• Director: Gina Prince-Blythewood
  • Writer: Gina Prince-Blythewood
  • Starring: Sanaa Lathan, Omar Epps, Alfre Woodard, Dennis Haysbert, Debbi Morgan, Harry Lennix, Kyla Pratt, Glenndon Chatman, Boris Kodjoe, Gabrielle Union, Regina Hall, Christine Dunford, and Tyra Banks
  • Accolades: 2019 Slate Black Film Canon, 1 Independent Spirit Award (Best First Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Hulu, Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, and Apple TV

Love & Basketball is a sports movie that’s interested in different things than most sports movies. There is no big game at the end, instead it’s mostly about the daily grind of practice, the ups and downs of a career. As in the title, it’s the “Love” part that comes first. At its heart, this is a romance where the two central characters happen to be aspiring professional athletes, rather than a sports movie with a love story thrown in. It seems to not be a coincidence that it’s one of only two sports movies I know of that were directed by women and about female athletes, the other of course being A League of Their Own. I really like that movie, but it is much more of a conventional sort of sports movie than this one, which follows two basketball players over the course of their lives through four “Quarters,” each showing a different time period. After making almost no impression on audiences at its release, Love & Basketball has endured over the years after better than most of its contemporaries. For our Y2K Virtual Film Festival featuring movies from 20 years ago, I found more “20th Anniversary Retrospective” articles about Love & Basketball than about literally any other movie from 2000.

Sanaa Lathan, who had supposedly never picked up a basketball before getting the role, plays Monica Wright, a tomboy with dreams, much to the frustration of her more conventional mother (Alfre Woodard), of becoming the first woman to play in the NBA. At the start of the movie, young Monica’s family moves into a new LA house next door to the family of Quincy McCall (Omar Epps), the son of a current NBA player for the Los Angeles Clippers (Dennis Haysbert). Over the course of the movie, the two become friends, lovers, break up, and finally get back together and have a kid. Quincy turns out to be a basketball prodigy who has a big event to announce that he’s decided to go to USC, then decides to go to the NBA after one season, mostly to get back at his dad for various things. Meanwhile, after fouling out of the big high school championship, Monica is the last recruit on the USC women’s team, then gets a chance to start after an older girl gets hurt. Without the option of a women’s pro league in the US, she ends up a star in Barcelona, a reality for many women’s players of the era, while Quincy’s career founders and then he injures his knee while playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, a few weeks before he’s scheduled to get married to Tyra Banks. Monica comes back to the US to visit him, the wedding does not end up happening, and the last scene of the movie is “Monica Wright-McCall” playing for the Los Angeles Sparks of the newly-formed WNBA while Quincy and their kid root for her from courtside.

Love & Basketball was the debut feature of Gina Prince-Blythewood, who shopped the script for years before catching the eye of Spike Lee, who agreed to produce the movie. Prince-Blythewood had originally intended to cast an actual pro female basketball player for the lead, but eventually went with Lathan after her audition. The two co-stars, Epps and Lathan, were actually dating each other at the time they were cast, perhaps explaining their on-screen chemistry, but they didn’t tell the director. In fact, she said she likely wouldn’t have cast them together had she known, but it all seems to have worked out in the end. 

In fact, it’s hard to picture a non-actor performing as well in some of the unique scenes in this movie, including the sex scene with a lengthy break in the middle while Quincy puts on a condom, or the later game of “strip one-on-one” in Quincy’s dorm room. Lathan, I’d say, has the much harder job of the two actors, but she makes most of the sillier bits of this movie work. Even the bit near the end where she announces that she and Quincy are going to “play one on one for [his] heart.” This does not sound like it is not terrible, but I tell you what, it isn’t.

One of the areas where Love & Basketball excels is as a modern-day depiction of the harder road faced by female athletes. In college, Quincy plays in a huge, glamorous arena, with girls throwing themselves at him left and right. Monica’s USC women’s team plays in a much smaller gym. For one game we see the crowd half-fills the arena, and the girls are excited to see such a large crowd. Later, she has to travel overseas, a phenomenon I knew about in this context but hadn’t seen on screen. Before one game, the coach exhorts his team at length in Spanish. Monica sits in the corner, alone. Afterwards, she turns to one of her teammates and asks, “What’d he say?” “He says give you the ball,” the teammate replies. We can see that she is feeling unfulfilled and alone. That makes the movie’s happy ending really effective.

I really enjoyed Love & Basketball far more than I thought I would, considering I’m not a super huge basketball fan and most of my favorite movies are not romantic dramas. It’s a good movie, but I think what really caught my imagination is that it is not a movie I’ve seen before at all. I love sports movies, but as a genre I don’t think it’s a stretch that they tend to follow clichés more than most. Most of the scenes in this movie are not scenes I’ve seen before in any movie. And for me that kind of thing goes a heck of a long way.

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