In sad news about a player who went straight from high school to the NBA, Indiana Pacers swingman Jonathan Bender said in a statement released by the team on Saturday that he will not be able to play NBA basketball again because of a series of knee injuries. Bender, now 25, was drafted by the Toronto Raptors out of Picayune Memorial High School in Mississippi with the No. 5 pick in the 1999 NBA draft and was traded to the Pacers before the season started that fall. The Pacers liked him because of his smooth shot and his ability to block opponents' shots. However, the thin 7-footer never played a full 82 games, and only once did he play more than 60 games in a season. He played in 237 regular-season games with 27 starts in his career and was limited to nine games the past two seasons. "It'll be one of the questions when you look back in history. How good could this guy have been?" Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle said. "I'm not sure that there was any limit to his potential. It was just not to be." Bender has not yet filed retirement papers with the league. Bender's announcement follows long-term injuries to starting power forward/center Jermaine O'Neal and point guard Jamaal Tinsley and after shooting guard Stephen Jackson had to be hospitalized after crashing to the floor and injuring a hip while trying to make up for the absence of those two starters. Just when the rest of the Eastern Conference figured that the Pacers were going to be sliding in the playoff chase, however, Indiana recorded back-to-back victories against the Los Angeles Lakers and the Detroit Pistons, a game in which Jackson returned to action and finished with 20 points and seven rebounds. Not only that, but forward Peja Stojakovic, acquired from the Sacramento Kings in the trade of forward Ron Artest, turned in 17-point and 26-point performances to lead the Pacers in scoring for two games. . . . Even though the Detroit Pistons are 39-7, the Super Bowl has been the talk of the town the past week. In fact, with celebrities in town for the Super Bowl flocking to the Palace of Auburn Hills to watch the Pistons this week, the hubbub around the Super Bowl might have distracted the team a bit. Two of their seven losses for the entire season came in the past week one to the Atlantic Division-leading New Jersey Nets and one to the injury-hampered Indiana Pacers. Outside Detroit, some media have speculated that the Pistons might be interested in dealing point guard Carlos Arroyo. . . . Magic fans might have a hard time believing it, but officials of the Cleveland Cavaliers the same Cavaliers with a 27-19 record -- are fretting about a recent two-game slide by their team that followed back-to-back victories. A news account of the game in the Akron Beacon Journal attributed Saturday's loss to the Philadelphia 76ers to "loss of offensive concepts,'' "periods of lazy defense,'' an abundance of 3-point attempts and "losing sight of the goal.'' Cavs forward LeBron James said after the game, "It wasn't a good effort by us tonight. The mental focus wasn't there. Everybody is not on the same chain; you know it is not going to work." The Cavs have been without forward Ira Newble, who has been hospitalized for five days with what the team has called an infection on his face. In addition, guard Damon Jones, who joined the team in free agency last summer, also has been struggling with his shot. Perhaps some of the up-and-down play also can be attributed to distractions caused by the upcoming trade deadline Feb. 23. Some reports have speculated that power forward Drew Gooden could be moved because he will be a free agent after this season. In other off-the-court news, the Beacon Journal reported that the Cavs are close to finishing plans for a new practice facility that could cost up to $40 million. The Beacon Journal reported that the Cavs are "looking to set a new standard for opulence.'' . . .The Chicago Bulls have been remarkably free of news this week. They are in the middle of a tough seven-game road trip and have dropped the first three games. The losses to the Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Hornets were by four and five points. But their 17-point loss to the Phoenix Suns on Saturday came despite a 39-point performance by guard Ben Gordon. . . . Even though Milwaukee Bucks guard Michael Redd missed a game this week because of back spasms and the team lost a game without him, Redd returned to the starting lineup Saturday night. Not only that, they got back forward Joe Smith, who had missed all but eight games this season and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on Dec. 6. Their return helped the Bucks defeat the Memphis Grizzlies and avoid dipping to .500. Mo Williams remains out with an injured left foot.
Dee GugelOrlandoSentinel.com contributor
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