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The Wire, Basketball, and Van Morrison: While We’re Waiting…

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Happy Thursday, WFNYers. All things considered, things are solid in the Kingdom of the Land, no? The Indians are doing … fine, and were last seen spanking the Twins. The Browns haven’t screwed anything up in what must be weeks now, maybe even months. The Cavaliers have Game 3 of their first-round playoff series Thursday night in Indiana against the Pacers. But While We’re Waiting for Game 3 … let us take solace in the fact that while the Cavaliers looked both formidable and mortal in the first two games of the series, but they were still able to shut down the Pacers Avon Barksdale-style on their home floor.

Which brings me to my topic: The Wire. [Warning: the clips below contain language that’s über-NSFW.] The Wire is a critically acclaimed crime drama about Baltimore that aired on HBO from 2002 to 2008. But it’s really more than a television show — it’s kind of a cross between a graduate-level anthropology course on the American city and a cult with drug dealers and sawed-off shotguns. People who are “into” The Wire are fanatical about it in a way on par with CrossFit practitioners and Phish fans. If you’re sitting among fans of The Wire and tell them you’ve never seen the show, they stare at you with hushed expressions, and mouths agape. Confessing ignorance of The Wire to its adherents triggers grave concern and pained sympathies normally reserved for the death of beloved family pets and curable cancers. [Gasp!] “You’ve never seen The Wire???” Even aware of how insufferable I am as a Wire fan, I can’t help it. I just love it too much.1

The Wire episode “Game Day” not only gifted us with one of the greatest .gifs ever (the Avon Barksdale finger wag, shown above), but an awesome basketball scene that’s one of the more memorable slices of the city of Baltimore that the show provided. The “Game Day” basketball scene is probably most famous for producing this line from Proposition Joe suggesting that professional attire is indispensable in projecting an equivalent professional stature. “Look the part, be the part, [expletive].”

This week, Sports Illustrated‘s Stanley Kay shared an excellent oral history of The Wire‘s basketball scene in “Game Day,” which has nearly all of the principals including the cantankerous but brilliant David Simon, the show’s creator.2 It’s a great read for a variety of reasons, but the main takeaway is the attention to detail and general thoughtfulness that made the show successful on so many levels and impactful to so many people. The cast and crew worked hard to make the basketball seem real, knowing how much of a city’s personality is embedded in its local sporting culture and the stakes if they botched the atmosphere of that culture.

MAURICE BLANDING (Avon’s ringer[, a Baltimore native who played basketball in Europe]): I think that was the biggest part of why The Wire was so successful—that [David Simon] actually used people who were former drug addicts. That were former basketball players, teachers. Everybody he used from Baltimore probably had their own story. This is just my story. Everybody has a story in Baltimore. Everybody does. Trust me.

And that’s really what makes The Wire so good, so compelling, and so enduring — the conscientiousness and the desire to tell everyone’s story. Most people who watch the show come away as sympathetic for the drug dealers3 as they are for the police officers. Everyone has a story, and the show helps viewers understand that most people are doing the best they can with the circumstances with which they’re confronted. That devotion to story-telling is what makes great drama, great sportswriting, and even great wrestling.

I’ve been (un)fortunate to briefly inhabit some parts of The Wire universe in other cities,4 and the more I experience the more authentic I’ve found the show to be — I don’t think that can be said of a lot of television shows (I’m looking at you, Law & Order). There are in innumerable details that stick out, but one in particular is in the very first episode. Detective Jimmy McNulty goes into Judge Phelan’s chambers, and they are an absolute mess — binders and casebooks strewn all over the place as the judge disrobes. Because of course a city judge’s office is going to be a mess. It’s indicative of the municipal futility and bureaucratic overload in most cities, as well as a symbol of the endemic problems faced by our once-venerated institutions. It’s a small detail, but one I noticed. Most shows would have made Judge Phelan’s chambers clean and tidy — but that would have felt less authentic.5

On a final note, here’s a link to one of the shows most famous scenes, which I have particular fondness for because it mirrors exactly the dialogue between me and my friends during the fourth quarter of the Cavaliers’ championship-clinching Game 7 in the NBA Finals. [Again, Warning: VERY NSFW.]6

Your Calvin and Hobbes strip of the day. Future Calvin would have made a great sports radio personality and had throngs of Twitter followers, a plurality of whom hate him yet reward him with attention anyway.

And now for the random 90s song of the day. This tune’s in honor of knowing good days are on the horizon if you’re feeling down, as well as the Cavs’ penchant for playing selectively good basketball. “Days Like This” is a solid entry in Van Morrison’s surprisingly reliable 90s catalogue.

