Donald King was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on August 20, 1931, in a Depression-era ghetto. On December 7, 1941, King's father was killed in an explosion at the steel factory where he worked. With the small insurance settlement, Don King's mother Hattie relocated the family to a middle-class neighborhood. When the money ran out, Hattie began to bake pies, which her sons sold along with bags of roasted peanuts. As a sales gimmick, Don and his brothers began to slip a "lucky number" into each bag, a habit that soon made them very popular with the local gamblers and numbers runners.
As a high school student, he began to take an interest in boxing, entering Golden Gloves tournaments as "The Kid." After being knocked cold in a few early bouts, The Kid decided that boxing was not the way to go, at least not inside the ring. Instead, he began to focus on the numbers rackets that he had encountered as a boy selling peanuts. After being accepted to Kent State University, he decided to spend his summer after high school working for a numbers runner, to raise the tuition money. Unfortunately, after hustling all summer, he lost a winning betting slip and had to make up for it out of his own pocket, putting his college plans on hold. While he did eventually take a few classes at Case Western University, he decided that college was an unnecessary diversion.
Instead he set himself up in the numbers business, and by the time he turned 20, he was a well-established and successful numbers runner. He soon began to show the panache that would mark his career, buying fancy clothes and driving around town in shiny new cars. At the same time he began to reveal the talents that would make him more than a flash in the pan. He used an insider's tips to rig a popular numbers game based on stock market results, reducing his risk to 200:1 odds while collecting at 500:1 odds. This complex system worked well enough to make Don King the most successful "numbers banker" in Cleveland by the time he was 30. And King had also emerged as a man to be feared. In December of 1954, he shot to death a man named Hillary Brown who was trying to rob one of King's gambling houses. The killing was ruled a "justifiable homicide."