GREENBURGH, N.Y. - The Knicks brought back more than a four-game winning streak and some tasty gumbo on their flight from New Orleans Friday night.
Jonathan Bender, the No. 5 overall pick in the 1999 NBA draft who has been out of the league since 2005-06 because of chronic knee problems, flew with the Knicks to New York, signed a contract and practiced with them Sunday.
The 7-footer hasn't played a full NBA season since 2001-02, when he averaged career highs of 7.4 points and 3.1 rebounds for the Pacers. He hasn't played anywhere since appearing in two games for Indiana in 2005-06.
Donnie Walsh acquired him out of high school for the Pacers in a trade with Toronto on draft day 1999. The Knicks' president has kept in contact with Bender since the summer, when thoughts of a comeback started becoming more than fleeting for the 28-year-old, and the Knicks had him in for a workout and a medical exam.
It's a low-risk move for the Knicks, who signed Bender to a non-guaranteed contract for the rest of the season for the veteran minimum. He might never take the court in a game. Even if he does, it's hard to imagine he'd be all that good, given that he was considered one of the biggest busts in NBA draft history when he was younger and healthier.
But the Knicks - who are owned by Cablevision, which also owns Newsday - have a gym, and Bender needed a place to try a comeback, and Walsh is a nice guy, so . . .
"He's a heck of a guy," Bender said. "A heck of a person."
Said Walsh: "I wanted to see if he could go through a practice and if there were any signs of something that he couldn't do. He was fine today.
"Because I had him before, I know what talent level he was at. So I thought it was worth the risk or chance to bring him in because if it works, he's got a lot of talent. More than most guys that are just floating around out there.
"I had him up here during the summer and he worked out and right after that he wanted to be really sure if he came back. Recently he let me know he thought he was there, so that's why we did it."
Bender went through his first NBA practice in three years Sunday, playing five-on-five and seemingly moving well. He said he has been rehabbing his knees for two years after taking a year off.
"They feel good," he said. "I just have to monitor them because this is the first time I've stepped back in a real pro atmosphere other than the summer. I just want to monitor and make sure everything's OK, but they felt OK today."
Asked why he came back, Bender said: "I couldn't live getting to be 38 or 39 years old, saying I didn't at least try again."
With Alan Hahn