Phoenix's Harmon Park Offers More Than Just Hoop Dreams

Published: Monday, April 3, 2017 - 6:58am
Updated: Monday, April 3, 2017 - 12:11pm
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(Photo by Matthew Casey - KJZZ)
Kenneth Sutton (with the ball) lines up a shot as a defender tries to anticipate his next move.
Matthew Casey/KJZZ
Harmon Park has always been the Valley's hotbed of hoops.

Early on the morning of Final Four Saturday, Kenneth Sutton was one of the first people to step onto the hardwood court inside Harmon Park Community Center. He quickly lofted an arcing shot that became the first basketball to rip through one of the brand new nets.

“Well, I haven’t been to the new gym yet,” he said. “So I just wanted to come early. Just to get a few shots up. Just to see how it was.”

After graduating high school, Sutton took a year off to get stronger and improve his game.

The 19-year-old works at a sandwich shop and plans to play for a community college next year. His goal is to become a NBA point guard like his role model, Damian Lillard, a star for the Portland Trailblazers .

“He’s a leader on and off the court,” Sutton said. “He’s a really good guy.”

Sutton has been coming to Harmon Park for almost half of his life. He’s part of a long line of aspiring basketball players who’ve molded their game inside a gym where the Harlem Globetrotters once trained.

The NCAA men’s basketball national championship game will tip off Monday night in Glendale. Gonzaga faces North Carolina for the title. For players on both teams, the chance to play on the nation’s biggest stage is the fruit of years of hard work.

In Phoenix, big-time hoop dreams start in a working class neighborhood just south of downtown, where the lessons people come away with have more to do with life than basketball.

As part of preparations for the Valley to host the biggest weekend during college basketball’s March Madness, the NCAA worked with local organizers to give Harmon Park’s outdoor and indoor basketball courts a facelift.

“This is an impoverished neighborhood,” said Steve Colter, the park’s administrator. “We kind of get the scraps. They look at us last. And hopefully with this, they’ll look at us, maybe not first, but at least somewhere in the middle.”

Colter grew up in Phoenix, played basketball at New Mexico State University and spent a decade in the NBA. Harmon’s indoor court is named after his late father, Andrew, who is known to everyone as Mr. C. He played pickup games here until he was almost 80.

“My dad brought me here in a bassinet,” Steve Colter said.

Arizona’s best basketball players have always come to Harmon Park to pit their skills against the toughest competition. Not everybody made it to the pros, but they all did get crucial life lessons from Mr. C, who was a minister. His children carry on the tradition.

“I watched my dad have people come up to him and say, ‘ Mr. C, I just got a new job. Mr. C, I need some advice. Mr. C, I just got married. Mr. C, I just had a baby. Mr. C, can I get a job?” Steve Colter said.

Pickup games at Harmon Park are different than basketball on television. A shot made from anywhere on the court counts as one point, rather than standard two or three pointers. Teams play to 11, or whoever is ahead after 15 minutes. If it’s tied, they get up to two short overtimes to win a victory, and earn the right to take on the next challenger.

“All the competition and the stuff talking, the trashing talking, the dunks, the steals, the jump shots, every category of a basketball game is here,” said Gerald Colter, Steve’s older brother.

The style of play at Harmon Park is different, too. It’s a lot more physical than what’s allowed in the pros, college or even a YMCA league. There are no referees or free throws. If a player calls a foul, they take the ball out of bounds. Guys play hard, but they also show respect to one another.

“The style is bump and bruise,” Gerald Colter said. “Dive on the ground and act like you are playing for a trophy.”

Like his younger brother, Gerald Colter made his first visit to Harmon Park before he could walk. Now he’s 57, and still plays on Saturdays.

“It keeps me young, keeps me involved with the youth around,” Gerald Colter said. “You know, until the wheels won’t go no more.”Kenneth Sutton, the young man who will suit-up for a community college next year, has plenty of miles left in his legs. Harmon Park is just the first stop for him on a typical Saturday. Afterward, he usually plays basketball at two other gyms.

“[Basketball] just takes my mind away from things,” Sutton said. “I just feel like I’m in a different place.”

As far as the national championship game, Sutton’s Final Four favorite was eliminated when North Carolina beat Oregon. He was pulling for the Oregon Ducks because he knows a couple of guys on the team.

“I played club [basketball] with them and like how they play the game,” Sutton said. “They taught me a lot actually.”

Size matters more at the highest level of basketball than in perhaps any other sport. Sutton is roughly 5 feet, 10 inches tall, which doesn’t help his chances of making the NBA. But even if he never gets there, Harmon Park will remain a special place where he, and countless others, can always play basketball.

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