PLAYA VISTA — Coaches love defense.
They get all choked up when they see a 6-foot-7 guy, hunkering down at the perimeter, shutting everything off. They can give no greater compliment than, “Look at him, he can guard 1s, 2s, 3s, and 4s.”
Scroll back and you see Maurice Harkless, spending the day at Keith Williams Park on Liberty Avenue, between 172th and 173rd Street, Jamaica, Queens, New York.
He is playing one-on-one. No 1s, no 2s, 3s or 4s, no numbers on anyone’s head. All ages, all sizes, all looking to win and keep playing.
“Everybody in New York thinks he’s got the best handle,” Harkless said, laughing as he sat in the corner of the Clippers’ practice facility. “You guard guys all day long. Size isn’t a factor. They’re all saying, ‘I’m better than you.’ They’re not posting up. They’re trying to break you down off the dribble. It tests your reaction time. You have to be competitive.
“In New York, it’s cold, nobody else around, just you and your friends. You’re playing one-on-one. You have to develop the mentality of stopping the other guy.”
Those layers of experience, and clothes, sustained Harkless when he went to a Connecticut prep school, played one year at St. John’s and weaved what is now an eight-year NBA career. When it came time to become a session musician, the nameless guy next to the drummer who lays down the tracks, Harkless could do that. With Paul George, Patrick Beverley and Kawhi Leonard, his switchability and defense should make the Clippers a barbed-wire wall in the playoffs, given health.
“He’s a guy who went into Duke, went into Cameron Indoor Stadium, and scored 30 when he was 18,” said Mike Dunlap, the Loyola Marymount coach who was on Steve Lavin’s staff at St. John’s. “He might not have been as big a fan of defense back then. But he was always a man, always a leader, even as a freshman.”
“You have to adapt in this league,” Harkless said, gesturing toward the court, while several other Clippers were still shooting. “All these guys were the best players on their high school team. Most were the best on their college team. So you need to be the best at whatever opportunity you’re in.
“Unless you’re one of those guys whom they just hand the franchise to, you have to figure it out.”
Raised by single mother Rosa, Harkless leaned toward soccer and chess until he started growing. When basketball took over, she knew exactly where to find him.
“On Sundays, the older guys would show up around noon,” Harkless said. “I was 10 or 11 when all that started. They might let me play every other game or whatever. They were great, out there shooting bank shots, saying, ‘You don’t know nothing about this, young fella.’
“I played against plenty of guys who played in college. I had a buddy named Mike Boone, who played at Rutgers. I had cousins I’d play all the time. And I’d get home just a little later than my mom told me to.”
Harkless was the city Player of the Year at Forest Hills High. Then he averaged 27 points at South Kent School in Connecticut. Recruiters converged, but Harkless was firmly committed to the city. He made his announcement at Madison Square Garden, amid the screams of fans queueing up for a Justin Bieber concert.
“Going to Connecticut was big,” Harkless said. “I was on my own. I didn’t have an uncle telling me it was time to work out. Then we had a good class at St. John’s and we wanted to do big things, and they did turn it around after I left.
“It was just cool playing at the Garden, on the biggest stage. I used to go to games in the high seats and then sneak down. One night Melo (Carmelo Anthony) hit a game-winner and I was sitting just a few rows behind the Knicks’ bench, right behind him. You remember that.”
Harkless was a first-round pick and spent three years at Orlando and four in Portland. Whenever he goes home, he goes to the park. It was Liberty Park, but was renamed after Williams, a detective and a former Long Island U. player who worked in the corrections department.
One day, Williams and another cop, Richard Guerzon, took a prisoner back to Rikers Island. The prisoner killed them both with a stolen gun.
“I don’t play there anymore, but I always check it out,” Harkless said. “I want to make something happen there. It’s huge, and it has a playground and tennis courts, and a track and a football field. I love that place.”