Born Carl Lucas and raised in New York City's Harlem neighborhood, he spends his youth in a gang called the Rivals. With his friend Willis Stryker, he fights the rival gang the Diablos and commits petty crimes, often on the behalf of deformed mobster Sonny "Hammer" Caputo. In and out of juvenile homes throughout his teens, Lucas dreams of becoming a major New York racketeer until he finally realizes how his actions are hurting his family. He seeks to better himself as an adult by finding legitimate employment. Meanwhile, Stryker rises through the ranks of crime, but the two men remain friends. When Stryker's activities anger the Maggia crime syndicate, he is badly beaten in a mob hit, saved only by Lucas's intervention. When Stryker's girlfriend, Reva Connors, breaks up with him in fear of his violent work, she seeks solace with Lucas. Stryker is convinced that Lucas is responsible for the breakup, so he plants heroin in Lucas's apartment and tips off the police. Lucas is arrested and sent to prison where contact with his family is sparse due to the resentment of his brother James Jr. , who intercepts Lucas's letters to their father James and eventually leads each to believe the other is dead.