Thursday, April 30, 2020

Why we keep returning to ‘Love and Basketball’ 20 Years Later

Love and Basketball
Yvonne Orji was like a lot of teenage girls in 2000. She loved basketball and played for her high school team, and her favorite movie was Love & Basketball. She even dressed up as Monica, the movie’s main character, for Halloween—gold no. 32 chain and all. To Orji, the movie represents something more than a credible sports story. It’s an authentic black love story. “It’s important to reinforce that we do have love for one another and we love loving one another, contrary to popular belief.” The Insecure actress-comedian says if she can’t have a love like Monica and Q, then she doesn’t want it. “I don’t understand, like, what are we doing if [Maxwell’s] ‘This Woman’s Work’ isn’t playing in the background?”

Twenty years ago today, first-time writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s semiautobiographical film was released nationwide. The movie follows Monica Wright (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy McCall (Omar Epps) as they discover their talents and decipher their complex relationships—with basketball, with their families, with each other. The story is told through four quarters, following Monica and Q from when they were childhood frenemies (Monica was a Lakers fan, Q’s dad played for the Clippers) to their respective paths to high school basketball stardom, college freshman year woes, and dreams of going pro.

“But these bare bones of the plot don’t convey the movie’s special appeal,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review. “It is a sports film seen mostly from the woman’s point of view. … And here’s the most amazing thing: It considers sports in terms of career, training, motivation and strategy. The big game scenes involve behavior and attitude, not scoring. The movie sees basketball as something the characters do as a skill and a living, not as an excuse for audience-pleasing jump shots at the buzzer.”

Prince-Bythewood tells me that the film, even though it takes place primarily on the hardwood, was always meant to be a love story first. When she started writing the script, her inspiration was When Harry Met Sally … but with brown faces. As she kept writing, the story got personal. She began pulling from her real-life experiences while growing up. (Her first kiss, like Monica’s, was with a boy from the neighborhood, and he, like Q, counted the seconds on his fingers.) She fused her love for basketball into a story about black love that many cling to as their rom-com bible. “The best love stories are the stories that aren’t always focused on the love stories, but that the characters are driving toward something for themselves, and striving for something for themselves,” Prince-Bythewood says. “That feeds into the love story.”

Love & Basketball premiered during a hot streak for black romantic comedies. Movies like Love Jones (1997), The Wood (1999), The Best Man (1999), and Brown Sugar (2002) were creating a new genre that black audiences weren’t accustomed to seeing. It set a new standard for seeing our love on screen in a pure, unadulterated fashion. Q and Monica’s connection deepens as they grow up. They have an unspeakable bond that starts a little uneasily (“Man, girls can’t play no ball,” Q tells Monica. “Ball better than you,” she replies), but ends in iconic fashion (“I’ve loved you since I was 11, and the shit won’t go away,” Monica tells Q).

rince-BythewoodPrince-Bythewood finished the script for Love & Basketball almost three years before its release, but she struggled to get any studios to bite. “Who the hell was ever gonna want to see a movie about a black girl who wants to be the first girl in the NBA?” she asks me over the phone last week. (I stopped myself from screaming, “ME!”) The script was deemed “too soft,” especially compared to successful—and violent—black films from the early ’90s like Boyz n the Hood (1991) and Menace II Society (1993). Prince-Bythewood felt it was time for something different. She wanted to make a film that addressed multiple stigmas in cinema: that black love exists and that girls can play ball better than boys.

By 1998, the script had caught the eye of Spike Lee. His production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, partnered with New Line Cinema to bring Prince-Bythewood’s story to life. “I said I’d never cast anyone who couldn’t play basketball,” Prince-Bythewood says. She ended up auditioning over 700 people for the role of Monica—actors and athletes alike. She had already sent Serena Williams the script and had Marion Jones audition. “I grew up playing ball and I hated it whenever females were playing basketball in movies and TV because they were bad; I felt like it set us back,” she says. Lee had just released He Got Game (1998), starring Ray Allen, and he wanted to follow a similar model and cast a popular female basketball player to star as Monica.

Lee already had someone in mind. Niesha Butler was living Monica’s life. By the time she graduated from the Bronx’s Riverdale Country School, she held the career scoring record in both girls’ and boys’ divisions, tallying more than 3,000 points. When Lee asked her to audition, she had just finished her freshman season at Georgia Tech, where she was the Yellow Jackets’ leading scorer and the ACC Rookie of the Year. Butler remembers being engulfed in the script during the plane ride to Los Angeles. “It just spoke to me as a female athlete on all types of levels,” she tells me. Butler appreciated the complexities within Monica—a character who was able to show her emotions without coming off as another stereotype. “Monica was not an angry black woman. Monica was smart, sophisticated, ambitious, kind, a good daughter, a loving partner. She was so multifaceted. We were hungry for that kind of story to be told.”

