This season, the Philadelphia 76ers have made some crucial acquisitions. Jimmy Butler has become an invaluable closer: Just last night he hit an acrobatic, game-clinching 18-foot jumper and then crouched motionless for several seconds like a professional surfer—giving us not only a long-awaited win against the Celtics but also the meme we all deserve. Bobi and Tobi have brought the spirit of brotherly love back to Philadelphia. Mike Scott has ensured that no opposing fan’s drink is safe.
But, unpopular opinion, Sixers edition: I believe that the team’s most valuable acquisition this season has been Ben Simmons’s girlfriend, Kendall Jenner.
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When Jenner first started coming to Sixers games this fall, fans were understandably nervous. Some went so far as to sign a Change.org petition to ban her from the Wells Fargo Center. Harsh but fair. The effects of the so-called Kardashian Curse—the cosmic misfortune that seems to befall any athlete who dates a member of America’s most famous family—have been well documented. Lamar Odom. Tristan Thompson. Dare I even utter the name in the context of the Sixers? Kris … [shudders] Humphries. This is not something Sixers fans could afford this season.
But the math suggests that Philly fans can breathe a sigh of relief. The Sixers have gone 38-19 since the Butler trade. They’ve been an impressive 12-5 since acquiring Tobias Harris. But when vocal supporter Kendall Jenner is in the building? 15-3, my friends.
Bendall has enlivened the team, yes, and they have also probably pissed off the venerable M. Night Shyamalan, who is no longer the most famous person who sits courtside at Sixers games. But their effect has been even more widespread than that. I believe they have reinvigorated the entire tri-state region.
Unlike most living creatures, I have never had any strong opinions about the Kardashian family. I watched maybe 20 minutes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians once and pronounced it “not for me.” Life is short, my time is precious, and there are many other things to watch, such as The Sixth Sense, the extended cut of the Channel 6 Action News theme song, and, of course, Sixers games.
But now that Kendall Jenner has ventured onto my home turf I have been forced to develop an opinion about her, and I am surprised to report that that opinion is … that I’m sort of obsessed with her? Or at the very least, I am obsessed with her relationship with Ben Simmons, which seems oddly genuine, refreshingly down-to-earth, and vaguely gauche in a way that reminds me of home.
“Philadelphia is a large city, but it does not really have its own celebrities besides local TV anchors and athletes,” wrote Jezebel’s resident Bendall expert, Dan McQuade, after the couple was spotted at a Drexel basketball game in December. “And when a Philadelphia athlete dates a famous person, holy shit.” So just imagine what happens when they come to the place where I’m from, the part of Philadelphia that is actually New Jersey.
As you may have heard, Bendall has been spotted this month at such South Jersey hotspots as the Cherry Hill Mall, the Topgolf driving range and, most evocatively, the Best Buy in the Wegmans shopping center near the old racetrack, looking at vacuums. The Philadelphia/South Jersey region, still wounded by the recent departure of local hero Nick Foles, has taken immense pride in these star sightings, and the way the local papers covered it reads to me like poetry. “The Cherry Hill Mall’s parent company has been looking to diversify its offerings and attract more attention recently,” went the lead of the South Jersey Patch’s story. “At least one high-profile couple seems to have taken notice.” Wrote the Courier Post with palpable satisfaction, “When you’re a member of the Kardashian family who’s dating a pro basketball player, you can afford to go anywhere. But Kendall Jenner and Ben Simmons chose to dine in South Jersey over the weekend.”
Said my mother, “If they wanted privacy, they would have gone to the Capital Grille, on the other side of the mall. But they went to the Grand Lux Cafe. It’s like they wanted to be seen.”
According to the Instagram account “@ilivebendall,” which I now check with a frequency that frightens me, other places the duo has recently been spotted include the fancy Whole Foods on Market Street, an unspecified New Jersey Benihana, and the Build-a-Bear Workshop in the King of Prussia Mall. W Magazine has gone so far as to wonder whether Bendall is bringing back “mall culture,” chain restaurants, and brick-and-mortar stores writ large, which, sure.
Like most people, I have a complicated relationship with the region where I grew up: a suburban New Jersey slab of strip malls that, when I was a teenager, seemed woefully devoid of excitement and “real” culture. But, also like most people, as I’ve grown older I’ve developed an unexpected soft spot for the place I’m from, flaws and all—and keeping up with my local sports teams has helped me exaggerate that pride to a borderline grotesque extent that sometimes involves me sending rude text messages to people from Boston whom I otherwise hold in high esteem. So to see an NBA All-Star and an absurdly famous supermodel frolic through the cultural wasteland of my youth, and actually seem like they’re having fun hanging out there? I am not immune to taking that a little personally.
Kendall Jenner and Ben Simmons are both people I had previously registered as “maybe not having a personality,” but together they complement each other enough to seem endearingly low-key, and dare I say even a little bit … normal. Jenner has always been the most discreet member of her family, and last year she told Vogue, “I’m not like all my other sisters, who are like, ‘Here’s me and my boyfriend!’… I would always go that extra mile to be low-key with guys, sneaking around all the time. You don’t want to, like, look crazy.” (It should be noted that at the time Jenner was quietly dating the Detroit Pistons’ Blake Griffin, and that if the Eastern Conference standings hold roughly where they are now there is a significant chance that the Pistons and the Sixers will play each other in the first round of the playoffs, with Kendall sitting courtside which—just, yes, give it to me right now.)
After a summer of taking things slow while Jenner figured out whether or not she was in love with her friends’ younger brother (WHO AMONG US), Bendall’s relationship has escalated steadily over the past few months. She’s even been photographed courtside sitting with his mom and his sister. “Kendall and Ben have gotten very serious and are very into each other,” an “insider” (Boban?) told US Weekly recently. “They’re not serious to the point where they’d get engaged any time soon, but they’re really enjoying their relationship and love spending as much time as possible together.”
Aww. I wish the adopted prince and princess of New Jersey the best of luck. But you know when I’ll know it’s really love? When they’re photographed in a Wawa.