Mean streets of Nth Philly made Bernard Hopkins and helped him escape

Bernard Hopkins is there, leaning against a waist-high concrete wall that all but encloses the courtyard where he once played. A chain-link fence now protects the nearby narrow access road from the trains that speed past, hour after hour, day after day, and the two-story projects clustered tightly together are no longer painted red brick but covered with ivory-colored siding.

But make no mistake: This is home. This is where it began.

Of all the fantastically accomplished athletes to have come from North Philadelphia – Rasheed Wallace, Dawn Staley, Marvin Harrison, Aaron McKie, Lewis Lloyd, to name a few – perhaps none has achieved the iconic status of Hopkins. From 1995 to 2005, he was the middleweight champion of the world, defending his title a record 20 times.

But Hopkins, now 44, is more than merely a boxer. He is the Executioner, the ex-con turned entrepreneur, and, as he so modestly points out, to the people of his hometown, “the black Rocky.”

Hopkins would be none of it, however, were it not for the streets of North Philly, where he was raised. Diamond. Dauphin. Norris. He roamed them all.

Hopkins is the success story, the kid who wandered toward the gang violence that was readily accessible in the 1970s, who literally beat people for money, who entered the penitentiary a fool at age 18, and emerged a man 56 months later.

He wasn’t formed in the relative safety of the playgrounds or in the gyms or at the rec centers, as some have been. He was made on the streets. And even now, retired with a 17,000-square-foot home in Delaware, a beautiful wife and 9-year-old daughter, a portfolio of conservative investments, and a pair of sleek Bentley sports cars, Hopkins hasn’t forgotten from where he came.

After everything that happened, how could he?

The furniture. That’s what Hopkins remembers about his mom’s small home on the edge of the Raymond Rosen housing project near 25th and Diamond. It was like that of just about everyone else he knew. Velvet. Floral print. Plastic covering the cushions, because Shirley Hopkins didn’t want one of her three children to ruin her new stuff.

In the summertime, when the temperature would soar over 90 degrees and it was so hot inside but even hotter out, a young Hopkins would sit on the furniture and instantly regret it.

“She didn’t want it to get messed up,” Hopkins said of his mother, who died of cancer a few years ago. “But in the summer, can you imagine how that felt?”

There is no plastic on the furniture in Hopkins’ apartment in Philly’s Center City neighborhood. It is sparsely decorated, yes, but by design. There is a glass table and four glass chairs with multi-colored leather cushions steps away from a small kitchen filled with stainless steel appliances and health food. An unmade bed and a pair of shoes are in a bedroom next to the quaint den with a monster flat-screen television mounted on the wall and a red leather couch against a bank of windows overlooking downtown.

Hopkins’ busy itinerary – he’s heading to Houston in two days to help promote a fight, then off to Miami – sits on the table and a portrait of his daughter, Latrice, hangs from a wall near a collection of miniature luxury cars and an iron statue of the champ himself.

This place on 20th and Hamilton near Spring Garden is where Hopkins goes when he has business in Philadelphia. He eats a breakfast of eggs and hash browns with two friends at a nearby corner market and sits comfortably in a neighborhood coffee shop, where the few people who do trickle in for a caffeine fix leave him alone.

In Center City, Hopkins moves comfortably and without fear, something he says he can’t do in his old neighborhood. He couldn’t when he lived there, and, unlike other successful athletes who were raised nearby, Hopkins doesn’t feel as if he can now.

Like other parts of Philadelphia, North Philly is an unpredictable mix of city blocks. There are folks who have lived in their immaculately maintained brownstones for decades next to boarded-up houses filled with squatters. There are drug dealers on corners next to rec centers, vacant lots filled with trash near outreach programs for kids.

Although Hopkins was 9 years old when his mom moved the family to what she determined was a safer environment in Germantown – there he attended Charles Henry School and spent one year at Germantown High – Hopkins includes the Raymond Rosen projects when discussing what helped him become an elite boxer.

He remembers the gang wars over territory, and how, even as a little kid, he couldn’t wander past a certain boundary in the neighborhood. It wasn’t until he was a little older that Hopkins started robbing people, an offense that landed him at Graterford prison, where he ultimately honed his boxing skills, got his GED and committed himself to becoming something other than a “401(k)” for a prison guard.

