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 ail-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 Ail-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."