The main conflict is Jamal's internal struggle to become the leader of the Scorpions or stay out of the gangs. Jamal and Tito live in the ghetto of Harlem in New York City in the midst of violence, guns, drugs, and gangs. There's never enough money for the family. The people in Harlem are limited by those who stereotype blacks, Puerto Ricans, and other minorities. Even Jamal's school is a cold, uncaring place that makes him feel inadequate. These are the outside forces in Jamal's world that pressure him into making poor decisions.
In the end, Jamal and Tito meet Indian and Angel in the park, and Jamal tells them that his brother, Randy, said that Indian is to be the leader of the Scorpions. Angel and Indian start to beat up Jamal, and Angel draws a knife. Tito shoots Angel, and Indian crawls away, wounded. Jamal talks Mack into becoming the leader of the Scorpions, and Tito goes back to Puerto Rico with his grandmother. Jamal gives him the portrait he had drawn of Tito, saying, "it was the best drawing [Jamal] had done in his whole life." Because of Jamal's poor decisions, he loses his best friend. He wishes he'd thrown the gun away when Tito asked him to. Jamal feels terrible sadness and loneliness as he watches Tito's cab drive away. "The wind picked up. It was colder, much colder than it had been...Jamal pulled his collar up against the wind."