When writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood first began working on her screenplay for Love & Basketball, the WNBA didn’t exist. It wouldn’t be founded until 1996, just four years before Love & Basketball premiered. Before then, the best the sport’s elite female athletes could hope for was a successful college career and a spot on the U.S. Olympics team. Or, like the driven protagonist of Love & Basketball, they could aim to become the first woman in the NBA. Love & Basketball pulls off the neat trick of being both a romance and a sports movie—a combination that earned Jerry Maguire acclaim a few years earlier. But it’s also a poignant look at working twice as hard to get half as far.
Prince-Bythewood understood that plight firsthand, and not just because she herself had been an elite high school basketball player recruited to play at the collegiate level. She wound up going to UCLA’s film school instead and began her career writing on TV shows like A Different World. When she tried to pitch her screenplay about a scrappy basketball-loving tomboy, however, she was met with rejection after rejection. The Black-led romance was deemed “too soft” in an era where movies like Boyz N The Hood and Menace II Society were finding critical and commercial success. After taking the script through the Sundance Institute Lab Program and holding a reading in Los Angeles, Prince-Bythewood finally found support in Spike Lee’s 40 Acres And A Mule Filmworks and New Line Cinema. She was given a sizable budget of about $20 million and—most importantly—the creative freedom to complete her vision.
Love & Basketball unfolds across four “quarters” in the lives of childhood friends and neighbors Monica Wright (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy McCall (Omar Epps). They meet as 11-year-olds in 1981, where they spar on the basketball court, share a tentative first kiss, and then go right back to squabbling. Monica’s defiant independence both intimidates and captivates Quincy. By 1988, they’ve become spiky high school friends, even though Quincy is a popular ladies’ man with a touch of entitlement. They bicker as they drive home together, but Monica also lets Quincy sleep on her bedroom floor when his parents’ fighting becomes too much to handle. A romantic night at their spring dance brings them into the third quarter, where they’re officially a couple as they start USC as freshmen players on the school’s respective men’s and women’s basketball teams. Life gets in the way, however, and by the fourth quarter, their future—both as a couple and as individual players—is on the line.
Like several of the films covered in this column, Love & Basketball is really more of a romantic drama than a romantic comedy, though TV shows like Good Trouble and Four Weddings And A Funeral have recently reclaimed it as a rom-com favorite. When a movie is this good, it deserves to be celebrated through as many lenses as possible, especially because the canon of great onscreen romances featuring Black leads is relatively small. Big-screen Black love stories barely existed until the 1990s, when the rom-com renaissance and a boom in Black cinema finally created space for films like Love Jones, Waiting To Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, The Best Man, and Eddie Murphy’s Boomerang. Notably, however, all of those films were directed and in many cases written by men. For her feature debut, Prince-Bythewood brought a different perspective.
Love & Basketball is very much a film about gender. Monica openly calls out the way her on-court aggression is penalized when it would almost certainly be tolerated or outright encouraged if she were a male athlete. Prince-Bythewood also makes a subtler point by crosscutting between the arena spectacle of men’s college basketball and the small gyms where the women’s teams play. There are off-court double standards as well. During a low point in college, Quincy criticizes Monica for prioritizing her basketball career over being his supportive girlfriend. “I’d never ask you to choose,” she shoots back. “I’m a ballplayer. If anybody knows what that means, it should be you.”
Monica and Quincy both come from affluent families with working fathers and stay-at-home mothers, but while Quincy idolizes the relationship between his NBA star dad, Zeke (Dennis Haysbert), and his elegant mom, Nona (Debbi Morgan), Monica is horrified by the even more old-fashioned dynamic between her housewife mother, Camille (Alfre Woodard), and her breadwinning father, Nathan (Harry J. Lennix). In one sharply observed scene, young Monica watches Camille hide her exhaustion when her husband cheerfully asks if she wouldn’t mind ironing two of his shirts so he can choose between them in the morning.
Love & Basketball functions as two interwoven coming-of-age stories. Quincy wants to become his dad, and Monica is terrified of becoming her mom, and that push-pull shapes their relationship to one another. As they grow up, however, those childhood perceptions are challenged. It turns out that while Zeke is a good dad, he’s not great at practicing the values he preaches. Camille, meanwhile, isn’t entirely the pushover Monica thinks she is. In a characteristically fantastic scene from Woodard, Camille acknowledges the compromises she’s made for her family, while defending what she gained from them as well.
Love & Basketball is brimming with nuanced conversations between women, and Black women in particular—from the loving dynamic between Monica and her older sister, Lena (Regina Hall), to the mix of support and rivalry that defines Monica’s relationships with her teammates and her mom. It’s the perfect example of the way the romance genre has long been a haven for stories about women that stretch well beyond just their love lives. As the L.A. Times’ review put it, “The movie is smarter than it has to be, but it’s the sort of low-key smart that can be easily overlooked.”
