Joint pain cut years from Jonathan Bender’s professional basketball career, but it also gave him a future.
The former NBA player, who made the jump from high school directly to the pros in 1999, spent 7 injury-plagued seasons with the Indiana Pacers before bowing out in 2006 (Bender returned in 2010 for a half season with the New York Knicks).
Washing out of the NBA at 25 after debilitating knee injuries left Bender with plenty of cash, but not much of a plan. But, like every good entrepreneur, Bender turned years of frustration into inspiration.
Sitting on a park bench in Houston 1 day and watching the gaits of passing walkers and runners, Bender told MassDevice.com, inspired the proverbial "Aha!" moment: Redirect the pressure on joints and use it to develop muscles to support that joint.
After a quick trip to a local pharmacy, Bender build a crude prototype of a device that would later be dubbed the JBIT MedPro, a physical therapy product that’s the flagship of Bender’s company, JB3 Innovations.
"When you put the device on, it’s like putting you in water or putting you in space," Bender told us. "We’re unloading the entire lower extremity, and we’re redirecting the pressure to the muscles. We need the muscles to fire to be able to protect the joints and be able to keep that pain away. I would say it’s more of a joint-relieving, back-pressure relieving product."
MassDevice.com caught up with Bender recently to talk about the product and his journey from the hardwood to the executive suite. A transcript of our chat, edited for clarity, follows.
MassDevice: Tell me about the ailments you suffered from a career in professional basketball – what led you to a 2nd career in the physical therapy world?
Jonathan Bender: I started in the beginning coming from a small town where we didn’t train the correct way. When I was going through my growth spurt at 14, we trained right through it. I didn’t find out until later on that I wasn’t supposed to be doing any type of strenuous training throughout a pretty abnormal growth spurt, which I had, going from about 6’3" to about 6’9" within a year’s time.
MD: What kind of weight training were you engaging in?
JB: Plyometrics, jumping stages, a lot of running, a lot of explosive stuff, and my joints were closing in. I was still growing. They were going through a record growth spurt. Now, my knees would swell back then, and I would always get injections to get the fluid out and just keep on moving forward. I was young at the time. To get to the NBA, obviously the workload is a lot more, you know, you’re asking a lot out of your body and getting into my 5th year I really started having some issues. A lot of my cartilage was pretty much gone. It was just floating around in my knees. We had to go in and get all of that out of there. It was causing a lot of inflammation.
I went through a point where I was with some of the best doctors for a couple of years. I was not only just doing physical therapy with them and trying out a bunch of different exercises and flying back and forth to Boston for weeks at a time, I was gathering information from them and paying attention to my own body, finding out what worked and what didn’t work. Then, after all the injections and all the gel being injected into my knees and all the different medications and all the different manipulations, it came to 1 simple point: It’s muscle activation. If you can keep your hamstrings loose and keep the muscles in your lower extremity loose, IT bands, massaged out and loose where you can get real good muscle activation and keep the pressure off the joint, if you can fire that muscle, the glute muscle, the quad muscle, and get your hips fired real well, you can take the pressure off your knee.
Once I figured that out, I would do a lot of different exercises that would work on firing those muscles, but sometimes I would have to do it at a pool.
I always thought I wanted to develop something that I could be mobile with and still get the same reaction I wanted to get. I was able to come up with this on the fly, and put it together with some little pieces from the corner store, CVS and Walmart. It didn’t look too good when I completed it, but it worked very well. It did exactly what I thought it was going to do as far as engaging the muscle, but what I didn’t know it was going to do is remove the pressure from my joint. That was a win-win.
MD: Now, take me through a little bit about building a business around this. How much more difficult has that been than you thought?
JB: Nothing worth having is easy, so once I figured it out and found out it worked, I wanted to use myself as a guinea pig. So I worked with the device for a year, and got a couple of samples made.
I had a seamstress that would just sew them up for me and I would make the pants myself. I would just give them to people who had problems. I would send them to all the therapists that I knew and trainers or stuff like that, just people that had different ailments that were kind of compared to what I had. All the feedback was just very positive. Everybody had similar results. That was my research time, those 3 years, from about 2007 to 2010.
MD: During that period you had a comeback, too, playing for the New York Knicks in 2010.
JB: Yeah. I used the device, got my lower extremities strong enough where I was able to get back into the NBA in 2010. When you go on 1 of these teams, when you’re about to play, they’re going to check every small muscle you have in your body to make sure that you’re fit. I ended up having the strongest lower extremities on the team after they went through all the tests, so that was pretty encouraging.
MD: When did you found the company?
JB: I founded the company right before I went back into the league, so I started doing some patent filing and getting all of my ducks in a row. The Knicks offered me a 2nd contract and I just wasn’t … My mind wasn’t there. I was already focused on what I wanted to do, so I kind of stepped out of [professional basketball] and went full-speed into this. I started getting some product in and doing research on websites and how online marketing is supposed to be set up, and just understanding shipping and knowing how to work the shipping machines. I’m the type of person where I want to know how to do everything. I had to figure all the different aspects of running a business and do that myself before I could actually hire somebody to do it. You definitely don’t want to overpay, so I learned how to be lean in that aspect. I had a friend who did direct sales and was into network marketing, and we were able bring him on and open up the direct sales side of things, which in turn brought in about 150 affiliates. That kind of frees me up from having to deal with a bunch of retail.
MD: You’re selling the product direct to consumers?
JB: Yeah, we’re selling it direct through the website and we’re selling it through distributors.
MD: How big is the team you have working with you?
JB: As far as my affiliates, we have about 135, 140. They’re coming on every day. We check everybody out. You just can’t sign up for this thing and all of a sudden you’re in. We have an application process. We go through a whole process to make sure that the person’s goals line up with ours and that they’re a good fit. We have some physical therapists. We have some doctors of physical therapy that are our affiliates, partnered up with us. My team is very small. It’s me, my CFO. We have a director of sales and some independent contractors.
MD: Tell me about the goal for the company. Do you want to grow this yourself? Are you looking to someday sell to a bigger company?
JB: I think right now, the way we’re set up, we’re going keep this thing at home and we want to grow it. I looked at companies like Amway and these 50-year-old companies that are just still pounding it out. I think this is a product that’ll stick around. It’s not going anywhere. People are going to have the same issues every year. Our goal is to get this company up, hopefully to a billion dollar company, man, and keep it at home.
MD: How many products do you have out there right now? Do you have a total number sold?
JB: As far as the models, we have this one JBIT MedPro, and I would say we’ve got about … Well, it’s about 4000 units out there right now.
MD: The manufacturing, is that done abroad?
JB: Right now manufacturing is done abroad. It’s kind of hard to find anything over here that would give us the price points that we’re looking for, that’ll give us the margins that we’re looking for. Obviously, 1 day we want to bring it home and have everything under 1 roof, but we’re not there just yet.
MD: How about your former colleagues? Have you gotten any of them using the device?
JB: I focus more on the normal market. I didn’t want to go the athletic route, because I don’t want anybody to be intimidated. I want that 70-year-old lady with arthritic activity to be able to use the device.
I think there’s a connection between athletes and training tools, and that’s sort of a natural fit because we train our whole lives. But for me being in a situation where I had to deal with injuries a lot of my life, and being around these doctors and people fixing me up for so many years, I’ve kind of adapted to the things that they do from a therapeutic standpoint. Now, I don’t know how to do open heart surgery, but I understand what’s going on with the lower extremity. I understand what goes on with my body.