Hoop dreams? Not so much anymore. These days when the fifth pick in the 1999 NBA draft dreams, it's mostly business. Ideas are scrawled in bedside notebooks and money is ultimately spent. "I'll often wake up and write something down in the middle of the night," says Jonathan Bender, 28, who's evolved post-NBA into a sort of Doc Brown meets Mark Cuban inventor-entrepreneur, "because that's the time when I let my mind go places where I think of things that nobody else would ever waste their time thinking of."
Bender has kept the notebooks since his days with the Indiana Pacers, for whom he averaged 5.6 ppg over seven season, and he has pursued plenty of his ideas. Such as Bender Bands, a leg-conditioning apparatus for people to "work their legs while they're just walking around." Bender, whose career was cut short in '06 by knee ailments, concocted the product because he hated lower-body workouts. That one, he says, "has fallen to the side." As has Mardi Gras Tea, an energy drink he'd hoped to distribute primarily around New Orleans, where he now lives. Another Bender brainchild, a website called RawSkills.com that hosts video of youth sporting events, launched in May. He's also gotten involved in boxing management, music production and wine importing.
In 2007, two years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged Bender's hometown of Picayune, Miss., he started the nonprofit Jonathan Bender Foundation and the for-profit Jonathan Bender Enterprises. The former promotes education and health in impoverished Gulf Coast communities; the latter pairs low-income real estate development with revitalization efforts such as free finance classes for the needy. Bender once found himself at one of these low-income work sites and had another epiphany: a feel-good reality show called Brand New Orleans, akin to ABC's Extreme Makeover. Naturally, he started a production company to develop the idea. "Everything I want to try, I try it," says Bender, who jumped straight from high school to the pros. "If I lose, at least I tried. Then I move on to something else. Maybe I didn't do it the right way. But maybe I'll get it right next time."