Courtside Sixers Seats Are Philly’s Hottest Status Symbol
These days, if you’re not on the floor for the Joel and Ben show, you’re nobody.
It was just minutes before tip-off, and the vibe was electric. For a good hour prior to the start time of this nationally televised Sunday-afternoon game, fans, throngs of media, and seemingly every employee of both teams and the arena had gravitated courtside for a chance to see, yes, LeBron James, one of the biggest names in this or any sport. But there was more buzz for the opposing team’s collection of charismatic young stars, including the power forward acquired days earlier in a trade-deadline shocker that triggered a seismic shift in the NBA’s balance of power.
Now, with warm-ups over, the capacity crowd was about to learn which high-profile fan had been chosen to walk onto the court and, as has become custom here, pronounce the start of the proceedings. Scattered around the courtside seats were a couple of supermodels and their entourages, a franchise quarterback and one of his favorite targets, a pair of NBA icons, a retired hip-hopper swirling in comeback rumors, a nationally controversial pundit, the owner of a storied sports team, the local soccer franchise’s just-inked Mexican star, the consensus best player in Major League Baseball, and a big-deal trial lawyer with his trademark suit and slicked-back hair.
None of them got the nod, though. The celeb deemed worthy of this most high-profile moment was a polarizing Hollywood figure, among the team’s most recognizable boosters, one known to give refs an earful when they blow a call.
If you’re thinking Spike Lee at the Garden or Nicholson at the Staples Center, well, sorry. The super-fan chosen to “Ring the Bell” at South Philly’s Wells Fargo Center for this showdown between the flailing, LeBron-led Lakers and the ascendant 76ers was Mr. I-See-Dead-People himself, M. Night Shyamalan. And to the delight of Kendall Jenner, Anne De Paula, Carson Wentz, Alshon Jeffery, Allen Iverson, Magic Johnson, Lil Uzi Vert, Marc Lamont Hill, Robert Kraft (pre-prostitution charges), Marco Fabian, Mike Trout and Thomas Kline, Esq., along with the rest of the capacity crowd, Night rang the bell and rang it good. Game on.
Those on hand were treated to one of the most exciting Sixers games in a 16-month span full of them — the second contest featuring new stretch four Tobias Harris alongside J.J. Redick, Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. When the final horn blew on the Sixers’ 143-120 shellacking of LeBron’s reeling squad, it seemed to signal not just this team’s elevation to beast mode, but a changing of the guard.
It was the sort of statement game — just months after spurning the city as a free agent, LeBron comes to town and gets spanked — that will go down in the annals of Philly sport. It’s a game that a few years from now, everyone you meet will claim to have been at. Think the Birds’ 38-7 romp over the Vikings in the 2017 Conference Championship. Or Phillies closer Brad Lidge firing a slider past Eric Hinske at Citizens Bank Park in 2008. Or Bobby Clarke’s Broad Street Bullies bloodying the Russian Red Army team at the Spectrum in 1976.
But for a handful of the city’s cultural and power elite, the proof will be in the replays. Their faces are in the background of every timeout, every fast break, every dunk. This visibility is why sitting courtside at the Sixers has become the ultimate status symbol, and why the VIP scene there has become the city’s most elite networking spot.
If you got hit by a SEPTA bus sometime between Allen Iverson’s farewell in 2006 and Joel Embiid’s debut in 2016 and are just now waking up from your coma, the above scenario sounds like pure fantasy. During the later years of the Iverson era, with the team already in decline, Sixers attendance was buoyed solely by, as aforementioned author, pundit and Temple prof Marc Lamont Hill puts it, the “cult of personality around Allen Iverson.” After A.I.? “It was a ghost town in there,” recalls Hill, who’s had season tickets on the south floor near the Sixers basket for going on a decade. “There was hardly anybody of note on the floor. The only time celebrities came to the game would be if the opposing team was really good.”
