Flick & Role: Love & Basketball

For the remainder of the summer, each week we will take a deeper look at a basketball movie. Some you know, some you don’t. Today brings us a classic, Love & Basketball, the 2000 drama starring Sanaa Lathan, Omar Epps, Dennis Haysbert, Alfre Woodard, and arguably the most emotional game of one-on-one captured on film.

The NBA isn’t a reverse Toy Story. The basketball players don’t go inert when the horn blows and the fans leave. Yet we freak out seeing these guys do semi-regular things in the outside world.  Giannis lifts weights! Enes Kanter played with a snake! Crazy! Not really. The best movies—not to mention the best articles and books—show players burdened with real-people problems. Read Chris Ballard’s profile on Monty Williams or revisit Just Wright. Common and Queen Latifah are two people dealing with their past to create a future. Their NBA jobs are almost irrelevant.

Love & Basketball is the best film of Flick & Role series so far. Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood uses basketball to explore growing up and how childhood dreams can sour, soar, and turn into something even better than we imagined. Hoops have nothing to do with that.

The plot unfolds over some 20 years, starting in 1981, when Monica Wright, daughter of a banker, moves next door to Quincy McCall, son of an NBA star. Monica joins Quincy’s backyard basketball game, where she toasts him. Quincy responds by shoving her as she drives to the basket. Monica emerges bloodied but quiet. Later, she smiles at the gash on her jawline. The courtship proceeds as expected. The next day, Monica emerges from her house in a dress and with a basketball. A swooning Quincy asks her to be his girl, and immediately lays down the ground rules. You ride on my bike. Monica refuses. She’ll ride her own bike, thank you very much. Quincy insists until the two are wrestling in her front yard.

Years pass. The older iteration of Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps) continue to play ball, starring at their Los Angeles high school. Monica’s fiery attitude remains, while Quincy has become a can’t-miss pro prospect who gets interest from students like (in an eerie coincidence) Gabrielle Union. Monica is a tomboy. In 1988, that designation invites more belittlement than admiration. But Monica is substantive. When she reads the note that Union’s character passes along to Quincy, she’s rightfully horrified. She doesn’t want to get to know you; all she wants is your body.

Monica provides the ballast that the NBA-obsessed Quincy needs. When his parents (Debbi Morgan and Dennis Haysbert) fight, Quincy hops out of his bedroom window and into Monica’s bedroom, where she silently provides a blanket and pillow. Eighteen-year-olds crave the obvious. Quincy finally sees the light at a school dance where Monica—whose uniform is sweats and a t-shirt—arrives wearing a stunning white dress. Afterward, they make love. The scene is tightly framed, all awkward, intense intimacy and nothing carnal. (For what it’s worth, a condom makes an appearance.)

Prince-Bythewood knows better than to give us the happy ending so quickly. Teenagers lack perspective, more so if their egos get bruised. Monica and Quincy both attend USC. Things go great when the hierarchy is in place. Quincy is the diaper dandy and Monica, a back-up point guard on the woman’s team, is his girl. Success comes Monica’s way when a desolate Quincy needs her to mend his broken heart. She leaves Quincy hanging. If she doesn’t make curfew, she doesn’t play. The problem obscures a larger issue: she’s a basketball player too, not just a passenger on his journey to anointment. Quincy can’t reciprocate the support. He’s too entrenched in retooling his father’s NBA life and she’s perplexed that he can’t drop the act and throw some love her way. Lathan’s non-verbal incomprehension at their looming separation is a marvel—as well as a source of bewilderment. Sanaa Lathan should be a household name.

Quincy and Monica’s ongoing search for their identity—even when they’ve apparently found it—propels Love & Basketball. Can you love somebody if it means giving up what makes you you? It’s a challenge when you’re an adult, let alone when you’re in college, which exists on the concept of achieving your best self. What most of us fail to realize is that what we want changes. It must. Not everybody can be a firefighter, an astronaut, or play pro basketball. You can find your happiness in someone else’s dream coming true. One of the happiest moments of my life was when my wife, a college professor, got a full-time job offer at a wonderful school. Letting go of something means letting someone else in. Quincy and Monica spend 20 years learning that lesson, because in Love & Basketball, the two subjects are impossibly intertwined. Monica and Quincy separate the two before life unsparingly and unlovingly does it for them. Prince-Bythewood prefers hope over hoops, making Love & Basketball a great movie.

Flick notes

  • Aisha Coley, the casting director for Love & Basketball, is the movie’s unsung hero. Aside from Union, another one of Quincy’s love interests is played by Tyra Banks. This makes Lathan’s performance so impressive. Her integrity and class override the shallow beauty of Quincy’s other ladies.
  • Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anyone who has portrayed more athletes than Omar Epps. He’s covered baseball (Major League II), football (The Program), track (Higher Learning) and boxing (Against the Ropes). When Parkour: The Movie gets green-lit, producers know whom to call.
  • Epps reunites with two of his co-stars in Love & Basketball: Banks (Higher Learning) and Dennis Haysbert (Major League II).
  • The future House star was not Prince-Bythewood’s original choice. Epps stepped in when Mekhi Phifer dropped out as Quincy.
  • The same goes for Lathan, who got the call when the original star fell ill, much to Prince-Bythewood’s initial regret.
  • “We did have a rehearsal prior to the reading,” she told Essence Yes, Girl! podcast. “Sanaa comes from theater. She wasn’t giving me anything. To me, she was awful. And I remember calling my husband after and saying, ‘Oh my God, I gotta find somebody else, she was awful. She’s going to kill it.’”
  • Thankfully, after some counsel from Prince-Bythewood, Lathan was fine. That she also worked on her basketball skills away from the set helped.
  • Fans of The Best Man franchise rejoice! Regina Hall, Monica Calhoun, and Lathan appear in Love & Basketball. Hall plays Monica’s sister; Calhoun plays a co-ed who comes between Quincy and Monica.
  • Those movies were directed by Malcom D. Lee, whose cousin, Spike, produced Love & Basketball. Maybe you’ve heard of him.
  • A reason for Epps and Lathan’s terrific chemistry? According to Lucy McCalmont’s fine oral history on the film, the two actors were dating before filming started.
  • No, there won’t be a L&B sequel.