KRAVITZ: If you don't know local promoter / philanthropist Amp Harris, well, you should

Amp Harris talks with's Bob Kravitz Wednesday, July 18, 2018, in Indianapolis. (WTHR Photo/Bob Kravitz)
Bob Kravitz

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - Amp Harris has been working on about one hour of sleep the past week. The Indiana Black Expo, which includes several of his programs and promotions, including Saturday's "Saving Our Youth'' celebrity basketball game, gets underway downtown Friday, and the promoter/impresario/entrepreneur/philanthropist/friend-to-the-stars is hustling. All morning, he's been moving an outdoor concert Friday indoors due to the forbidding weather forecast.

We are grabbing lunch, talking about his life and times, his challenging upbringing and his philosophy on living a fulfilled and peaceful life, when his cell phone rings.

From across the table, I note that it's coming from his friend and comedian/actor Mike Epps, an Indianapolis native who has made it big in the entertainment industry.

"Yeah, yeah, you need me to get a place for you this weekend?'' he asked Epps.

That's the way it works with Harris, who is Indy's version of Zelig (or maybe Forrest Gump), always showing up at big events – his own events and others' – usually surrounded by the likes of Reggie Wayne, Robert Mathis, Cato June, Edgerrin James, George Hill, Paul George and other current and former Indy sports luminaries. They don't hang with Harris because he is America's guest or some kind of hanger-on; they hang with him because of his spirit, because his events – and there are many of them, including several this coming weekend at Indiana Black Expo – keep the athletes tethered to the types of local communities that remind them of their own childhoods.

"These kids we reach out to, they're me, they're Reggie or Robert or Edgerrin when they were young,'' Harris said. "We know their circumstances because we've lived them.''

At this point, you're probably wondering why I'm writing about Harris, who has never scored a point for the Pacers or reached the endzone for the Colts. Well…I'm writing about him because he's made an impact in our city, especially the inner city, and continues to do so through his various programs and promotions. He's the one who reaches out to local athletes, those who were born here and those who earn their living here, and he connects them to young people in need of guidance and role models.

Harris is not just a friend and organizer; he's a big brother, a youthful 51-year-old who still plays pickup hoops a couple of times a week. Athletes often surround themselves with sycophants, but Harris tells them what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. He is a sounding board, and he is a purveyor of hard-earned wisdom. When Amp calls, local and even national athletes answer. And when athletes reach out to him, he's ready and willing to lend an ear.

"It's simple: Respect is earned,'' Harris said, picking at a turkey sandwich. "What I learned a long time ago and learned from my mother (Geneva Burton) watching her go without and being in a faithful family, the only person you've got to please is God. I've learned I've got to love me before I love anybody else. Sometimes people fall in love with the image of these [athletes]. But they can see fake from real. I don't go to Edge and said, 'Hey, man, I want to be your friend.' It's an organic thing. Edge has told me the reason he wanted to be around me is because I've never changed who I was. I never tell them what they want to hear because then, what kind of friend would I be?"

Harris understands athletes, particularly black athletes, and they understand him because they share a true commonality. Harris was the youngest of eight children and has no true familial male role model. He grew up in poverty, surrounded by drugs and violence like too many of our citizens.

And he's seen some things; Lord, he's seen some things.

"When I was a teenager, 13 years old, it was 1979, my stepfather [Eddie Burton] shot and killed my brother [Reggie Harris] right in front of me," Harris said, choking back the emotions. "I haven't spoken much about that day; it's only recently that I've come to terms with it. Being the youngest, my brothers always looked out for me. And then my brother was gone.

"So that night, I'm in the basement and I hear some yelling and screaming upstairs. I run up the stairs and I see my brother push my stepfather up against the wall. My stepfather went to get his gun, my brother had his gun. To this day, I don't think my stepfather meant to do what he did but I've learned most people shoot or kill others when they're scared. I just stood there. I couldn't move. It was surreal. I didn't know what to do.

"I just remember, and this is so clear even now, hearing that 'POW!' and the smoke coming from his gun and my brother against the wall, all the blood, his brains splattered against the wall. That single incident is probably the most important piece of history in my life that molded me into the person I am today. For the longest time, I had commitment issues because whenever I got close to somebody, they were taken away. My brother, then my nephew [who was a drug dealer and was shot and killed].

"...I was angry at my mother [Geneva Burton] for several years because society teaches us 'if you do harm to me, I'll do harm to you.' The Bible teaches us you don't do an eye for an eye. As a kid, I didn't know that; I'm thinking, 'We've got to get him (the stepfather).' Well, my mom never pressed charges. Never did. She just wanted it to be over. I learned a lot from that. She's got to be the strongest person I know. Her spirit never wavered. And that's why I live a stress-free life, having gone through that experience. It's like cancer; either you eat it or you let it eat you."

Harris could have gone south, gotten lost to the streets like so many of the young people with whom he grew up. He had seen so much, seen things nobody – much less a young teenager – should ever see. "I should be on drugs, crazy or dead,'' he said. "But it made me stronger. It was traumatic; it still is. You see how emotional I'm getting talking about it but I wasn't going to let it affect me in the wrong way."

Harris has been working and hustling from a young age, spinning records as a radio DJ at the age of 13. "'The devil's music,' my mother used to call it,'' he said with a laugh. He graduated Decatur Central – those were the days of busing – despite having lived at 30th and Broadway and then 45th and College. He can still remember when racists burned a cross in front of the high school in 1983.

"When you grow up in low-income areas, areas where society says you'll be a failure, you learn from those things that what doesn't break you makes you stronger,'' he said. "You learn what NOT to do. I grew up without my [biological] father, and that taught me what not to do when I had my daughter [Rachel, who is 14]. To know your destiny, you've got to know your history."

Harris' story is the inner-city's story, the story of impoverished neighborhoods and lives forever altered by violence, drugs and the breakdown of the nuclear family. It's the reason he gives back, the reason he smiles so broadly when he talks about children who've reached out to him and told him how touched and impacted they were by one of his events. In the end, Harris is not the guy who hangs out with Indy-area athletes; no, they hang out with him, and they learn a little something along the way.

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