You don’t have to love basketball to love Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Love & Basketball”; you just have to love that special satisfaction of watching someone doing what they’re meant to be doing, and being with the person they’re meant to be with. That said, the basketball in this movie’s pretty great, too — and I say this as someone who has never even attempted a jump shot (and who in fact had to Google “jump shot” in order to write this sentence).
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, “Love & Basketball” is many things: a romantic drama, a sports drama, a coming-of-age tale. Structured like a basketball game (it’s divided into four quarters, spanning from 1981 to 1993), it’s the story of Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps), who grow up next door to each other in a California suburb. They’re 11 when they meet, as a just-moved-in Monica joins a trio of neighborhood boys for some hoops; the sunny blur of their scrappy play looks idyllic. “So how come you can play basketball?” one asks Monica later, impressed by her skills. “I just can,” she replies coolly; her character set in just three words.
Quickly, Monica and Quincy become teens; close friends (he sometimes, wordlessly, climbs through her bedroom window at night to sleep on the floor, away from his parents’ arguments) but not in love — or so they think, at least at first. This sounds like a classic rom-com setup, but “Love & Basketball” isn’t comedic; it’s about growing up and figuring love out, whether it’s for a person or a sport. Monica and Quincy make their way through high school, college and beyond, all the while playing basketball and juggling — or dribbling? — their own on-again-off-again relationship. And what we realize we are watching, eventually, is two people becoming themselves, and becoming necessary to each other.
Prince-Bythewood, herself a teen basketball player recruited to play by several colleges, made her feature debut with this film, and you can feel her love for the characters, and the sport, in every frame. Lathan and Epps were far from their teens — both were veterans of numerous previous movies and TV episodes — but they both, particularly Lathan, find an endearing, unfinished quality in their young characters. (Monica, dressed up for a dance in a tight-fitting shift, sits in a chair like she might sit on a bench during a game — leaning in, knees far apart. She’s embarrassed when this is pointed out.) They gaze at each other like they’re trying to figure something out; they’re flawed and sometimes awkward (particularly in a gentle first-time sex scene), because they are human teenagers.
The film’s other characters get short shrift, but that feels right: This is Monica and Quincy’s story, with family members and friends keeping to the background. But the cast makes every small role vivid: the great Alfre Woodard, as the domestic-goddess mother with whom Monica struggles to connect; a young Regina Hall, in an early role, as Monica’s more docile sister; Dennis Haysbert, as Quincy’s father, a former NBA star who wants something else for his son but isn’t exactly a role model; Gabrielle Union, as a classmate vainly trying to keep Quincy’s gaze from landing on Monica.
“Love & Basketball” by rights should have launched a rich career for Prince-Bythewood, but her subsequent feature films have been few and far between: “The Secret Life of Bees” in 2008, “Beyond the Lights” (another deeply affecting romantic drama) in 2014, and the Netflix superhero saga “The Old Guard” this year, which made Prince-Bythewood the first Black woman to direct a comic-book film. But “L & B” has quietly become a classic, so much so that a poster advertising a sequel took Twitter by storm in 2014. Epps and Prince-Bythewood both confirmed at the time that the poster was a flattering fake; there were no sequel plans, and never would be.
And that’s as it should be: Monica and Quincy’s story is complete as it is. The little girl who shoved a basketball between the rails of her banana-seat bike (so as to take it with her everywhere) grew up; there she is, in the strong, smiling woman in the film’s just-right final shot. By the happy end of “Love & Basketball,” you see music and dance and poetry on the basketball court, punctuated by the drumbeat of a bouncing ball. And you see things working out, in the eyes of a couple you’ve come to love. These days, what more could we ask of a movie? Happy 20th birthday, “L & B.”
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