Under renovation by the NCAA as part of its Final Four outreach, the Harmon Park gym in south Phoenix is a pickup basketball mecca that produced generations of the city’s best players.

Hallowed Hoops

Written by Douglas Towne Category: History Issue: April 2017
Group Free
Pin It

Harmon Park’s gym under construction in 1950, this photo

Gym legend Andrew Colter in 2003

Park official Steve Colter (right) played eight seasons in the NBA.

Phoenix will be the center of the basketball universe when the NCAA Final Four tournament comes to town. But how many Phoenicians know of another basketball universe just south of Downtown Phoenix run by a former NBA player known for his old-school socks?

As part of the 2017 Phoenix Final Four activities, the NCAA Legacy Restorations committee searched for the local public basketball court most deserving of a $100,000 upgrade. The committee almost overlooked Harmon Park, located just south of Buckeye Road on Fifth Avenue. It was their last stop.

Steve Colter, the Phoenix Parks & Recreation Department recreation coordinator at the park, greeted the contingent in November 2015. One NCAA representative had difficulty connecting the 54-year-old with cropped hair to the Jheri-curled point guard who played eight seasons in the NBA after being the 33rd pick in the 1984 amateur draft. “He asked me if I would pull up my sweatpants,” the easygoing Colter recalls. “I always played basketball with my socks pulled up to my knees.”

The hoopster confirmed his identity by revealing his trademark court fashion. Colter then regaled the NCAA committee with Harmon Park’s storied basketball history. Spanning a half-century of Saturday morning pickup games, the court has showcased a rich collection of NBA, Harlem Globetrotter, college and high school players along with weekend warriors. “At the end of their visit, I could tell from their faces that we had the grant,” Colter says, proudly.

Harmon Park’s storied basketball legacy developed over many decades. The land for the park was purchased in 1927 by the Harmon Foundation, founded by New York real estate developer William E. Harmon. Keenly interested in African-American art and culture, Harmon established recreational facilities in disadvantaged black neighborhoods across the nation. The City of Phoenix annexed the property, which was still farmland at the time and near a predominantly black, underserved neighborhood south of Downtown, in 1928. There were two main black neighborhoods in Phoenix – one southeast of Downtown stretching along Washington Street south to Buckeye Road east to 16th Street, with Eastlake Park a popular recreation area. The other was southwest of Downtown roughly from Madison Street south to Buckeye, from Seventh to 17th avenues, served by Harmon Park. This was the poorer of the two neighborhoods.

Initial plans called for a gymnasium on the nine-acre plot, but financial constraints caused by the Great Depression delayed construction. Among Harmon Park’s few improvements were a baseball field, wading pool and bathhouse, relocated from University Park in 1933. The Harmon Park gymnasium was finally built and opened in 1951. “My father, Andrew Colter, was the 13th kid through the gym’s doors,” Colter says.

The future pastor and union ironworker would go on to have an enormous impact at the facility. Andrew Colter ran the gym’s Saturday morning pickup basketball games for decades, and played until age 77.

“Steve’s dad made everyone feel welcome, even if you weren’t from around here,” says Michael Hightower, a 55-year-old former pickup player who still stops by the gym. “Sometimes people would be scared to play [because of the tough public housing neighborhood] but he let them know nothing would happen to them.” It was and still is a challenging neighborhood. Nearby, three public housing projects were started in the late 1930s: Frank Luke Jr. for whites, Marcos de Niza for Hispanics and Matthew Henson for African-Americans. “The average citizen didn’t know about this place because it’s in a rough area,” Colter says. “But if you were a ballplayer, this is where you came.”

And come they did. Among the famous hoopsters to stop by were Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Ralph Sampson, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Dan Majerle, Rudy White, James “BB” Fontenet and Mark Alarie.

“Harmon Park basketball is like no other,” says former Grand Canyon University guard-forward Rick Davis. “It’s the toughest gym to win four in a row. If your team could consistently do that, you were ready for NCAA ball.”

