Not Being Randy Livingston: THe Jonathan Bender Story

BY MICHAEL MCCANN

At the young age of 25, Indiana Pacers forward Jonathan Bender has decided to retire from NBA due to chronic knee problems. Bender has suffered knee problems since before entering the NBA out of high school in 1999 (he was selected 5th overall in the 1999 NBA Draft). It is thought that his knee problems stem from a growth spurt while he was a teenager, as it moved his knee out of alignment and also caused slippage of the hamstring. The problem gradually worsened over his 7-year NBA career, during which time he played in only 271 regular season and playoff games.

Obviously, this is a sad story. Bender may have had the talent to become an NBA star, but because of his chronic knee problems, we”ll never know. This story has special meaning to me, as Bender is from Mississippi, where I’m a law professor and where many of my students are from.

But there is another way of looking at this story: By skipping college, Bender attracted the interest of NBA teams before his chronic knee problems became apparent to NBA scouts. As a result, he was able to embark on a 7-year NBA career, during which time he earned (according to my calculations) about $29.5 million. Had he matriculated to Mississippi State, and watched his knee problems worsen there, he would have certainly had a shorter NBA career, and he may have never had an NBA career. In other words, had he taken the “safe” route and attended college, he may have never earned a dollar playing basketball, let alone $29.5 million. And yet now, if he wants, he can attend Mississippi State and take all of the courses he wants–and be able to focus on those courses rather than on basketball (something which would have been impossible had he matriculated to Mississippi State in 1999). And of course, if he does go back to school, he’ll also have millions of dollars in hand (kind of like the Olson Twins at NYU).

Bender’s story is quite dissimilar from that of Randy Livingston, who, as some of you may remember, was the nation’s top high school player in 1993. Had he declared for the 1993 NBA Draft, Livingston would have been a sure lottery pick. Now, to be fair, 1993 was PKG (“Pre-Kevin-Garnett”), meaning for Livingston to declare for the draft would have likely been perceived as more “risky” than if it had been a few years later, particularly since he was a guard and since the last player to do so was Bill Willoughby in 1975. But Livingston thought seriously about declaring. And then he decided to take the safe route and attend Louisiana State University, where the Louisiana-native would play before his family and friends.

Unfortunately, before his first practice at LSU, Livingston tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, a serious injury that would require reconstructive knee surgery. He would never be the same, and his knee problems would linger. But even worse, had Livingston suffered the exact same injury while playing for an NBA team, he would have still received a guaranteed contract worth millions of dollars. Livingston would eventually play in the NBA, but as a journeyman, bouncing from 10-day contract to 10-day contract. Indeed, most of his pro career has been spent in the minors, earning minor-league salaries.

As disappointing a time as this must be for Jonathan Bender, I suspect a part of him is grateful that he jumped to the NBA in 1999. In just seven years, he has earned far more money than 99.99999% of the population will ever earn, and other than a knee not good enough to play pro basketball, he’s in good health. And back in Picayune, Mississippi, I suspect Mrs. Bender and the rest of the Bender family are grateful as well.

But I wonder what thoughts crossed Randy Livingston’s mind when he saw that Jonathan Bender retired? We’ll never know, but I suspect it was something along the lines of, “Take it from me: It’s not that bad being Jonathan Bender.”

Michael McCann (HLS’05) is an assistant professor of law at Mississippi College School of Law. He co-runs Sports Law Blog (http://www.sportslawblog.com) with Greg Skidmore (HLS’05).

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