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A Magnificent Life

This inspirational story comes to us from Geno Lawrenzi Jr. in Springfield, MO.

As a gadabout international journalist and magazine writer, I have had the good fortune to meet some of the world’s most interesting people. Television and movie stars, sports celebrities, political leaders, multi-millionaire lotto winners, medical researchers and a lot more.

Interviewing people who have made a great success in life is an endlessly fascinating profession. I once had the pleasure of doing a telephone interview with a construction worker who had just won $26 million in a PowerBall drawing. He was telling me what happened when he realized the PowerBall ticket he and his older brother had shared had won the big prize.

‘I showed up at his door,’ said the worker. ‘Knocked at the door. And when he opened it, I said, ‘I did it for you, brother.’ My brother was crippled up by all the hard construction work he had done all his life. And when he looked at me holding the winning ticket, we both lost it. We cried like babies and hugged each other.’

When I hung up the phone after finishing the interview, I had to wipe my own eyes with a Kleenex. It was that emotional.

A similar experience happened recently when a magazine publisher asked me to write a story on a former National Basketball Association player named Jonathan Renee Bender.

Born in Picayune, Miss., just 45 miles from New Orleans, Jonathan was not only a player for the NBA — he was a star in every sense of the word. And even more important, at least from my point of view, he was a young man of faith, a believer who carried his spiritual convictions with him onto the court of every game he ever played.

Jonathan was six foot 11. He thrilled his hometown fans at Picayune High School with the three-pointers he connected with consistently, the shots he blocked from opposing players and the rebounds he grabbed to help his team win games.

His outstanding achievements as an athlete continued in college. Today there are some sports commentators who say it would have been better if he had stayed in college instead of accepting an offer from the Toronto Raptors who selected him as the team’s fifth pick in the 1999 NBA draft.  This, the sports experts say, would have given Jonathan the opportunity to develop his physical stamina that could have protected him in the brutal NBA games.

But Jonathan was 18. He was brimful of energy and confidence. He knew he could play in the NBA. And he became a spectacular early success.

Despite a verbal commitment to Mississippi State University, Jonathan moved to Toronto where he was traded to the Indiana Pacers for veteran forward Antonio Davis. In his first game against Cleveland on Dec. 10, 1999, he scored 10 points in 13 minutes — the first high school draftee to ever score in double figures in his NBA debut.

Jonathan continued to play superior basketball. He enjoyed an outstanding performance in the Pacers 2004 play-off series with the Celtics, leading the team in scoring and rebounds.

The Pacers made headlines around the world when they offered Jonathan a contract that would pay the young man from Mississippi $28.5 million over a four-year period.

Then the injuries came.

The problem started with a constant pain in his knees, the joints that make NBA players super-stars. Jonathan tried to ignore his physical problems. He played in 78 games in the 2001-02 season…46 games the following season…21 games the next season.

His pain was so great that he could only play seven games in 2004-05 and two games in 2005-06.  The Pacers had no choice and gave him a waiver in June 2006. Jonathan’s points per game had slipped to 5.6 games and in basketball parlance, he was a bust.

At first Jonathan was devastated by the waiver. This was the same player who had thrilled a packed house in 1999 at Magic’s Round Ball Classic, scoring 11 points, grabbing seven rebound and blocking three shots.

Fortunately for Jonathan, he had one thing nobody could take away — not even the NBA. That was his faith.

Using some of the money the NBA had paid him, he set up the Jonathan Bender Foundation and formed multiple companies, including a television production company that provides documentaries and realty shows for network and cable TV.

His foundation, headquartered in Sugarland, Texas, helps athletes in high school and college as well as professional athletes plan for a future after they leave sports. Nobody knows better than Jonathan how a sports career can reverse itself. If it happened to him, he reasons, it can happen to anybody.

Today he hosts a weekly radio program, ‘The Courtside CEO,’ on WebTalk radio where he interviews business, sports and health CEOs.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, Jonathan used his production company to produce an excellent documentary, ‘A Brand New Orleans.’ The program was produced in 2007 with the aim of bringing hundreds of thousands of displaced people back home to the Bayou country they were forced to leave.

Jonathan gives all the credit for his success in the NBA and in his entrepreneurship to God. Without his faith, he said, he couldn’t have done it.

I would say that’s a pretty magnificent life, wouldn’t you?

Geno Lawrenzi Jr. is an international journalist, magazine author and ghostwriter who lives in Springfield, MO. You can email him at laurenzigeno@gmail.com.

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