is what they say
when someone doesn't understand them but they just want to end
the conversation. They use "The Lord is my shepherd" when
something goes wrong but there's nothing they can do about it.
Perhaps on some future winter evening Garnett will reel off a
triple double at the expense of a certain Indiana rookie, and
Bender will shake his head and say softly, "The Lord is my
shepherd." They also address almost everyone as Doctor, witness
Bender's comment to Walsh. The rookie suspects, however, that he
will not call Bird anything but Coach.

It's a small but interesting world these half brothers have
created in Picayune, a kind of half-hip, half-hick
Pleasantville. Just because the town is small, though, doesn't
mean the obstacles faced by the young people in it are, well,
picayune. Bender's grandmother, Cora Hinton, a delightful woman
of 62 whose culinary specialty is what she calls a
"better-than-sex chocolate cake," tells how difficult it was for
her grandson to turn his back on a best friend who started using
drugs. "But he did it," says Cora. Willie Mae almost dissolves
into tears when she describes how Jonathan rose above the town's
young male culture, which values partying and underachievement
and has kept so many from leaving Picayune. "I'm just so proud
of what he became, how he kept his integrity," she says. Spriggs
talks about the silent and sad moments they've shared at the
grave of their father, Donald Bender, who died five years ago,
at 41, of an epileptic seizure.

"Jonathan carries our father inside of him," says Spriggs. "It's
part of what pushes him, what drives him. He won't talk much
about it, even to me, but it's there. He knows he's been given a
gift from God, and now he knows he has to work hard to do the
most with it. I have no doubt that he will."

And he's through talking.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER FINISHING SCHOOL Bender scored a record 31 points in the McDonald's all-star game, making him a bona fide lottery pick. COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN HAPPY DAYS Willie Mae, keeper of the scrapbook, prizes her son's integrity.

"The one thing Jonathan missed," says Foucher, "is learning how
to play in front of 18,000 hostile fans."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)