To most, La’Keisha “Swish” Sutton is known as being part of the global phenomenon known as the Harlem Globetrotters.
And that makes sense considering she is one of the first women to play for the famed basketball team.
But for those living in Mercer County, Sutton is much more than a Globetrotter, with her impact evident across her community.
A native of Prospect Village in Trenton, Sutton is the CEO of the Fan Favorite Club, which officially opened its doors on Whitehead Road in Hamilton in November 2019, a hub for youth development with specialties in basketball, media production and business.
The “Fan Favorite” name came from the nickname that was given to Sutton during her freshman year at the University of South Carolina.
That season, the Gamecocks had lost a lot of games, and Sutton was ready to transfer to Princeton University. Nikki McCray, who was an assistant coach at the time, told Sutton, “You can’t leave, you’re the fan favorite! If you look after the game, you have the longest autograph line and you actually talk to the fans. They love to watch you play.”
And the Fan Favorite name stuck.
Sutton’s decision to name her brand Fan Favorite, contrary to what many would think, came from the want to dissociate the nickname with just her.
“After a while, I got a little tired of Fan Favorite being my nickname, I didn’t really want it to be about me,” Sutton said. “It’s a mentality. When you think Fan Favorite, you should think of leadership, confidence, commitment to excellence, not being afraid and most importantly, being yourself.”
That Fan Favorite mentality was taught to Sutton through the coaches and mentors that she had growing up, starting with her high school coach at Trenton Catholic Academy, Khaliq Lewis El. Sutton would watch him play and coach growing up, which gave her the inspiration to play from the time she was shooting around after going to church.
“I have his picture up as soon as you walk into the place,” Sutton said. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be playing basketball.”
Sutton’s other mentor, legendary South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, reinforced a lot of values that Sutton took to heart.
“I played exactly like her, her being from Philly and me in Trenton. We were similar in size, too. She had the biggest heart. She taught me leadership, communication and fellowship.”
Following a star four-year college career, Sutton decided to play internationally. From 2013 until 2016, Sutton played basketball all over the world—Taiwan, Finland, Ecuador, Germany, Bulgaria—living out her dream.
While overseas, Sutton saw the true impact of her attitude on everyone she met there, with a few individuals making permanent changes in tribute to her demeanor.
“There are four people in the world that have my name and my logo and my brand tattooed on them,” Sutton said. “I met a fan from Bulgaria on a Monday, he came back Wednesday with the tattoo. He was just a fan in Bulgaria. When I asked why he did that, he said, ‘You helped me feel seen.’ I’ve kept that with me. Everybody that I meet, I want them to feel important, to use their voice and to let them know that they have a contribution to make.”
In 2016, Sutton was given the chance to re-sign with any of the teams she played with in the past but chose instead to put her professional playing career on halt and came home to New Jersey.
“In college, I fractured my back and I tore my knee twice,” Sutton said. “I understood what life without basketball looked like. Eventually, the ethics of the owners overseas weren’t the best, and character is really important to me, so I turned down the money.”
Over the next two years, Sutton spent her time entrenched in the community. She participated in a lot of celebrity basketball games and youth camps in different cities.
Sutton had the inspiration to make her presence local to Mercer County after the murder of her cousin, Ciony Kirkman, in 2016. Kirkman’s death created a moment of clarity for Sutton.
“That was an ‘a-ha’ moment for me where I was so used to traveling and talking to everyone else’s communities that I hadn’t been doing it here,” Sutton said. “That’s when I started going through local schools and seeing that there was a need for positivity and someone that was going to be encouraging.”
Sutton has long done just this as a guest coach for the girls’ basketball program at St. Raphael’s Roman Catholic Church in Hamilton. In many ways, the gig at St. Raphael’s has helped launch all that Sutton has today.
“They’ve been my biggest fans and my biggest support system since I’ve left college,” Sutton said.
Sutton also has reconnected with her alma maters in Mercer County, coaching at Trenton Catholic Academy in Hamilton and at Stuart Country Day School in Princeton.
She also has leveraged her position with the Globetrotters to help her hometown. Baden Sports, which makes the famed red, white and blue Globetrotter basketballs, donated hundreds of balls across the country. Sutton made sure 50 of them went home to Trenton, at the West Ward Recreation center.
Last year, she spent eight months of the year on the road with the Globetrotters, but the team has altered her schedule to let her spend much more time at home. She said she has to do the occasional three-week publicity tour for the team, but most days she can be found at her club at 279 Whitehead Road in Hamilton.
“They are great at allowing me to balance my business with being on the team, and my hat’s off to them for that,” Sutton said.
It has allowed her to connect to more kids within the community, athletes such as Daniel Montero, who has known Sutton for the last year and a half.
“I came to the facility from the beginning,” Montero said. “I’ve learned how to be a leader, how to be a good teammate and how to be a good player both on and off of the court.”
Montero also said that Sutton emphasizes hard work.
“The more work you put in, the easier it’ll come to you, and that’s in everything,” Montero said.
Montero’s mother, Noraima, had similar sentiments in her testimonial for the Fan Favorite Club website.
“Providing the best of their skills in a positive environment, expecting nothing less than 100% from each player,” Noraima Montero said. “I can’t say enough on how positive our experience has been.”
Outside of basketball, Sutton looks to enrich students in media production and marketing themselves. Fan Favorite Club manager Simone Bryant runs that side of the business.
“For the kids that don’t play basketball or don’t like sports, we can still teach them media production, graphic design, visual arts,” Sutton said. “Some kids design our merchandise, they have artwork all around the facility. We try to expose them to everything.”
Sutton has even gotten in touch with her own creative side, having begun work on a children’s book that emphasizes the lessons she tries to teach at her club. The most important thing for Sutton is that her students and players are receiving an education and understanding its value.
“Let’s do well in school,” Sutton said. “Let’s talk to our teachers. Even with the internship program I run through this facility, you have to get four letters of recommendation. I want people to build relationships with their teachers and principals now before it’s suddenly senior year and you’re trying to get to college.”
The most successful students in the eyes of Sutton aren’t necessarily those who go professional or play in college athletics. She finds true excitement in seeing students that go to college on academic scholarships and receive an education.
Sutton also credits her open-door policy to the students’ involvement and success off of the court.
“Some people like to drop off their kids and leave,” Sutton said. “Which I think is super weird. I would prefer for parents to sit and watch so they can see their investment at work. I want them to see their kids make new friends and step out of their comfort zone.”
For Sutton, her vision for the future is expansion. Sutton wants Fan Favorite Club to franchise into Philadelphia, Atlanta, Rahleigh, North Carolina, Chicago and Alaska. Sutton’s selection of cities was attributed to the places that gave to her before she became a Globetrotter.
“Every city that embraced me before I was a Globetrotter, I want to go back and give back to these communities,” Sutton said.
Looking at her impact on the community and world around her, Sutton feels confident that she was meant to have the impact that she has had because of her mindset, which she hopes those that she mentors are able to take with them.
“Take away basketball, I still think I’d be successful,” Sutton said. “I’ve always been myself. I never tried to fit in, I just wanted to be me.”
The Harlem Globetrotters will appear at Cure Insurance Arena in Trenton on Saturday, March 7 for shows at 2 and 7 p.m. Sutton will be on a national PR tour for the team, and will not be playing in the Trenton games.