While watching “Love & Basketball,” I wondered why almost no other media I'd every seen managed to take women's basketball seriously. Even that bastion of liberalism, SNL, can't manage to do that. It shouldn't be that hard, and writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood doesn't so much make it look easy as just decide to do it. She's also one of the few directors in this column who went on to make more films, such as “The Secret Life of Bees” and “Beyond the Lights.” “Love & Basketball” was her first film, and it has themes that Prince-Bythewood would continue throughout her career: emphasizing a female perspective while also treating the male characters as human rather than fantasy objects. But “Love & Basketball” gives us far more gender commentary, both the overt and quiet kind.
The movie is actually a love story, not just between its central characters Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps), but also the game they adore. Like that game, the movie is likewise divided into four quarers. They meet when they're 11, when Monica and her family move next door. Quincy's father Zeke (Dennis Haysbert) plays for the Los Angeles Clippers, and Quincy dreams of playing for them too and wearing his father's number. Monica is a tomboyish girl with undeniable talent who wants to become the first woman in the NBA. Their first meeting contains many of the same patterns that will recur over the course of roughly the next decade of their lives.
The first quarter sees Monica first approaching Quincy and his friends as they're playing basketball. They initially mistake her for a boy, as she's dressed in a T-shirt, jeans, and a Lakers cap in what seems like a direct opposition to Quincy's Clippers Jersey. The boys laugh when her gender is revealed, but they're silenced once Monica starts playing and quickly proves her talent. The game abruptly ends with Quincy knocking Monica down, giving her a permanent scar. He's immediately remorseful, and the two make up, even agreeing to be boyfriend and girlfriend. This lasts all of two minutes, as the two start fighting again almost immediately after Monica refuses to give up her bike to ride around on Quincy's.
Flash forward to the second quarter, when Quincy and Monica are nearing the end of their high school years. Their relationship has followed the pattern established in the first, and the surprise lies in how it unfolds, and how natural it feels, for better and worse. They both clearly still love the game, and each other, and they still bicker even as they are drawn together. Both are the stars of their respective teams, although Monica's aggressive style holds her back, while Quincy is rewarded for his. Despite their often tense rapport, Monica is still the one Quincy turns to as his parents' marriage becomes more tense. They finally end up getting together after ditching their respective dates at a school dance, with a love scene that feels both romantic and realistic. It's clearly Monica's first time, and the scene emphasizes her vulnerability. Not many sex scenes make a point of showing a condom, but “Love & Basketball” not only does this, it pauses the action for a few moments to allow Quincy to put it on.
In most films, the conflict would generally arise right after this, but then the third quarter picks up when they're both at the same college playing for their respective teams. Much like in high school, Quincy is the star, with Monica struggling to adjust her tactics and the coach giving her harsh words for her playing style. She puts in the work, while Quincy succeeds with little conflict. This changes as Monica finally gets more playing time just as Quincy starts to experience his own struggles. He's trying to decide whether to drop out of college and go pro against his father's objections. His family is also falling apart as Zeke's various infidelities have been discovered by both his mother and the media, and Monica becomes more absent due to the demands of the team. In response, Quincy lashes out in various ways, then finally breaking up with her, leaving Monica devastated.
The fourth quarter picks up a few years later. Quincy plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, while Monica's only chances for success at the sport lie overseas, since it's a few years before the founding of the WNBA. She's found professional success in Barcelona, but she's also lonely and isolated in a foreign culture away from family and friends, and years before the Internet made long distance communication a lot easier. But she returns when she hears that Quincy injured his ACL, which has the potential to end his basketball career. When they meet again, Monica is shocked to also discover that Quincy now has a fiancée (Tyra Banks), and less surprisingly, that she still has feelings for him. Her feelings for basketball are less passionate, and Monica decides to finally stop playing, return home and work at a regular job. Quincy reacts in disbelief, but soon even he finds that he's becoming less passionate about the game, even though he's recovered from his injury.
We know these two are going to realize they belong together, but surprisingly it's Monica who decides to make the romantic gesture and challenge him to one last game. If she wins, it's because Quincy is having doubts about his upcoming marriage and let her win so they could be together. If she loses, then he gets married and she buys him a wedding present. They play, right out where they first met, and Quincy does end up beating Monica, only to choose her by saying, “Double or nothing.” We then get one of the best feel-good endings ever, where Monica is a WNBA player, with her husband Quincy and her toddler daughter cheering her on from the sidelines.
“Love & Basketball” is somewhat problematic in that it seems to agree with Quincy and blame Monica for their breakup, but otherwise it's a fascinating exploration of the politics of gender, love, and female athletes. A large part of the duo's coming-of-age is how their parents affect their choices to conform or not. Quincy becomes estranged from his father Zeke not only after he is unfaithful to his mother, but after he lies right to Quincy's face about it. Monica's relationship with her mother Camille (Alfre Woodard) is far more rocky throughout the film for more complicated reasons. Camille is a homemaker, and Monica notices how she allows her father to constantly take her for granted. Monica's sister is more supportive, but Camille never takes her daughter's dreams of basketball stardom seriously, constantly pressuring her to give it up and “act like a lady.” After they finally confront each other about their mutual perceived disrespect, Camille does quietly encourages her to fight, if only for Quincy, rather than basketball.
Nevertheless, Prince-Bythewood never loses sight of how Monica has to constantly struggle to do what she loves. When Monica plays a pivotal game in high school that leads to her being recruited by the college of her choice, we get a POV shot of the game from her perspective, and a voiceover about her strategy, something we never experience when Quincy plays. Monica is the one who must fight, not only to improve, but to be taken seriously as an athlete, and to stay in a game which isn't interested in giving female athletes nearly the same prestige and opportunities as the men. Female-led sports movies are rare, with “Bring It On,” “Girlfight,” “Million Dollar Baby” “A League of Their Own,” and “Bend It Like Beckham” being among the most well-known. The reason the WNBA gets so much ridicule is not only because it represents an aggressive sport played by women, but because it is one of the most visible and prestigious organizations for female atheletes, and thus the most threatening to our ideas of what women should be and how they should act. When Prince-Bythewood first began writing, it didn't exist, and when it did, it actually changed the ending, allowing Monica to achieve her feminist dream on-screen of having it all.
“It’s interesting that [having it all] is considered a feminist mantra, but for me, it was just natural, and it definitely had to do with growing up in sports and what that teaches you: to fight for what you want, to leave it all on the floor, that aggression is good,” Prince-Bythewood said in the oral history of the film. “That’s just what I’ve embodied, and it’s natural for me to want the marriage, and the career and the kids. It’s natural for me, it’s normal for me, and that’s what I wanted to do: to make it normal. It’s frightening that even today we’re having the same conversations and it makes no sense. If the work that I put out in the world can counter that mentality, let me be out there contradicting that, because it’s bullshit.”