“Game Day,” The Wire’s ninth episode, begins with a short series of quick shots of a basketball scrimmage. It is the second time this season that the cameras have taken us inside a gym to watch basketball practice, but there are some big differences this time. The first scene was less of a practice than a strategy session, with Avon holding court (literally and metaphorically) and setting a bounty on Omar and his crew. In that scene, the basketball is more of a pretense, an excuse for Avon to meet with his inner circle in a private setting. Nobody plays defence, no picks are set. Avon is the only one who shoots the ball.
This time, basketball is the scene’s central purpose. Avon and Stringer are no longer on the court. Instead, they stand above the game, watching from the coach’s majestic penthouse office. Surrounded by golden trophies, they look down and study the players. The sudden camera movement and quick cuts that open the scene are appropriate to the fast-paced, high-level of Junior College basketball, but they also show a lot about the way Avon and Stringer see these men.
They are here to watch one player in particular, but in a sense he is insignificant. The cutting reduces him from a human being to a collection of skills (running, jumping, blocking, picking) and body parts (feet, arms, waist, hands). When he plays, he is faceless, and he never gets a name in the episode. He is simply The Ringer.
As we learn from their conversation, Avon and Stringer are here to prepare for an upcoming game between Westside and Eastside. It is the game that gives the episode its title (at least on a literal level), and a lot is at stake for Avon. We find out later that he made a $50,000 bet with Prop Joe, the Eastside “coach” (it says a lot about the role of the drug trade in the Baltimore communities that local drug kingpins get to coach the teams that represent their respective territories). They will ultimately double that bet by the end of the game.
More importantly, Avon sees the game as a reflection on his reputation, an area where things have not been going his way of late. “It’s been three years running now, man. Fucking with my morale, for real.” This is a revealing admission. In Avon’s mind, his empire is only as strong as he appears in the eyes of his subjects (the same belief that led Avon to order the murder of the witness, Gant). The word “morale” also suggests the psychology of war, as if Avon’s soldiers wouldn’t be willing to fight for somebody who can’t win a basketball game.
Thus, The Ringer. Stringer recites the statistics: a JuCo player who has hopes of transferring to a major Division One program (“Terps, Hoyas, Missouri, Kansas”), and maybe even professional ball. Of course Stringer, ever the student, adds the practical caveat, “if he can make them grades.” Stringer fails to mention one detail that Prop Joe points out later: the Ringer is actually from the Eastside. But Avon doesn’t care about the Ringer’s past, any more than he cares about his grades or his name. All he wants is somebody who can win. “He our edge, right there,” Stringer says.
So after practice, the coach brings his star player up to the office to meet his new employers. It is a disturbing scene, as much for what it says about Avon as for what it says about collegiate athletics. When they ask the Ringer why he hasn’t committed yet, he says “lots of schools looking at me. I’m listening.” He seems to occupy a position of strength, a free agent who has the liberty to weigh several good offers. He doesn’t mention his grades. There is also no mention of the fact that, as a college player, it is illegal for him to accept any payment.
This doesn’t stop Avon, of course, nor does it stop the coach, who names his asking price for the services of the Ringer. “$10,000 for the kid and $5,000… donation for the program.” Avon and Stringer share a look, but Avon is clearly willing to pay. “Done.” he says with little hesitation. Then the coach sends the Ringer away with an command: “Give me 30 from the line and get out of here.” As the Ringer goes off to finish his day’s work, the coach turns back to his guests. The negotiations aren’t over. He says “and I assume there’s another five right here for making this happen.”
It is a sharp, calculated move, a true example of cutthroat strategy from a man who perpetually carries his playbook rolled up into a baton. Clearly, he is already willing to cross the ethical and legal line by farming out one of his players for an unsanctioned game. So why not get a little extra for himself? It is a no-lose situation for the coach.
The Ringer bears all the risk. From a practical level, he is extremely unlikely to get caught, but if he does, he stands to lose everything. Since, as Stringer pointed out, he doesn’t have the grades to fall back on, chances are a fall would land him right back in the Eastside projects.
Not that the coach cares either way. He sees opportunity, and he pounces. He can tell that the gangsters in his office value the player, and by the time he makes his final demand, he knows that they are willing to pay at least $15,000 for him. He feels pretty confident that once they have agreed to that much, they will have no problem parting with another five.
Avon responds with laughter that contains both respect for the well-played negotiation and mockery of the coach’s greed. “Ain’t shit for free, right!” he proclaims. On a literal level, he is talking on the Darwinian jungle of a capitalist economy that puts a price tag on everyone and everything. Everything has its cost, not just a single game from an athlete, but a finder’s fee for the coach.
But there is a broader way to read the word “free,” and it comes up in a short conversation from the middle section of the scene. As the practice wraps up (and before the coach brings The Ringer in), Avon asks Stringer for an update on another major threat to his morale: the hunt for Omar.
Much to Avon’s annoyance, Omar is “in the wind,” a free man even after taking one of Avon’s stashes and killing one of his top lieutenants. As with the basketball game, Avon sees this as a major blow to his public image. “What they say when they see this cocksucking faggot out in the sunshine. Like it ain’t no thing to take my shit.” Omar’s freedom is bad for business. It sends a message to other stickup artists and rival crews, telling them that Avon is vulnerable, that he can be robbed without repercussion. This seems like a petty, superficial concern, but for Avon, it is just as essential to his control over the Westside as his ability to win a basketball game. In both cases, he is willing to pay.
The topic of freedom goes even deeper. Omar’s very freedom comes from an exchange that confirms Avon’s declaration that nothing is free. Stringer explains the “Robin Hood” arrangement that Omar has with the people who live in the neighborhoods where he lays his head. “He peel of one or two packages, roll around the neighborhood giving away free vials and shit.” The local fiends get free packages, but there is an understanding that they now owe Omar in another way. They protect him. “If we try and get at him,” Stringer explains. “we going to have two dozen niggers saying that we on our way.” We have already seen this happen, first with the schoolgirl who notifies Omar of McNulty and Greggs’ stakeout and then with Shirley, who provides shelter as Wee-Bey and company come at the King and torch his van.
Omar’s arrangement portrays all such transactions as a zero-sum game. For the fiends, the vials seem to be free, but they have to provide protection in exchange. Omar seems to have freedom, but he perpetually hides from his hunters, and needs to depend on the protection that he buys with the same drugs that make him a marked man to begin with. If you don’t pay with money or product, then you pay with freedom.
And that is exactly what happens with the Ringer. The scene ends with Stringer looking back down to the court, watching his new acquisition shooting the 30 free throws that the coach proscribed. He is framed between the hoop and the lines on the backboard, creating a visual prison that traps The Ringer, these lines closing in on him as he practices his only skill. His talents give him great privileges. He has his choice of major basketball programs, and he has the power to ask for $10,000 for a few hours work playing a game.
But nothing is free. All of this comes at a great expense. First, there is the ethical cost, the simple fact that he is violating the rules of the very system he hopes will lead him to a career in basketball (the coach pays the same ethical price, even if it doesn’t seem to bother him much). But there is the deeper cost to his freedom. As he capitalizes on his talents, he also becomes imprisoned by them. He is bought and sold by the powerful men who stand above him, sizing up his body and his skill. His name, and everything else about him, no longer matter.