Jonathan Bender had to step away from the game he loved in 2006, when he retired from the NBA after six years of dealing with chronic knee problems.

The 7-foot forward didn't regret the decision then. He knew it was part of some kind of plan.

"It's part of God's plan, " Bender said. "I didn't regret it. I haven't regretted anything about it. That's what I had to do at the time. I know it was a setup for something bigger."

During that time off, Bender became an entrepreneur and founded several of his own businesses.

But after the break, Bender is trying to plant himself firmly back in the NBA.

Bender signed with the New York Knicks in December, and played in 25 games with one start.

But Bender wants to play more than one season. So he's bringing in the cavalry to help him stay in the league.

Bender, just like former NFL and Tulane quarterback Patrick Ramsey, is using his good friend and fitness expert Mackie Shilstone to help him get into shape to continue playing at his sport's highest level.

Bender, drafted No. 5 overall by the Toronto Raptors out of Picayune (Miss.) High School in the 1999 NBA draft and then traded to Indiana, never played a full season for the Pacers. He played in 78 games in the 2001-02 season, but never played more than 59 games in any other season.

Bender played in nine games his last two seasons for Indiana, including only two in the 2005-06 season, his last with the Pacers.

Bender has worked with Shilstone before. Shilstone helped Bender get in shape before the draft, when Bender was a budding young high school star. Bender and Shilstone remained friends while Bender took his time off from the NBA.

Shilstone has a long list of famous clients after 30 years of work, including Serena Williams, Michael Spinks and Ozzie Smith, along with a host of NBA players. He does most of his work in New Orleans after years of traveling, but he will travel on occasion, like he did to help Williams in Florida.

The best thing Shilstone can do to help him get back in the NBA for good is improve his cardiovascular stamina, Bender said.

"Without that, you can't play the game. I don't care how big and strong you are, how muscular you are and how much skill you have, " Bender said. "Let's say I get in shape and my knees are fine, and I get tired. Then I'm putting myself in a predicament where I can really get hurt and really tear up something."

Bender and Shilstone said Bender's knees are no longer a problem. Shilstone had Bender evaluated by several doctors, and those doctors cleared Bender completely to do whatever program Shilstone prescribes.

"I have an all-clear, I have a green light to go to him, " Shilstone said. "Now, because I have copious data on Jonathan, I know what to do."

The time off helped Bender quite a bit, especially considering he wasn't jumping on a hardwood floor anymore, Shilstone said.

"The biggest challenge is really how much more does Jonathan want to play, " Shilstone said. "I can't answer that, but my job is to make him ready for this year with an understanding of where you want to go. I think Jonathan's future is not in the NBA. He is truly an entrepreneur. ... His future is so much greater than the NBA."

Another thing that is helping Bender is his youth, Shilstone said. Bender is only 29.

"If you think about it, he got in the league at 17, " Shilstone said. "He's not that guy who gets in the league at 23, he takes three years off, and he's 35 now. This kid's still in his 20s."

Part of Bender's recovery involves a special knee brace that he created himself.

It isn't a typical hard, plastic knee brace. It's a series of bands that run from the waist down to the Achilles tendon, attached by a harness and a stirrup.

The brace takes pressure off the knee and makes the wearer stand up straight, Bender said.

Bender came up with the design, which is being tested at Purdue University, just by tinkering around a bit.

"I went over to CVS and grabbed some bands, and Wal-Mart, bands and ankle braces, just playing around, " Bender said. "I actually came up with something that ended up taking pressure off my knees and helped me."

Creating a new knee brace wasn't the only thing Bender did while he was away from the league. Bender became a businessman and started organizations such as Jonathan Bender Enterprises, an investment corporation, and the Jonathan Bender Foundation, a non-profit children's organization.

The time away was actually a lot of fun, Bender said.

"I started doing a lot of entrepreneur stuff ... and just having a lot of fun outside of basketball, becoming a businessman, and having a lot of fun helping, " Bender said. "I got sort of attached to that. But I still heard that echo inside that kept bothering me."

So Bender returned to basketball with the Knicks in December. Bender got to the Knicks thanks to an old friend from the Pacers, Donnie Walsh. Walsh, who was the Pacers' CEO and president during Bender's tenure there, is now the Knicks' president of basketball operations.

Walsh was calling Bender for three years and asking him how he was doing, Bender said. When Bender decided he wanted to come back, he called Walsh to let him know.

"The whole time I was off he was calling my agent, asking how I was, " Bender said. "We talked, and he said if I ever decided to come back, make sure I call him first."

Bender met Shilstone back in 1997 as a junior in high school through his mentor, Thaddeus Foucher. They've been good friends ever since.

Bender can stay in the NBA for a long time because of his work ethic and attitude, Shilstone said.

"I've watched what he did to recover his own knee. It was short of amazing, " Shilstone said. "And secondly, I know the man. I know the young man. I know what's in his heart."

Bender said he proved his critics wrong by returning to the Knicks this past season. At this point, he's only trying to satisfy himself.

"I'm not trying to satisfy anybody but my inner warrior, " Bender said. "When your inner warrior says there's still something left, you've got to quiet him up and shut him down before you can sail off into the sunset."

"I have an all-clear, I have a green light to go to him, " Shilstone said. "Now, because I have copious data on Jonathan, I know what to do."

The time off helped Bender quite a bit, especially considering he wasn't jumping on a hardwood floor anymore, Shilstone said.

Mackie Spotlight

EJGH’s very own Mackie Shilstone, Executive Director of the Fitness Principle, is in New York working with Serena Williams as she goes for another U.S. Open title. As Williams’s Fitness Coach, Mackie will be part of the team preparing her for matches throughout the tournament. To give everyone a behind-the-scenes look at how Williams prepares for every opponent, Mackie is writing a daily postcard for detailing all the day’s happenings. Check back daily for updates. 8/22/13
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