“We had a high homicide rate and a lot of gang war when I was coming up, a lot of drugs,” Hopkins said. “We’re talking about the mid-’70s, late ’70s. It was really bad in Philadelphia, especially Diamond Street, Norris Street three blocks away. Everything was so close, so that’s why there was always confrontations. You didn’t have to go three miles to go here, four miles to go there. You could be walking or playing basketball four or five blocks over, and you’d be in a different territory. A lot of people were getting fired on and ambushed.

“Back then it was territorial, with drugs being involved as far as people using them. Now, it’s a fight for territory for profit.”

As a boxer, Hopkins always said he was willing to die in the ring, and he meant it. He trained vigorously, often employing a team of nutritionists, trainers and doctors to ensure he was maximizing his 6-foot frame.

Hopkins was never the biggest or the strongest boxer, but he was fierce. The Executioner was from the projects. As he said, he didn’t wear silk boxers or dress like a teacher.

“When I’m in the ring, I’m the ‘hood. I’m the penitentiary,” Hopkins said. “For me to go in a ring and fight, I must not like nothing about you, because even as I got advanced and started establishing myself more in the game, I needed something to feed off of. Otherwise I’d say, ‘Why am I fighting again?’ I need all that animosity.”

It’s been 30 years since Hopkins ran around the Raymond Rosen projects, near the funeral home and the State Store, and he remembers the rules. Don’t wander where you shouldn’t go, and don’t start something you can’t finish.

While he’s scheduled in May to deliver 400 meals to the area’s homeless and has spoken at local schools, Hopkins doesn’t frequent North Philly for fun. He’s visible in Center City and gets his haircut in West Philly (only, he said, because his North Philly barber moved there), but he said he doesn’t go to North Philly because he doesn’t want people to think he’s flaunting his success and wealth.

When he does go, Hopkins said, people constantly ask him for money.

“If I had my checkbook and I wrote out every check from small to big to the people who asked me for something or insinuated something, I’d be done,” Hopkins said. “I’d have to fight again.”

Which he doesn’t plan on doing. But Hopkins does have a message for the kids there.

“Everybody can’t box their way out or dribble a ball,” Hopkins said. “That’s already been established. I’m not saying they shouldn’t try, but I think if you get all the education you can get, you got a better chance of getting a good job and establishing a situation than making it in boxing.

“With me, it was something different and unusual. I didn’t have an education, but my athleticism and my winning ways got me there. Then I had to think quickly, and I learned quickly, and I was fortunate. But it’s not a path I would suggest to a known enemy.”

With a friend’s crystal blue BMW 7 series idling nearby, Hopkins sat, shielded by black sunglasses and a black zip-up jacket, and remembered. There’s a grill in what used to be his tiny backyard. Long gone from this place are his mother, sister and brother, who shared the modest home with Hopkins.

The rattling of the trains? The catcalls from the boys perched on a wall? The indecipherable pops in the distance? Those sounds were the same as when Hopkins was a young boy.

It was bright but bitterly cold as the sun started along its downward arc to the horizon. “Yo, yo, yo,” Hopkins called out to five kids sitting on the wall that divided Hopkins’ part of the projects from another, a wall that hadn’t been there when he was young.

“The problems are the same,” Hopkins said, looking at the tracks where he used to throw boulders at passing trains. “It’s like a city within a city, don’t you think?”

Then, a screen door squeaked open, and out ran 8-year-old Amir Stevenson. The third-grader at Powell Elementary had recognized Hopkins when he had walked by a few minutes earlier with his mom, and he approached Hopkins with a white piece of paper and a pen.

“Did you know I used to live here?” Hopkins asked the boy, who nodded silently. “I used to live right there. You weren’t even born then.”

Without saying a word, Amir took the autograph and sprinted home.

Back in the car, moving away from his past and back into the present, Hopkins grew uncharacteristically quiet.

“The kids,” he said, “they’ve got to know there’s a way out of here.”

Copyright 2009 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.