Butler says she was considered for the lead role, but that pursuing it would threaten her NCAA eligibility. She wouldn’t have been able to get paid for her work or participate in any of the film’s promotions. It was “heartbreaking,” she says, but Love & Basketball is still her favorite movie. “I think when you have such a body of work that is so good and was written so well, it wouldn’t have mattered [who got the role of Monica]. What Gina did with Love & Basketball … it wasn’t just words written on a paper. Gina lived that.” And so did Butler, to an extent. She was an All-American at Georgia Tech, played professionally overseas, and had a stint in the WNBA with the New York Liberty. Now the CEO of ScrapSports, a virtual scrapbooking service, Butler says it was all for the best. “It was just a beautiful experience, but more for me, I’m a proponent and a supporter of women’s sports and women’s activism. It was written and directed by a woman. It was about a woman’s story and I have nothing but total support and love for it.”

“I’ve had girls come up to me and say, ‘You got me through my college years in basketball.’” —Erika Ringor

Ultimately, Prince-Bythewood went against her word; she cast Lathan even though the actress had never touched a basketball before, and today Prince-Bythewood says she can’t imagine anyone but Lathan playing Monica. It’s hard to argue otherwise: Prince-Bythewood incorporated devilish details into the character that still resonate with hoopers, and Lathan delivered a textbook tomboy performance, from Monica’s graceless walk to her effortless ponytail (“You’d be pretty if you did something to your head,” Monica’s mother tells her. “I don’t know why you want to walk around looking like, ‘Who shot John’”). Even when prompted 20 years later, Prince-Bythewood struggles to name a player she’d recast as Monica. (She reluctantly lands on Liz Cambage, Notre Dame–era Skylar Diggins-Smith, or Dawn Staley in her prime.)

Prince-Bythewood came to realize that, as a director, she could fake a jump shot—Lathan has said she was “miserable” during the early stages of the shoot because Prince-Bythewood insisted that she train up to six days a week—but couldn’t forge a love connection. When Lathan and Epps did their screen test, their chemistry was off the charts. “I didn’t know they were dating at the time, and they were very smart not to tell me,” Prince-Bythewood says, laughing at the memory. Epps was her first choice for Q, and though he was already cast, Lathan never tried to use that as leverage. Prince-Bythewood explains that she would’ve been hesitant to cast the two together had she known: “What if they would’ve broken up in the middle of shooting?”

A now-recognizable supporting cast contributed to the movie’s appeal. Gabrielle Union played a messy Shawnee Easton (“Damn, girl, I didn’t know Nike made dresses”); Regina Hall played the ultra-girly older sister, Lena; Kyla Pratt, known for her Nike WNBA commercials at the time, played a young Monica; Boris Kodjoe played the über-attractive college hunk, Jason; Tyra Banks played the trophy-fiancée stewardess, Kyra. Robin Roberts had a cameo, and Dick Vitale dropped his classic “diaper dandy” during a faux-SportsCenter package.

Erika Ringor, who played Monica’s college teammate Sidra, remembers attending an open casting call in Los Angeles after responding to a radio ad looking for female basketball players that her cousin had heard. She had no management, no representation—it happened to be at her old high school gym, and she happened to be an actress who played ball. “I had no idea it was going to be this big,” Ringor says. Truthfully, not many people did. With a quiet $8 million opening weekend, Love & Basketball is one of the rare films whose popularity grew over time. Fashion labels still use it as inspo, it’s the theme of marriage proposals, and you can buy replicas of Monica’s and Q’s jerseys online. “I’m going to get a T-shirt that says, ‘Yes, I’m the girl from Love & Basketball,’” Ringor jokes. She still plays locally in pro-am leagues like Basketball Beauties, and has participated in multiple celebrity games around L.A. People think she actually went to USC, and often quote her most memorable line back to her: “Never let a freshman take your spot.”

“I’ve had girls come up to me and say, ‘You got me through my college years in basketball,’” Ringor says. “One lady DM’d me and said, ‘My little girl plays basketball because she saw you on TV. She loves basketball now because of you.’”

