On a late summer afternoon in 1981, outside a sprawling modern house in the upper-middle-class, largely black Los Angeles neighborhood of Baldwin Hills, a group of 11-year-old boys is playing basketball. Another kid, new on the block, asks to join the game. The boys consent to a tryout, only to discover that the interloper is a girl. Ignoring their jeers, she grabs a pass, drives on her defender, and makes the layup. Thus begins Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love and Basketball, and, already, it’s a turn-on and a heart-stopper, and it stays that way right to the buzzer.
And no, you don’t have to be a fool for basketball, or for women’s sports, to love this movie. You don’t even have to be a woman, although it probably helps. Love and Basketball is the most passionate, clear-sighted movie ever made about women in sports (not that there’s much to choose from), but, as its title proudly proclaims, it’s also a film about love, specifically about romantic love between two highly competitive people playing in the same arena. And maybe you have to be a fool to believe that two such people, especially when one’s a woman and the other a man, can get together in bed and stay together in marriage. Prince-Bythewood is that kind of fool, and for two hours, she convinced me that it’s the best kind you can be.
Spanning 15 years, Love and Basketball is a girl-gets-guy, girl-loses-guy, girl-gets-guy picture that turns the formula upside down by pairing a girl who refuses to fit the mold with a guy who happily does until she teaches him to know better. Monica Wright (Sanaa Lathan) fell in love with Quincy McCall (Omar Epps) in that first moment of going eyeball-to-eyeball with him on her way to the hoop. Monica, who wears Magic’s number 32 on her shoes, wants to be the first woman to play in the NBA. Quincy also has NBA point guard dreams, not in the least because his father is really a player in the league (albeit for the lowly Clippers). Quincy’s imagination is captured by the tomboy next door whose passion for the game matches his own, though he doesn’t see her as girlfriend material until she shows up at the high school senior prom with another guy.
For a brief moment, all is bliss. They are both recruited for basketball at USC, and they become the freshmen stars of their respective teams. But their love affair comes apart when Quincy has an emotional crisis and Monica refuses to give up a game to hold his hand.
If this sounds like you’ve seen it before, forget it, you haven’t. Much of the thrill of Love and Basketball is in the details, the stuff that doesn’t show up in the box score. Prince-Bythewood, a high school athlete who turned filmmaker at UCLA, understands the ambivalence with which women in sports are treated in both their professional and personal lives, and every scene is inflected with Monica’s struggle not to inter-nalize that ambivalence. But the movie also reflects the changes that have come about in the past 20 years. Monica’s childhood dream becomes a reality because there finally is a WNBA.
Like its hero, Love and Basketball mixes punch and tenderness. Prince-Bythewood gives the film a style that’s easy on the eye but also has muscle—on and off the court. And she gets terrific performances from her actors. Lathan is a remarkably convincing basketball player, but what’s even more impressive is the way she switches between defense and offense in the big emotional scenes. And while less than believable as a star athlete, Epps gets extra points: for agreeing to play the boyfriend role (i.e., not the hero) and for delivering without showboating down the stretch.