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Monday, February 06, 2006
Not being Randy Livingston: The Jonathan Bender Story

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 selected 5th overall in the 1999 NBA Draft). It is thought that his knee problems stem 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 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 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 having 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 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."


Life is about choices. Making choices strictly on financial considerations is not the best way to go. Yes it was unfortunate what happened to Randy Livingston, but if you want to look at players'decisions from a financial consideration, there are successes and disappointments on both sides. I think of Len Cooke, who was at a time ,was a toss up in HS as who was better him or Lebron James. Both went pro out of HS, obviously it worked out for Lebron, but not for Len. He didn't make a pro roster. He could have attended St. John's. Then you have those who chose to finish college like Jamir Nelson. Jamir could of left early, but chose to stay. He made more money by staying. My point is that it is about choices, some work out some don't. The choices shouldn't be based solely on money.

If you are looking for commentary on the idea of allowing players to go from HS to pros or leaving college early (Clarett), my comment is it shouldn't be strictly about money. There are other important considerations.

Anonymous RJZ -- 2/06/2006 11:28 AM  

From what i heard maybe the NBA wants to be protected from making these horrible investments. That is almost 30 million dollars down the drain for some NBA owner or owners. A lot of these high school talen prove to be a waste of money and even if they become good, most do it after they become a free agent or for another team that drafted them, ala Jermaine Oneal, McGrady. Even if they do it for that team, most players are not good untill their first rookie contract expires. That is why the NBA is protecting the owners.

Anonymous tommie -- 2/06/2006 1:28 PM  

This is exactly the kind of argument that supports your argument at Duke. Which I was also able to watch the archives, you guys did a great job.

Anonymous ryguy -- 2/06/2006 2:02 PM  

Yeah, guys like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Lebron James, Tracy McGrady, Amare Stoudamire, Jermaine O'Neal, Rashard Lewis, Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, J.R. Smith, Al Jefferson, Kendrick Perkins, Sebastain Telfair have really been awful investments.

Too bad the NBA couldn't create a rule that protects itself from drafting guys like Ed O'Bannon, Rafel Arraujo, Mateen Cleaves, Troy Bell, Melvin Ely, Marcus Fizer, Reece Gaines, Marcus Banks, Kirk Haston, Brandon Armstrong, Jeryl Sassor, Curtis Borochardt, Marcus Haislip, Dahnty Jones . . . the list of college junior and senior busts could go on for a long time.

It's not about age. It's about others ability to measure to talent.

Blogger Michael McCann -- 2/06/2006 2:16 PM  

Thanks ryguy, I appreciate that (my post right above is a reply to Tommie).

Blogger Michael McCann -- 2/06/2006 2:17 PM  

In response to rjz, I think in most cases you shouldn't make choices based strictly on financial considerations, but in the case of pro basketball, the payoff is so tremendous that you would be foolish to pass that chance up. It's one thing if you want to be a kindergarten teacher but you become a lawyer so you can make a few million dollars. Being a lawyer is hard, tedious work.

It's different in the case of pro basketball. Like Mr. McCann said, it all depends on others' ability to evaluate you. Whether you can play or not, if someone else thinks you can, you're looking at free money if you're qany one of the college busts that McCann mentions. As a Milwaukeean, I know first hand about guys like Marcus Haislip: we drafted him. Somebody said along the line, "This guy has a 45 inch vert, there has to be something there!" There are plenty of guys in the NBA who you can tell are not particularly fond of basketball, i.e. Vince Carter. He went to his college graduation on the day of a big game just because that was important to him. As in Bender's case, the money he has made from the league will allow him to pursue all of his other interests.

Just because Bender and so many others flopped doesn't mean they robbed anyone, they just took advantage of a surreal world where pay is based on potential, not results. When you're in that world, you would be foolish not to think only about financial considerations, because everyone else is, and you might blow your chance.

Anonymous Sam -- 2/06/2006 2:52 PM  

tommie -- It's not like the NBA handed Bender $29 million the day he walked out of high school. The rookie contracts in the NBA are limited in dollar amounts. Bender got a lot of money beyond the rookie contract because he was a good player.