After floundering for several seasons, the Sixers in 2013 — backed by a new ownership group led by Josh Harris and David Blitzer and including minority partners such as e-commerce billionaire Michael Rubin and the Smiths, Will and Jada — embarked on then-GM Sam Hinkie’s controversial tanking strategy now lovingly referred to as “The Process.” After three seasons of rote, agonizing ineptitude, The Process ultimately yielded the core of the Sixers’ current squad — Embiid and Simmons — bolstered since by an ever-improving supporting cast. The result: a team that is certifiably good, and certifiably hot. “Now, we could be playing the worst team in the NBA and it doesn’t matter,” boasts Hill, “because we’re the draw.”
Elevated play has caused a surge in demand to get close to the action. And that lure is further perpetuated by the who’s-who list of Philly movers and shakers already entrenched courtside. Among the local luminaries you may spy sitting on the floor: high-powered, silver-haired alpha attorney Kline (20 seasons) and fellow litigator Leonard Hill; Shyamalan and his wife, Bhavna Vaswani (three years); and venture capitalist Richard Vague (like Hill, he’s had seats for a decade). That clutch of power is camped between the scorer’s table and the opponent’s bench with co-owner Blitzer.
On the other side of the scorer’s table, by the Sixers’ bench, you’ll usually find supermodel Kendall Jenner, a.k.a. Ben Simmons’s gal pal; Harris; and real estate magnates David Adelman and Alan Horwitz (who, thanks to his “Sixth Man” jersey, wild white hair, and demonstrative pleading is known to Sixers Twitter as “Old Man Knees”). Across the court, you can find Iverson, Rubin, and the latter’s various guests, ranging from hip-hoppers (Meek Mill, Lil Uzi Vert) to business magnates (Kraft) to celebs and athletes (Kevin Hart, Wentz, Malcolm Jenkins).
It should come as no surprise that a team with the foresight to execute The Process — a gambit reliant on securing on-court celebrity athletes — was also intentional in fostering a culture of stars and influencers in the stands. “We like to joke that it’s been a six-year overnight success,” team president Chris Heck says before tip-off. He’s in the Patriot Partner Lounge, the luxe, invite-only VIP hang the team carved out of the bowels of the Wells Fargo Center. Heck credits celebs like Shyamalan and Meek Mill (and then-companion Nicki Minaj) with raising the courtside profile.
“We call it ‘Circle of Stars,’” Katie O’Reilly, the Sixers’ chief marketing officer, says of the team’s influencers program. “Our managing partners understand the importance of bringing these guys in and having them as part of our family.”
That means inviting Michael B. Jordan, Chadwick Boseman and Bryan Cranston to the Center when they’re in town. It also means making regulars of our other teams’ stars. “I see Alshon more than I see my family,” laughs Heck. “Half the Eagles are season-ticket holders.” And it means catering to power-broker super-fans — bold names more likely to show up in the Wall Street Journal than on a marquee. “Josh Harris and David Blitzer and that crowd, they’ve done a superb job of making sure that the service is excellent” for VIPs, says Vague, the venture capitalist who’s recently made news as a possible dark-horse presidential candidate. “That’s been true through The Process years. If anything, perhaps even more so early on.”
More than any other pro sport, basketball offers proximity to the action. It’s this access that draws the rich, powerful and aspiring. At breaks during the Lakers game, for instance, fellow court-siders sauntered up to Wentz for a handshake and perhaps to offer a bit of unsolicited career advice.
Peter Markowitz, owner of South Jersey’s Posh Automotive Group and a first-year season-ticket holder with seats in the fourth row on the floor behind the basket, recalls one game where “we were randomly asked if we wanted to meet Allen Iverson. They took us upstairs, and we sat and talked to Allen Iverson for 10 minutes.”
Diehards may be chagrined to learn that Markowitz is no Philly sports lifer. “It was a social decision,” the 37-year-old entrepreneur says of his season-ticket plunge. “I’m getting older, and everybody’s getting busier with work and families. I go to all of the games with one of my best friends. We’re not even that into sports, but we have a new appreciation from being there and learning. And we’ve made really good connections for work and pleasure.”
Just off the court, the Corona Extra Beach House has become a networking hot spot. “At halftime, all those people who are sitting around the court, they all go into that room,” says Markowitz. “It’s a nice break, and rather than seeing people you know and passing them by, you get to spend a couple of minutes talking to them.”