For some, the lure was a bit overwhelming. “I was working as a supervisor at the Downtown post office in 1993,” Mike Dugger says. “One Saturday I got a call from a lady who reported that three of our vehicles were parked outside the Harmon Park gym for three hours. Apparently, some of my employees had game.”

Perhaps Harmon Park’s biggest claim to fame is that the Harlem Globetrotters, featuring stars such as the late Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal, kept their skills sharp there during the 1950s and 1960s. Colter recalls renewing his friendship with Lemon, who remembered him as “Little Stevie” from Harmon Park, after travel delays found them together on an overbooked flight. Initially assigned to middle seats, Lemon spoke to the flight attendant, who escorted them to adjacent first-class seats. “I have more than a million and a half frequent flyer miles,” Lemon explained to Colter. “After all, I was a Globetrotter.”

Final Four Assists
Refurbishing the Harmon Park basketball court is one of several Valley community programs sponsored by the 2017 NCAA Final Four.
• Youth basketball clinics will be held at the Ak-Chin Indian Community in Glendale and at the Final Four Fan Fest presented by Capital One in Downtown Phoenix during Final Four weekend.
• Sustainability classes were held at ASU by the Phoenix Local Organizing Committee (PLOC) to develop an eco-friendly playbook for the event that can be adopted by future Final Four host cities.
• Backpacks filled with school supplies were provided to more than 6,000 third graders in 60 Maricopa County Title I schools through the PLOC in partnership with NCAA Team Works.
• Third graders in 68 schools across Arizona are competing in a bracket-style tournament to crown a reading champion during Final Four weekend.

Harmon Park also helped mold Tommy Nuñez Sr., a retired NBA official. Nuñez officiated his first game at the gym for $3 in 1964. He recalls the gym’s predominantly black and Latino leagues and high level of basketball skill. “That’s where people went if they thought they were any good,” Nuñez says, with snappy chatter perfected after 30 years of refereeing NBA games.

“I learned more from Harmon Park than anywhere else,” Nuñez says. “Like how to do things in good taste, how to work with people, and knowing when to talk and when to keep silent on the court.” The gymnasium was renamed in his honor in 2004.

Nuñez was the first Latino to referee a major U.S. professional sport. What does he miss most about keeping fiercely competitive athletes twice his size in line? “Probably the camaraderie with my fellow referees,” Nuñez says. “We’re taking on the world, we love what we do and take pride in it.”

These days, basketball there isn’t quite what it was. Some traditions have faded. “We used to go shirts and skins, but that ended when some of the older guys who weren’t in the best physical shape objected to revealing their physiques,” chuckles Claudie Flowers, who helps run the games.

Phoenix is also more integrated than it was a half-century ago, with facilities flung across the Valley, so there aren’t as many gym rats at the park as in the past. Today, players just stop by for a few games. “The younger guys don’t seem to play with the tenacity we did or love the game in the same way,” Hightower says. “But the fellowship is still here, and that’s what makes this place special; basketball is almost secondary.”

“It’s more than basketball,” Flowers concurs. “It’s about bringing the community together, people learning how to hash out things, learning to communicate, being responsible, and learning how to lose and carry yourself.”

Many remain upbeat about the park continuing to create basketball prospects. “I expect it is not done producing great college athletes,” Phoenix Vice Mayor Kate Gallego says. “The community around the park is rich in talent and thankful that the NCAA’s investment will help create an even better facility to nurture that talent.”

But the upgraded Harmon Park gym will have to soldier on without its beloved mentor, Andrew Colter, who passed away in 2016. The hardwood was renamed Mr. C’s Court in his honor. “Mr. C is like the godfather of it all,” Flowers says. “Every morning before the first game we all get together and have a little prayer for Mr. C.”

This sentiment about Andrew Colter is echoed by a still-imposing 74-year-old Andrew Pierce, who was once a force on the Harmon Park court. “You know how you just got ‘it’?” Pierce asks in a measured tone. “He was the man; he deserved everything they said about him. He never met a stranger. He always had a smile on his face.”

After a brief pause, Pierce adds. “Steve Colter, his youngest son, is a chip off of the old block.”