Blogger SBG -- 2/06/2006 8:10 PM  

Prof McCann,
Those players who are junior and senior busts do not waste one teams time or money only to be a superstar for another team. I agree they should have a choice, however Stern was pressured by owners to do this (as he had other reasons too). Maybe it gives them more time to discover health issues, as these players do not handle a full basketball load until college, which is still not even close to the NBA 82 game season.
If you look at the players you named, How many were good in there first three years? Lebron James. It is still too early to tell with Dwight Howard. McGrady switched teams as did Jermaine Oneal (bad investments for Portland and Toronto). JR Smith..9 points , no other stats worht noting...not good. Josh Smith...less than 9 points and 6 rebounds...not good, Sebastian telfair...point guard with 9 points and under 4 assists a game...not good, Al Jefferson...8 points 5 rebounds...not good. Now these players may be good one day, but the odds are it wont be for the teams they are on, oh yeah are the teams they are on winning? Any of them? NO.

Maurcie Clarrett ruined his career by trying to break rules, because he thinks he is bigger than the law. People first off need to learn to respect rules, then they are free to make whatever choice they like, if it abides by the rules.

But then again Prof McCann, thats why the NFL blows away the NBA in terms of EVERYTHING substantial!!!!! That is why the NFL has huge success and is the most popular sport in this country. Ever since highschool players started entering the draft on a substantial basis the league has had a bad image matched with poor ratings. Coincidence? No.

Anonymous Tommie -- 2/06/2006 8:20 PM  

When has Jonathan Bender had a good season? NEVER.

Anonymous tommie -- 2/06/2006 8:22 PM  

tommie - the argument isn't that there are high school busts. There are. But if can say that "life is about choices," why should it be up to the NBA to take away the choices available to prep players? Is it out of some paternalistic regard for the player's development?

Also, I'd like to point out that much more than high schoolers being drafted, the retirement of players like MJ (heck just MJ) probably had more to do with declining ratings.

And, perhaps someone else can answer these questions, but, knowing that the NFL's Super Bowl numbers are inflated, does the NFL actually get higher audience overall? Or is it just because they play so many fewer games?

Blogger Satchmo -- 2/06/2006 9:40 PM  

the nba has every right, it is a business, and it has every right to set an age limit, just as other places of employment

Anonymous tommie -- 2/06/2006 11:31 PM  

The NBA is a sport, a business yes, but teir requirements for a player should not based on age or color, education or any other factors, it should be based on only ones ability to play baskeball, if a guy who is 16 years old and is better than 50% of the NBA players, he should be in the league. Why should he be restriced from pursuing a career, that he has the legal right to work in. Just like a guy is who is in 40's and can play ball better than most, he should stay in the league.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 2/07/2006 1:12 AM  

I think it is pretty obvious about how the NFL blows away the NBA in every substantial aspect. Just look at the playoffs. I understand the NBA plays best of 7 series, however, that is not the problem, the excitement and marketing and overall appeal of the sport makes it more successful.
The NBA has the right to not let people of a certain age play, whether right or wrong, it is their right.
If a player out of college does bad right away (during his first contract), he is not going to get rewarded with a 25 or 30 million dollar contract. If a highschool player does, he will. Jonathan Bender has never amounted to anything in the NBA, neither has Kwame Brown, however they recieved those millions the second time around based on possible potential and their age.

Anonymous tommie -- 2/07/2006 9:57 AM  

I wrote something about Bender myself, and came to the exact same conclusion you did - good thing he skipped college.

Anonymous Chris -- 2/07/2006 11:28 AM  

Satchmo, the NFL also is a more competitive league and has more parity. Maybe it is because they do not let sub par performers like jonathan bender walk away with 30 million dollars. Teams play the salary cap better in the NFL as the contracts favor teams more than players, as they should.

Anonymous tommie -- 2/07/2006 11:11 PM  

I always see this issue couched in terms of "why should we protect XYZ from their bad decisions?" That's not the issue. You ALWAYS try to get protection for your bad decisions. You always try to make others pay for them. No, the issue here is, why should we punish the teams who make GOOD decisions?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 2/09/2006 9:06 PM  

The interesting aspect of the Mr. Bender's tale is the effect of these types of investments on the quality of the product the league produces. There is an opportunity cost that follows a blown investment like this, especially in a league with a (somewhat soft) salary cap. While it might be worse for Mr. Bender had the league been aware of his limitations before its investment, it would have been better for the team, and thus (potentially) better for the league in general.

As for the NFL's popularity, this is an odd time to make that argument, after an atrocious Super Bowl and boring playoff season resulted in a non-meritorious champion.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 2/14/2006 4:01 PM  

Actually, Jonathen Bender made around 37,270,00 during his career as he signed his rookie deal in 1999 (4 years/10.27 million) and later signed a 4 year/27 million dollar extension (which goes through 2007 season which will be covered by insurance)

Essentially, assuming taxes, agent fees, etc, JB probably has cleared close to 20 million and never has to work another day in his life.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/18/2006 7:05 PM  

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