A big part of that intelligence comes from how thoughtfully the film treats the sports half of its story. As Roger Ebert observed, “[Love & Basketball] considers sports in terms of career, training, motivation, and strategy. The big game scenes involve behavior and attitude, not scoring. The movie sees basketball as something the characters do as a skill and a living, not as an excuse for audience-pleasing jump shots at the buzzer.”
Prince-Bythewood was absolutely adamant that the basketball in her movie look authentic. Omar Epps was cast first, and his natural athleticism (and high school football skills) transferred easily enough to the basketball court. His biggest concern was playing yet another athlete. He’d previously portrayed a running back in The Program, a track star in Higher Learning, and a baseball player in Major League II. Sanaa Lathan had a much harder go of her casting process. Lathan performed the role at the initial L.A. reading, but she’d never played basketball before, and Prince-Bythewood had her heart set on working with a real athlete, the way Spike Lee cast NBA player Ray Allen in He Got Game. During a prolonged audition process, Prince-Bythewood had basketball players work with acting teachers while Lathan trained with a basketball coach. Lathan called the process “miserable” in an interview, but she also told The A.V. Club last year, “One of the things that I can’t stand is—now that’s become the thing, the headline: ‘Sanaa hated Love And Basketball.’ And that’s not the case… It was actually an amazing opportunity and experience.”
One extra wrinkle in the mix was the fact that Lathan and Epps were dating at the time (they met while co-starring in the coming-of-age romance The Wood), but decided to keep that a secret from Prince-Bythewood for fear it would sway her decision. They didn’t let her know until Lathan finally earned the part after a months-long audition process. “My husband Reggie Rock finally asked, ‘Is this a love story or a basketball movie?’ and I realized you can fake a jump shot but you can’t fake a close-up,” Prince-Bythewood recalled at a 15th-anniversary event for the film.
Although Lathan and Prince-Bythewood are friends today, they both have described a certain level of tension in their initial working relationship. It was Prince-Bythewood’s first film and Lathan’s first starring role, and they were both, in their own ways, fighting to get it right—each embodying some of Monica’s stubbornness along the way. It was only after shooting wrapped that they could fully appreciate the work the other had done. As Prince-Bythewood recalled in HuffPost’s oral history, “I knew Sanaa was good on set, but in the editing room, you saw how good she really is. She is dope. And I just became so grateful to her for all the work that she put in and we became friends. We’re great friends today. She understands now that it wasn’t personal, it was just my passion and focus.”
Thanks to Prince-Bythewood and Lathan’s collaboration, Monica is both hard and soft, athletic and feminine, prickly and empathetic. She grows and matures over the course of the film, but Love & Basketball equally celebrates her refusal to back down from what she wants. As with When Harry Met Sally, it’s lovely to watch a love story realistically evolve over an extended period of time, rather than rushing to a happily-ever-after between two people who barely know each other. And like that Nora Ephron classic, Love & Basketball delivers a pitch-perfect romantic climax that beautifully blends fantasy, realism, and emotional catharsis.
Monica and Quincy ultimately reach an end point that feels just as progressive today as it did 20 years ago—one that reimagines rather than rewrites the dynamics of their upbringing. It’s one of the many ways in which Love & Basketball was incredibly ahead of its time. “Prince-Bythewood shattered the standard for romance, Black love, and sensuality in cinema,” Aramide Tinubu wrote for The Spool, and “helped usher in a new era of Black intimacy and desirability in film.” In a wonderful BuzzFeed retrospective, Kelley L. Carter notes, “At its core, Prince-Bythewood’s directorial debut has almost nothing to do with race, yet this film is undeniably Black, delivering a subtle and significant message.”
With Love & Basketball, Prince-Bythewood set out to make “a universal love story with Black characters in the lead,” and she achieved just that, even if the frustrating segmentation of the rom-com genre means it’s less canonized in the mainstream than it should be. Although Prince-Bythewood is attached to a few upcoming projects (including potentially the Spider-Man spinoffs Silver Sable and Black Cat), so far she’s only directed two other films, the 2008 historical drama The Secret Life Of Bees and the excellent 2014 romance Beyond The Lights. Asked about her career for an NPR interview, Prince-Bythewood said:
People ask me all the time if I feel discriminated against as a Black female director and I actually don’t. I get offered a ton of stuff and if I wanted to get work all the time I could. But I like to direct what I’ve written. I feel what’s discriminated against are my choices—which is to focus on people of color and more specifically women of color. Those are the films that are not getting made and those are the films that take a lot more fight. But I’m up for the fight, because if I’m not making them they’re not going to get made, and then we become invisible again.
Love & Basketball made the invisible visible and conquered the romance genre in the process, inspiring generations of filmmakers along the way.
Next time: My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s unlikely path to blockbuster success.