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Hoop de Deux
'Love and Basketball' Scores a Cinematic Slam-Dunk

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 21, 2000

   


    'Love and Basketball' Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan go one-on-one. (New Line)
"Love and Basketball" is the old eternal-triangle thing with a boy, a girl and a ball.

She got game. He got game. They got each other, too.

She would be writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood's heroine, Monica Wright (played by a luminous Sanaa Lathan), who can drive to the inside or shoot from the outside. You can tell that the game is at the core of her imagination; it dominates her waking thoughts, it leaps through her dreams, and she's never happier than when she's on the court, even though she's solidly entrenched in middle-class prosperity. The game isn't a way out for her; it's a way of life, even a way of being. There's no room for anything else in her life, except, possibly, the boy next door.

Q also has game. Q's got the jumper that never misses, the moves to slice through the crowd in the paint and the vertical leap to put him so far over the orange he can improvise a jazz concerto on the way down. Q--for Quincy, played by Omar Epps, of the soulful eyes and broad shoulders--is a top athlete with a classic pedigree: His father, Zeke (the magisterial Dennis Haysbert), is a longtime NBA star.

The movie is in some way conceived as an epic. It follows this jump-shot-crossed relationship set in elite athletic circles for more than 10 years, tracking not merely the triumphs and tragedies, but also the weird chemistry of love at that level.

When Q and Monica first meet, in the early '80s, they are kids. Her moves are almost as good as his, infuriating him, and he shoves her to the ground, giving her a scar that will last for life. But in the antagonism is also furious respect and fascination. It's sort of like the old one about wooing a girl by ignoring her. It never works in life (I should know!) but it's a movie staple, well burnished and useful here.

By high school, Q's moves have made him a hero. As with any star athlete, he is buried in temptation that he only occasionally manages to resist. The girls throw themselves at him, while Monica, whose temper keeps her in perpetual trouble on her team, is crumpled into ignored bitterness.

But one of the magic plot patterns of the film mirrors the narrative magic of basketball (the game even provides the movie with its structure--each act is billed as a quarter), which is the alarming swiftness with which the situation changes. In other words, just as in the real NBA, no lead is safe, and the final 10 seconds can seem to last a lifetime. Monica's last high school game is a big one and she gets the athletic scholarship that validates her. She also at last catches Q's eye, and he sees her as a young woman, not that annoying kid next door. They become a back-court pair.

In college, at USC, he's the star, she's again the scrub. But again, the situation reverses itself with stunning quickness. Quincy comes unglued when his revered father's weaknesses are revealed in a nasty divorce; his game and life and self-esteem suffer. He wants her to help him.

Alas, as Quincy's going down, Monica's going up. Overcoming her attitude problems, applying herself to the rigors of team discipline, harnessing at last her fury to the ends of victory and not self-expression, she steps in when a senior is hurt and becomes the man. She yearns to help her troubled boyfriend, but she still loves the game and cannot leave it to become his comforter.

The film jumps ahead a few years; she's a star in European women's basketball, he's a well-traveled, ever-less-successful NBA journeyman. Yet each feels an emptiness, each questions what's been given up for the game. Then an injury cripples Q's knee and he has to reassess. That becomes the concluding dilemma as each has to answer three questions: What does the game mean to me, and what does this other person mean? Can it work?

Prince-Bythewood's also the one with game. An ex-jock herself, she brings women's basketball to life, taking the camera into some well-constructed game sequences so we can feel Monica's drive and grace from her point of view. The film manages to accomplish something no media hype or TV exposure has yet brought off: It makes you care about women's basketball.

But even more, it makes you care about athletes as human beings, not merely cereal box icons. That's rare enough in movies, and this one has crossover hit written all over it.

LOVE AND BASKETBALL (118 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for mild sexual innuendo.

 

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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