The uninitiated will only know Van the Man as the guy who created “Brown-Eyed Girl,” but he’s undeniably one of the greatest songwriters to ever grace popular music, from his pre-punk garage days in Them (“Gloria”) to the spacey/transcendental Astral Weeks and Moondance of the 60s-70s,7 through his swinging 90s material to the jaunty Keep Me Singing in 2016. Tell me the saxophone solo on this song doesn’t brighten your day if you’re in the dumps. Here’s to days like this and flipping the switch.

When it’s not always raining
There’ll be days like this
When there’s no one complaining
There’ll be days like this
When everything falls into place
Like the flick of a switch
Well my mama told me
There’ll be days like this

  1. I’m sure this isn’t the first time I’ve talked about it, but couldn’t find it via a brief search of the interwebs. It probably won’t be the last, either. []
  2. Other than Idris Elba aka Stringer Belle, who’s probably too famous to be in a Sports Illustrated oral history. []
  3. With some notable and significant exceptions. []
  4. Predominantly the legal side, both municipal and federal, but also some parts of the law enforcement side, the criminal side, and political side, however minimal. []
  5. Judge Phelan’s office actually becomes more orderly in later episodes as his political stature in the community grows. []
  6. That clip is actually a remarkably accurate reliving of Game 7, up to McNulty aiming his pistol through the window and saying, “Pow,” (Kyrie Irving’s shot) to Bunk and McNulty finding the bronze shell casing (the Larry O’Brien Trophy) in the grass as Bunk smokes a cigar. []
  7. Both Astral Weeks and Moondance are among my 25 favorite albums. []

  • RGB
  • JNeids

    My schadenfreudean NBA dream: the Celtics land the #2 pick in the draft and select Lonzo Ball who is a complete bust and drags the team down with him.

  • Chris
  • RGB

    I’ll settle for Lonzo Ball being a bust.

  • BenRM

    I am thankful that I watched The Wire 5 years or so after it went off the air. I think I was spared a lot of the WAY TOO INTO IT vibe. (GoT, however….)

    It was an excellent show, and I agree that it was relatively authentic (I mean, as far as a tv drama can try to be anyway).

  • BenRM
  • JNeids

    It would just make it so much sweeter if it happened with the pick Danny Ainge refused to part with for someone that might have put them over the top this year.

  • RGB

    There is only GoT.

  • Eric G

    This will just lead to a more misguided LaVar, who will decry the traditional model of basketball, wherein more points decide the victor. And to that end, contracts which base incentives on performance more so than haphazard brand development and social media standings.

  • Harv

    re The Wire, yeah, I’m that insufferable guy. That show sucked me in more than “The Sopranos,” although it was too dense/intense to binge watch. The greatest shows have indelible characters by the bucketload: McNulty, Stringer Bell, Bubbles, Prop Joe, Marlo, Chris and, my fav, Omar (“Come at the king, you best not miss”). I actually had to stop watching for a while with D’Angelo’s exit, feeling like I’d been emotionally manipulated. Even the show’s exploration of city schools is outrageously good.

    David Simon set a standard that other shows have to deal with.

  • mgbode

    I have refused to watch the show because it is popular and centered in Baltimore. Yes, I am that petty.

  • CBiscuit

    Yep. And sometimes it’s ok to admit that the Beatles really are just that good.

    The only meh-ish season was the one with the docks and Ziggy (3 I think?). Otherwise, they nailed every underbelly aspect of urban corruption and dysfunction–drugs, police, housing, schools, politics, press…

  • CBiscuit

    I’m torn. As a dad watching sports, I feel sorry for the kid with his blowhard father. On the other hand, I know there’s no way for him to succeed without us seeing more LaVar. I know it’s his schtick, but my God, even knowing that…I’m still sick of seeing that clown.

  • Garry_Owen
  • mgbode
  • Garry_Owen
  • Michael Ziegler

    Van the Man is the best song writer of our time, never has been given his much deserved props.

  • Harv

    yep, the docks stuff was good, not great. Almost like they missed they missed the insider’s essence of it, and you didn’t love anyone there.

  • Chris

    How many people feel this way primarily because of his dad? Until the kid acts like a dipsh##, I’ll give him a chance and wish him well.

  • nj0

    It was season two and my personal favorite. Seems like the general consensus that it was the worst though. The (mostly) white working class folks getting squeezed by forces much bigger than them and their own corrupt, stagnant union that no longer really helps them… As somebody who grew up on the near East side during the 80’s, the season hit very close to home.

    And how could you not love Frank Sobotka?

  • nj0

    It really is that good.

  • Astral Weeks with a good bottle of whiskey and a sunset: life offers nothing better.

  • The Wire fanatics annoyed me so much that I didn’t even want to watch it, during or for years after. But I finally gave it a go a couple months ago, finishing the whole series in under a month, and It. Was. Brilliant. Not a wasted character or weak storyline to be found. I hope to avoid becoming insufferable in my affection for the show, but I now understand the intense following.