STORY WRITTEN BY AARON CARTER, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER - JAN. 13, 2023
If her apple had fallen too far from the tree, chances are Kendall Bennett would have gotten the rebound and put it back in.
Fortunately for Germantown Academy, Bennett, a 6-foot-3 senior, comes from feisty stock.
Tuesday afternoon against host Academy of Notre Dame de Namur, Bennett dove for a loose ball under her basket with about five seconds left in the third quarter.
With her team trailing by two, the Binghamton signee tussled for the ball with one defender and then voiced displeasure at another who had joined the play a moment later. A referee was even sternly educated on Bennett’s dissatisfaction.
Gary Bennett, who starred at Central High School before becoming a 6-foot-7 standout at Lafayette, taught his only child to be herself. Perhaps DNA has taken care of the rest.
“I think it was one of those things where it was there, it just had to be drawn out,” Gary Bennett said by phone of his daughter’s aggressiveness.
“It wasn’t there in the beginning, “but over time … that aggressive play was just something inherent in her and now we’re seeing it each and every time.”
Perhaps Bennett’s fire ignited a flame.
The Patriots, who had trailed most of the game, outscored Notre Dame, 14-7, in the final frame, including a late 3-pointer by sophomore Gabby Bowes that led to a 48-43 victory.
Whether it sparked the win or not, the sequence underscores Bennett’s evolution from a player who once lacked the confidence to engage an opponent to one who made sure everyone heard her roar.
“I wouldn’t say I was shy,” Bennett said after a recent practice. “It was more that I probably wasn’t confident enough to say something back. I probably wouldn’t have said anything at all. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gained a voice and become a more aggressive person.”
Bennett the bruiser
Basketball at all levels has largely become a guard’s game. NBA star Stephen Curry dominates from distance in ways Wilt Chamberlain once punished from the paint.
When Gary Bennett graduated from Central in 1982, Public League basketball was still more about physicality than finesse.
“When you grow up in the city, it’s a different kind of vibe,” the West Philly native said. “In the neighborhood, you get ‘beat up’ by the older guys, so you develop that resilience, that tough-mindedness.”
His 1,419 points at Lafayette, where he averaged nearly 18 points and seven rebounds as a senior captain in 1986, are eighth most in school history.
“For me personally,” he said, “it was just about my environment, how I grew up, and that the game was much different then. So I developed into that bruiser, that grinder, that post player.”
His daughter may have left some opponents black and blue as a child, but that, he said, was just a product of her size.
“Early on when she was playing soccer,” he joked, “girls were bouncing off her because she was just bigger and stronger.”
It wasn’t until her freshman year at Germantown Academy, however, that Bennett blossomed into a more aggressive player.
The Patriots had seven talented seniors that season headlined by current La Salle guard Jaye Haynes.
“All of them really helped me have role models to know what a leader is,” Bennett said.
She began that season as a post player who hesitated at times and rushed at others. The aggressiveness of her senior leaders, however, helped clear her mind. By the end of that season, Bennett became a starter.
COVID to confident
But Bennett’s freshman year was cut short by the pandemic, which she worried would threaten her momentum. Time with her trainers became either sparse or impossible.
So, her dad bought a basketball hoop for the family’s home in Elkins Park. Bennett, now 18, said those sessions in the driveway kept her focused.
Painting murals in her bedroom, she added, also kept her occupied.
COVID-19, however, again scuttled most of her sophomore season. Her game wouldn’t evolve further until later that year when she joined Philadelphia Rise, a Nike EYBL AAU team. Her dad believes the better competition brought out the best in his daughter.
“She started to go against girls who were bringing it every night, bringing it every practice,” he said. “She took her bumps and bruises, and the one thing that I’m proud of is that she never gave up. She learned that you have to be aggressive on the court.”
Bennett carried the lesson into her junior year, averaging a double-double on a GA team retooling with younger players, while Penn Charter claimed its first Inter-Ac title since 1998. The Patriots had at least shared the league crown every year since 2014.
This season, Bennett has relished her leadership role. She has also diversified her portfolio.
Defenses that consistently crowd the paint have made her migrate, at times, behind the three-point line.
Tuesday against Notre Dame, Bennett drilled an important three that ended a drought and got the Patriots within five. She eventually led all scorers with 15 points.
“That really helps because she’s always double- and triple-teamed on the block,” said longtime GA coach Sherri Retif. “So she can pull the defense out. She’s always had a nice mid range game, but she’s extended it out farther.”
Just don’t expect the next Curry. Bennett still prefers the post.
“One of the things I’ve noticed about Kendall is that she loves the bump and grind in the post,” her dad said. “She loves the competition when it’s physical.”
She added: “there were definitely times I wasn’t as outspoken or aggressive. I would say it hurt my confidence. But being aggressive helps my game and my confidence.”
She has never seen video of her dad playing, but she has heard stories.
“From what I’m told, he was definitely the aggressive type,” she said with a laugh. “He has told me he’s thrown a few trash cans in the past.”
Father and daughter had also been coach and player up until high school. Bennett said they would sometimes butt heads because she often didn’t like to listen. In high school, though, she’s been all ears.
She likely won’t have a problem listening to this:
“I’m super proud as a dad. She’s coming to the end of her high school career and when I think about her journey and all the ups and downs, the joy, the tears, the hard work she’s put in, and her evolution as a basketball player, it’s just really something special. I grew up in Philly, played the game, played D-I ball, and to see your child do the same thing is just amazing.”