For Ric Harris, president of NBC 10/ Telemundo 62, the seats the station gets as a Sixers media partner have proven a superb way to entertain clients.
The networking aspect can grate on basketball junkies like Marc Lamont Hill, but he understands the significance. “You see a lot of empty seats after halftime,” Hill says of the exodus to the VIP bars. “You’ll see people in fancy suits with really nice watches talking about development plans and client services. As a businessperson, I get it — it’s a part of the energy there now. It’s about being at the game and showing people that you can be at the game. That is a super status symbol. Having dope seats to the Sixers is another sign of social and cultural capital. And that’s pretty neat.”
Sixers seats have been hot before. But unlike in Iverson’s heyday, when 100 percent of the draw was the otherworldly talent of a sullen, tattooed anti-hero, something about this model feels different. Certainly, part of it is that 18 years on from the Sixers’ last championship run, Philly is a very different city.
The idea of a “New Philadelphia” — one of eds, meds and tech, one that’s solving brain drain and in the midst of a renaissance — comes up often when Heck and O’Reilly discuss marketing strategy. But this is also a very different Sixers franchise, one more in touch with the broader cultural significance of the NBA.
One of the less ballyhooed benefits of The Process is that it essentially allowed the organization to reboot. With expectations nonexistent and a fan base comprising only the most hard-core adherents of the team’s rebuild, the Sixers were free to essentially operate as a start-up. The clean slate, thus, was an opportunity to reimagine.
“So much of our strategy was, ‘Let’s bring back the history of this brand,’” chief marketing officer O’Reilly says of how the team’s planners picked and chose elements of the franchise’s past. “Let’s create traditions and bring back that legacy.” The Sixers’ iconography throughout The Process has played on nostalgia, harking back to the glory days of Wilt and Dr. J. But other touches, from the “Together We Build” slogan to the Franklinian Join-or-Die messaging to the ceremonial ringing of a miniature Liberty Bell, were, in retrospect, ingenious, positioning the team as a public trust and recalling the city’s Revolution-era glory.
This idea of common purpose is espoused by one of the team’s most high-profile courtside fans, Tom Kline (of Kline & Specter and Drexel’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law). “Caring about a professional franchise has at its core caring about the city and caring about what happens to us collectively as a community,” says Kline. “Communities have leaders, and you expect leaders to be visible — so now we’re seeing the kind of people you’d expect to be drawn to the flame.”
Kline has been a season-ticket holder for 20 seasons, occupying what he calls “the best seat in basketball” — next to the visitors’ bench (where he can see opposing coaches draw up plays) — since these seats were first made available in 2006. “Of course, we’re on camera more than the rest of the floor seats because the cameras chase toward the benches,” Kline says almost matter-of-factly. “That’s not why I’m there, but I have represented people as a result.”
Vague, Shyamalan and Kline all profess that they’re in it for the love of the game, though as folks who were driven to the acme of their respective fields, they must be at least a little tickled by the TV exposure (and this season, the Sixers will appear on national television some 39 times). Still, something about all of this seems more substantial, more real, than the glitzy Lakers Showtime scene of the 1980s.
While this iteration of the Sixers appears set up for a run of sustained success, no professional sports team is immune to peaks and valleys. But in this moment, when Philly and its teams all seem ascendant, the Sixers have packaged that energy into something transcendent. They have built a scene — of workaday fans and power brokers and A-listers — around more than a winning team. They’ve built this scene around a belief that by bottoming out and then sticking to a plan, you can reach the stars.
It’s a story that strikes a certain chord in the soul of this city for reasons obvious to anyone old enough to remember, say, the 1980s. The courtside celebrities may ebb with the team’s fortunes. But this moment, when the city’s powerful and powerless clamor for seats to see success we all feel we made possible, may represent not just a team fulfilling its unlikely destiny, but a city doing so as well. Why are courtside seats in such demand? Yeah, it’s about Ben and Joel being the best they can be. But it’s also about us.
Published as “The In Crowd” in the April 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.