Longform

Pro and Con

The fliers appeared on northeast Denver doorsteps in late November 2007. "Attention," they announced in bold letters. "The former East Family YMCA Center is now the new home of Harlan21 LLC." Vacant since the Y moved out a few years earlier, the rec center at 3540 East 31st Avenue would now offer all-ages sports programs, tournaments, affordable gym memberships and low-income daycare. Along with the flier, which invited neighbors to a special preview of the complex at 5:30 p.m. on December 5, a bottle of water was left at each door. "H21, Water with Altitude!" was emblazoned on the label next to a note from the company CEO: "Enjoy a piece of Colorado in every bottle that tastes so good. That is why I, AmAdeus, put my name on it."

"I, AmAdeus" was curiously capitalized, as if it were a mishmash of Latin and English sending the message "I am a god."

The fliers and bottles were just one element of Harlan21's frenzied last-minute effort to spread the word about the open house. The company's fifteen or so employees were also sending press releases to every newspaper, radio and television station in town, and pestering the mayor's office to see if they could add John Hickenlooper to the list of celebrity guests, a lineup that chief executive Amadeus Harlan had promised would include superstars like former Denver Bronco Shannon Sharpe, Denver Nuggets stars Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin, and ESPN broadcaster Keyshawn Johnson.

The event was going to be big — big like Harlan himself, who topped off his hefty six-foot-one frame with a shaved head, flashy jewelry and a massive smile. It didn't matter that Harlan had given his staff barely a week's notice about the open house. Or that the long-dormant 27,500-square-foot sports facility, plagued by broken windows, torn carpets and a warped and water-damaged gym floor, was still unfit for any sort of athletic activity. Or that his employees, all of whom had been hired in the past two months, were working in a ragged rec room on computers they'd brought from home.

"You don't need anything in the world. You don't need money. You don't need anybody," he told them. "You just need image."

Harlan's image was larger than life. He'd run sports tournaments across the country for Nike, he told his employees, thirteen of whom spoke to Westword. He said he was friends with Melo and another Nuggets superstar, Allen Iverson. But most important, the charismatic, 38-year-old Harlan bragged, he'd played for the Broncos.

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Plus, Harlan reminded them, they weren't just working for him. The sign of God was 777, which adds up to 21. Harlan21, in other words, was a partnership between him and the Almighty. "Who do you work for?" he'd ask his staff, and they knew the answer: "You and God, Amadeus."

But by December 4, the day before the open house, those working at Harlan21 were feeling anything but blessed. Before moving into the rec center three weeks earlier, the company was supposed to have been making money by hosting fee-based sports tournaments around town. But the operation was so disorganized that the handful of tournaments that had occurred drew few, if any, participants. Now paychecks were bouncing and contractors were complaining about not getting paid.

Harlan had asked several employees to cash personal checks for him, and those checks had bounced, too, causing the employees' bank accounts to be frozen. One of those impacted was Valerie Cisneros, Harlan's personal secretary, who depended on her bank account to receive child support for the five kids she raised alone. "I couldn't even access my own money," says Cisneros. "I couldn't feed my kids."

It would all work out, Harlan assured the staff. He was clearing it up with his bank. He had a small-business loan, he reminded them, and after the open house the next night, local residents would soon be paying big bucks to use the sports complex. A day earlier, he'd told his human resources director, Kionii Harvell, to get ready to hire 35 to 40 more employees in the next three weeks.

That afternoon, he promised, he would compensate those who needed it most, like Cisneros, and pay everyone else by the end of the week. In fact, he was going to the bank right after he attended a financial class associated with his business loan. "If someone gives you $5 million, they have to teach you how to spend it," he joked before getting into his car and driving off. "I'll be back here before 2 p.m., for sure."

None of Harlan's employees saw him again.

Baron Hall was working as a construction flagger late last September, directing traffic around a blacktop repair job on South Broadway, when a brand-new black Nissan Maxima with twenty-inch rims pulled over on the median nearby. The driver, a big man in a suit, got out and approached Hall. "You don't remember me?" the driver asked with a smile. "I'm Johnny Harlan."

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner