LEBRON JAMES, a product of the mean streets of Akron, Ohio, thinks he can tackle North Philly.
The two-time NBA champ is partnering with the Starz premium network to co-produce a half-hour comedy sitcom that tells the story of two men who used "a combination of God-given talent and North Philly grit" to overcome urban struggles and achieve fame and fortune, the network announced yesterday.
Leaving the streets behind as an NBA baller is the hoop dream of many a North Philly youngster, but community workers interviewed yesterday said they hope to see some reality in the scripted series.
"People who make it out of the 'hood because they're a rap star or because they play in the NBA are one thing, but too many kids think that's the way to get out of the neighborhood," said Willie Little, director of Youth Emergency Services with Youth Service, a nonprofit agency in the Powelton section of West Philly. "It hasn't been to be a doctor or a lawyer in this community in a long time."
One of the men on the planned show, titled "Survivor's Remorse," dribbles his way out of the hood as a basketball star. But don't expect to see James' off-court acting debut just yet.
He's bringing his experiences growing up as the child of a single teenage mother to bear as an executive producer, joining forces with writer/actor Mike O'Malley; Tom Werner, producer of classic comedies "Roseanne" and "The Cosby Show"; and business partner Maverick Carter.
That's the same Carter who was behind the one-hour special "The Decision," which chronicled James' . . . well, decision to join the Miami Heat and was widely seen as an unnecessary, self-aggrandizing stunt by critics.
One North Philly resident who hopes the show packs a punch between the punch lines is Dorothy Johnson-Speight.
Born and raised near 22nd and Diamond streets, in what she calls "the heart of North Philly," Johnson-Speight is the founder and executive director of Mothers In Charge. She lost her only son to a shooting in Olney in 2001 and said she wants the show to depict the violence that kids in tougher neighborhoods grow up with.
"But more important than that, I want them to show how to stop [the violence], to show what happens when enough people do something about it," she said.
Violence plagues both Akron and North Philly, but 2012 numbers show our northern neighborhoods to be significantly more deadly, with 16 homicides per the 70,668 residents in the 22nd Police District, the veritable heart of North Philadelphia - versus 28 per 198,402 residents in Akron, according to statistics from the Toledo Blade, city-data.com and Philly police. The poverty rates, about 46 percent for North Philly versus 14.8 percent for Akron, give us another dubious distinction.
Tyrone Werts, 61, knows just how bad things can go for a young person in North Philly. He served more than three decades in prison for his part in a robbery and homicide before joining Philly's End Crime Project.
Dreams, hoop or otherwise, are important, he said.
"In a lot of North Philly, you're just trying to stay alive and survive, and when you focus on that, it's really hard to have a vision for yourself and your future," he said. "I hope that they will not only depict how tough it is to make it out, but also how it can be done."
Unlike James, who was NBA Rookie of the Year at 20, Tahmeir Branson, 23, is just trying to find his way out of North Philly. He's a construction worker and an aspiring rap artist. Real North Philly, to him, means resilience, and he hopes that comes through in LeBron's show.
"Growing up here, you learn how to survive through the worst of times," Branson said at 22nd and Diamond, as he walked to a hip-hop open-mic appearance.
"It'll give you that attitude where no matter how bad things get, you're going to be able to get through it, even if you have to do it on your own."
Clearly Akron's James believes he knows it's possible for a North Philly kid to succeed.
"I think the main thing for me is, first of all, making it out of a place where you're not supposed to," the Heat superstar told the Associated Press.
"You're supposed to be a statistic and end up like the rest of the people in the inner city - [and] being one of the few to make it out and everyone looking at you to be the savior."
- The Associated Press contributed to this report