The basketball courts are easily overlooked: Just three blacktops and a dimmed scoreboard bracketed by a couple of sets of metal bleachers.

They stretch along an otherwise barren block of Seventh Street near downtown Chester, in the shadows of a railroad overpass.

But in the gritty city of 34,000 with a remarkable basketball tradition, the Seventh Street courts are king. For many, they are home - a relief, an escape, the premier athletic battleground. A tiny haven of safety within one of the region's most dangerous cities.

The unassuming asphalt in Delaware County has nurtured what some residents call their Seventh Street heroes: Jameer Nelson, now with the NBA's Denver Nuggets; Tyreke Evans of the New Orleans Pelicans; and, most recently, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the Chester High School standout. In June, he was drafted in the first round by the Brooklyn Nets, and he took 40 Chester youths with him to New York to watch it happen.

Over the years, the heroes and the aspiring have fought and scrapped on Seventh Street, residents say. Nelson, Evans, and Hollis-Jefferson made it out.

And in a city where nearly one-third of residents live below the poverty line, and where 11 homicides have been logged this year, according to state police, residents say the athletes' leaving is exactly what is needed for the kids who stay.

On a typical day on Seventh Street, as many as 50 kids, some as young as 4 or 5, gather on the blacktops to watch and play. Some run drills alone. Others play pickup. In the summer, more than 200 players from the city's most competitive recreation league, the Chester Biddy Basketball Association, flood the courts.

It's on those days that the courts come alive: Hundreds of parents, extended family, and neighbors - cheering, roaring - crowd the chain-link fences encircling them.

"Around here, a regular recreation game is like the NBA," said Zain Shaw, a Chester native and basketball trainer.

Yet on Seventh Street, the NBA endures as the collective goal. "I'll play there someday," many of the participants say without hesitation.

Just like Rondae, they said last week.

"It's tough to make it out of this city," Shaw said. "With all the violence running around, for Rondae to put all that stuff to the side, put it all on these courts - and show the kids that that's OK - that's incredible."

But in Chester, Hollis-Jefferson isn't just an idol. He's palpable.

Even in high school, kids say, he would pull them aside on the courts. "School comes first," he'd say. "Don't be scared, just play."

He donated sneakers. He stayed out of trouble. He showed them that the NBA was possible.

And in the weeks approaching the NBA draft, he arranged for the 40 kids to tag along to the Barclays Center on June 25 to watch.

For some, it was a first trip to New York - even the first trip outside of Chester. Aboard a Brooklyn-bound charter bus, the kids snacked on soft pretzels and water ice, swapping predictions as to which team Hollis-Jefferson might go.

Funded entirely by Hollis-Jefferson and private donations, the trip was free to the kids.

"The idea, the trip, it was all Rondae," said Rylanda Hollis, the player's mother. "He has these kids' backs, because he knows, at his age, he would have loved that kind of experience."

Such experiences are crucial for children in Chester, where residents say some kids can slip into a cycle of crime. Basketball offers discipline and focus - a way to keep youths off the streets.

And the Seventh Street blacktops offer them a rare, peaceful venue. Crime statistics for the area were not available from state police, but residents say the area is among the safest.

"When he's there, I know it's OK," said Della Kirksey, whose 14-year-old son, Michael Smith, plays on the courts and attended the draft. "Rondae's talked to Michael," she said, "told him to stay humble and stay focused. [Michael] wants to be like him."

Already, she said, Hollis-Jefferson's influence is evident. Smith listens. He does his homework. He's home before dark. Like Hollis-Jefferson, Kirksey said, he's bighearted: When Kirksey's birthday passed this year and no presents came, Smith sold his basketball shoes to buy her a gift.

"I have an awesome kid on my side - I'm not losing him to these streets," Kirksey said. "And I have basketball, these leagues . . . players like Rondae to thank for that."