Love & Basketball is now Black cinema canon, but when it came out it was a relatively bold movie. The film, about two childhood neighbors who play ball, grow up, play more ball, and fall in love, is unique in its portrayal of the title’s elements, which are a lot more intertwined than that ampersand implies. It’s a movie about love of basketball, and love through basketball, and it takes the hoop dreams of Sanaa Lathan’s Monica Wright as seriously as those of Omar Epps’s Quincy McCall (also known as Q). Monica is a character I had rarely, if ever, seen onscreen before: a confident Black female athlete who pursues her talents and her love interest.
The movie might take Monica’s dreams seriously, but it knows that the world doesn’t. Q, whose dad is in the NBA, makes a big deal out of the fact that Monica is a girl and, therefore, can’t be on the same court as Q and his neighborhood friends. It’s a joke that gets recycled in the movie: Monica belongs with the boys or has a tomboy-ish identity, and men won’t line up for her because of that. Monica takes on the challenge — proudly — and shows up Q and his neighborhood friends by scoring on them with ease. That’s what kicks off their puppy love and begrudging friendship: their mutual love of basketball. Love & Basketball takes from movies about choosing between work and love, like Broadcast News. Like Holly Hunter’s Jane in that movie, Monica’s love for her calling is as important, if not more, than romantic love for the male character who is wooing her.
To see Monica is to see Black womanhood crashing into the ever-changing gender roles that women inhabit. A key moment happens at the beginning of the movie when Monica’s parents are worried that she is taking basketball too seriously. The WNBA was created in 1996, but the movie takes place around the early ’90s. Women were not supposed to go beyond college ball in the early ’90s, and Monica hadn’t been recruited by a college yet. Monica, defiant and audacious, tells her concerned yet supportive father: “There’s still a chance. There’s always a chance.”
American movies about athletes are known for characters who defy the odds. Even when a character, usually white and male, isn’t as talented as his peers, there’s always a chance that he can achieve his goals through tangible and progressive results. The stakes in Love & Basketball are higher because the rewards are so rare and small. Monica’s final high school basketball game is her last chance for a coach to discover her as a recruit. The camerawork, tranquil and meditative, shows that this woman’s love for basketball is unadulterated (contrast this to the frantic highlights that make up Q’s athletic scenes). Q is flashy and chosen, whereas Monica’s basketball scenes are more intimate, going into the head and point of view of a girl who believes that every play matters and one mistake could jeopardize her freedom to play the game she loves. (I’d also love to point out that Q often looks clumsy playing basketball in his scenes. Like he watched a “basketball for dummies” video. Monica’s game is smoother).
Even off the court, Monica is someone who thinks more about how many rebounds she had than about the college-aged man she brings to the school dance. She’s more concerned with watching Q on the court than gossiping with and about his admirers. He speaks the same language; telling her she had four offensive rebounds as if to say, “I’ve been watching you on the court too.” At all turns, the movie suggests that the love for basketball is what makes Monica fall in love with Q, and basketball is also what brings them back after their distance from one another made her fall out of love with the game. When they play one-on-one together, it’s often like sex, with the mechanical movements of a jump shot and the heavy breathing being orgasmic for them and the audience.
In movies like Rocky or Jerry Maguire, we saw work ethic mixed with a desire for athletic success, but had never seen the trope represented through a Black woman. Monica and Q break up in college because of Q’s immaturity, as well as Monica’s choice to put the game she loves over being there for Q through his familial struggles. Her devotion to basketball tests her relationship with her mother, too. Monica’s mom, played rigorously by Alfie Woodard, feels that Monica looks down upon her goals. In an emotional scene, Mrs. Wright slaps Monica, saying that she gave up her goals to be a mom and has no regrets. Monica, shocked, wishes that her mother had been more supportive of her athletic exploits instead of trying to force her into a more traditional female role. They’re both correct, and it’s a nuanced portrayal of the changing dynamics and bifurcations of domestic life and self-actualization that women, particularly Black women, had to go through in a male-dominated system.
Part of the excellence of the movie is due to the talent of Sanaa Lathan, an underrated leading actress in the early 2000s and one of the more beautiful women to grace a screen. Sanaa is emotionally resonant in this movie, playing someone whose love for basketball radiates as much as her love for Q. Lathan makes Monica sexy because of, not in spite of, her athletic prowess, particularly in a scene at USC where Q and Monica play one-on-one in their dorm room with a caveat: Whoever gets scored on must take off their clothes. Their trash talk functions as foreplay; seeing them compare basketball to sex is the entire point, and it works, because both Lathan and Epps are alluring. This charged competition comes back at the end, with Lathan at her finest, playing against Q for his heart. Once again, with her trash talk (“That’s all you got?”) seducing him, she elegantly takes her shirt off, revealing her black Nike sports bra. While she loses the game, the film gives a music pause and Q says, unsurprisingly, “Double or nothing.” The audience knows they’ll never stop playing.
Love & Basketball is available to stream on HBO Max. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.