The decline of movie romance in recent years has prompted all sorts of yearnings for various Golden Ages of yore, be it the screwball era, defined by Barbara Stanwyck’s charming schemers, or the eccentrics written by Nora Ephron and played so often by Meg Ryan. But for my money, the years between 2000 and 2005 have gems of their own, and none shines more brightly than Gina Prince-Blythewood’s “Love & Basketball,” which was released 15 years ago this week.
“Love & Basketball” is a true epic, the story of the love between Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps), which begins when Monica’s family moves in next door to Quincy’s when the two are 11. Both are prodigiously talented basketball players, but Quincy’s prospects are brighter than Monica’s. There’s a professional league for him to dream of playing in, and his father, Zeke (Dennis Haysbert), was himself a pro player. And Monica’s already-slimmer prospects are endangered by her temper. Prince-Blythewood’s close attention to Quincy and Monica’s ambitions and barbed, deep affection for each other produced a remarkable movie, one that deserves a place on the roster of the classics.
“Love & Basketball” is a tremendously physical movie. The first time Monica and Quincy square up against each other on the court as children, they play rough, checking each other, scrambling to block each other’s shots: the game ends in a shoving match that leaves Monica with a scar on her cheek. Their first stint as a couple lasts only a few minutes, spanning a kiss behind the bushes and a squabble in the front yard after Monica refuses to ride on the back of Quincy’s bike, preferring to make it to school under her own steam. This time, Monica gets the best of Quincy: he ends up pinned below her in the front yard.
As they grow as players, Monica, a point guard, makes up for her lack of height with an eagerness to be in the middle of the scrum (and a corresponding inability not to argue every foul called against her), while Quincy develops a lovely grace, weaving through defenders to deposit endless and effortless buckets.
Without this sense of who Quincy and Monica are as players, and the way they inhabit their bodies, “Love & Basketball” wouldn’t be the sensual triumph that it it is. The first time they go to bed, after a high school dance they’ve both attended with other people, is almost shockingly intimate, even though Prince-Blythewood shows very little of their bodies beyond their bare shoulders.
Monica, who moves with tremendous confidence on the court, has shrunk into herself over the course of the evening despite her mother’s hope for her: “I just want you to enjoy being beautiful.” She hides behind a heavy coat on the way into the dance and spends much of the night pulling her skirt down over her thighs. But with Quincy in the quiet of her bedroom, she slowly begins to relax. Her head, normally held straight and tall, tilts towards her almost-bare shoulder as Quincy kisses her. As they move together to take off her dress, a small smile of almost narcotic appreciation plays across Quincy’s lips: he’s enjoying her, even if Monica is too inexperienced to fully appreciate the effect she has on him, as both a ballplayer and a woman.
In a moment that has stayed with me since the first time I saw it, Quincy reaches for a condom and rolls the sheath down over his thumb before he puts it on. If pornography tends to avoid condoms on the grounds that they interfere with the fantasy, in “Love & Basketball,” the appearance of one on-screen makes the sex he and Monica are about to have for the first time wonderfully real.
A few minutes later, Prince-Blythewood combines her talent for shooting basketball games and sex in a funny, loose scene that communicates how Quincy and Monica’s relationship has deepened during their first year at the University of Southern California. They’re playing horse in a dorm room with a toy hoop, stripping off a piece of clothing every time the other one scores a point. Earlier in the film, Monica’s been simultaneously disgusted and intrigued by the lustiness of other young women, sneaking glances at Quincy’s body as her rivals admire him openly, discussing what they’d like to do to him. But the warmth of Quincy’s affection has relaxed her. As they play, her hands skim his body, her eyes admiring his frame. It’s a sort of intimacy we rarely see on film.
“Love & Basketball” would be a good movie if it was only about Monica and Quincy’s relationship. It’s a great one because their love affair is part of a larger story about their struggles to figure out what kind of woman and man they want to be.
Monica feels constrained by the example her mother, Camille (Alfre Woodard), sets for her, even as a child. “Monica, sit still. And don’t sit on your knees; you’ll turn them black,” Camille admonishes her daughter in an early scene that ends with her agreeing to iron her husband’s (Harry Lennix) shirts, even though she’d said just a moment earlier that she was so tired she needed to lie down. In high school, Camille sighs that she hopes Monica will “grow out of this tomboy thing,” prompting Monica to snap back, “I won’t. I’m a lesbian.” The night of the fateful high school dance, Camille bestows her mother’s pearls on her daughter: it’s both wonderful to see that moment of tenderness between mother and daughter and terribly sad that it comes only when Monica conforms to her mother’s hopes to see her in feminine clothes, hair and makeup.
But in a nice subversion of catfight cliches, it’s the women with whom Monica experiences the most tension who also teach her the most.
Sidra O’Neal (Erika Ringor), the starting point guard at USC during Monica’s freshman year, rides her younger rival mercilessly. But their rivalry also teaches Monica to control her fire and to take a strategic foul rather than to dish them out. When Monica wins Sidra’s job, Sidra focuses on Monica’s excellence rather than any bitterness she might feel. When they meet as opponents at a European women’s basketball championship, facing Sidra on the court pushes Monica to win the kind of glory that eluded her on other parquets. By the end of the movie, they’re sharing a meal together, capable of admiring each other enough to be friends despite their rivalry.
And when Monica returns home to the United States to discover that Quincy is engaged to another woman, it’s Camille’s faith in her daughter’s womanly appeal that pushes Monica to a fateful decision. Camille encourages Monica to think of herself as not a compromise but the best Quincy can do: She’s a beautiful woman who can truly share his passion, rather than simply enjoying the results of his success.
Quincy, by contrast, idolizes his father, even as Zeke’s relationship with Quincy’s mother, Nona (a quietly terrific Debbi Morgan), falls apart: In the “First Quarter” section of the movie, Quincy overhears the couple making love, but by the “Second Quarter,” he’s sneaking across the yard to bunk down on Monica’s floor to avoid the sounds of their fighting. Quincy worships Zeke. As a child, he tells Monica he wants to wear his father’s number for the Los Angeles Clippers, while she dreams of sporting Magic Johnson’s 32. He even initially believes Zeke when Zeke tells him that there is a false paternity suit against him.
But the revelation that Zeke was, at a minimum, cheating on Nona stuns Quincy. Even worse, Zeke, in a moment of anger, suggests that Nona trapped him into marriage by getting pregnant with Quincy. Quincy responds by trying to wound everyone around him. He disappoints Zeke, who hoped that Quincy would finish his education, by dropping out of USC to enter the NBA Draft. And he begins undermining his relationship with Monica, first by suggesting that she break her team curfew to comfort him, later by openly courting other women.
By the end of the movie, though, Quincy has discovered that the real way to avoid becoming Zeke is not to find a woman who will be more patient and compliant than Nona but to surrender the assumption that he will be the most famous or accomplished person in his marriage. It’s Monica who takes the court as a pro, in the then-new WNBA, while Quincy watches with their daughter from the sidelines, encouraging her to wave at her mother.
She had to learn not to be ruled by her anger, but “Love & Basketball” doesn’t require Monica to compromise to find love or professional success. In fact, it’s her drive and determination that earn her both. If all’s fair in love and basketball, it also seems that everything is possible.