In a 2015 interview with Essence, Lathan said, “It’s one of those things that happen once in a while. Not very often does a film speak to different generations across cultural and gender lines.” It’s a short list when it comes to films accurately capturing the women’s basketball experience, and Love & Basketball reigns supreme. Monica shows the audience the struggle of growing up as a female athlete. “I put a woman on screen that plays ball, but that could still be feminine. She wasn’t this typical cheerleader or homecoming queen. That was important to me,” Prince-Bythewood says. “One of the things I loved so much is how many guys say Monica is their ideal [woman]. That’s so dope to me, because growing up, I never felt like anybody’s ideal.” She wrote what she wanted to see on screen, and all the basketball-loving girls watching didn’t feel overlooked. We felt as if we could be Monica.

“I put a woman on screen that plays ball, but that could still be feminine. She wasn’t this typical cheerleader or homecoming queen. That was important to me.” —Gina Prince-Bythewood
“I think, as a kid, we were able to see somebody that we can aspire to be,” says All-Star WNBA point guard Chelsea Gray. She first watched the film with her older brother, Javon. It was constantly on repeat in her house. She’d rush through her homework and offer to clean his room so he would sit and watch it with her. Javon would groan, “Chel, again?” To this day, Gray says, whenever he calls, and she mentions that she’s watching an “old movie,” he calls her bluff: “It’s Love & Basketball, isn’t it?” Gray plays for the Los Angeles Sparks, just like Monica did. “I think there’s a plethora of movies, documentaries and things, that talk about what went on in the men’s game, whether it be in the professional or college aspect. But [Love & Basketball] hits all parts of life, and what women have to deal with when they decide they want to be an athlete. … She took a stand—she’s not just a woman athlete, she’s an athlete.”

The movie not only faultlessly depicts life as a ballplayer, but it’s so spot-on that the audience can’t help but use it as a blueprint. How many college basketball players have remembered not to pull up from 3 on a fast break after watching this movie? The fear of being sloppy seconds to Tanya Randall is real. Niesha Butler agrees: “I started as a freshman, I led [Georgia Tech] in scoring as a freshman, and the seniors there ain’t trying to give you nothing. That’s a real-life story.” She also relates to the loneliness Monica feels as she looks out her window in Barcelona while watching Spanish-dubbed Family Matters reruns during the time when she plays overseas. Prince-Bythewood even shows the disparities between men’s and women’s facilities; Q plays in an arena that can sit almost 10,000 fans, whereas Monica plays in a side gym that seats only a few hundred. (“I don’t have it easy like you, all right? There’s no red carpet laid out for me,” she says.)

Prince-Bythewood makes Los Angeles a character in the story. She used the real Crenshaw High School boys’ and girls’ basketball programs in the film, and students at the time decorated the stands as if it were any other Friday-night game. The cheerleaders proudly donned their Crenshaw colors on the sideline and spelled out the M-A-M-A (what, what? Yo mama) rebuttal to the infamous U-G-L-Y cheer. “It was a beautiful thing to be able to bring them into the filmmaking process. It let them experience that and show their environment and culture in a positive way,” Prince-Bythewood says. “I just wanted to show another side of black life.” Filming locations spanned from the affluent Baldwin Hills (a.k.a. “the Black Beverly Hills”) to Ladera Heights to Inglewood to give a fresh, upper-middle-class narrative that wasn’t prevalent in many black films at the time. “It was a love letter to L.A.,” Orji adds. It wasn’t until she moved to California and started shooting the hella-L.A. show Insecure that she recognized the neighborhoods from Love & Basketball; she compared driving past a house that looked like Q’s to visiting Elvis’s Graceland.

A Northern California native, Prince-Bythewood came to study film and run track at UCLA and then never left L.A. In her original script, Monica and Q were Bruins; USC was chosen after UCLA declined to be a filming location. The rich history of the Women of Troy (Cheryl Miller, Lisa Leslie, Cynthia Cooper) made USC a smooth transition to incorporate into the plot. “Cheryl Miller was on my wall growing up, and so was Magic Johnson. Monica’s walls were my walls,” Prince-Bythewood says. The detail to make Zeke McCall, Q’s father, a Clipper was crucial. (“Your dad plays for the worst team in the NBA. Last time they won, Dr. J was a nurse,” a young Monica says to Q.) For Q to become a Laker and Monica to suit up for the Sparks was an L.A. basketball-storybook ending.

WhenWhen I first started playing basketball at 6 years old, I made my dad play “Lyte as a Rock,” from the film’s soundtrack, before every game; the car ride from my house to the gym was just long enough for the song to play twice. (Please take a moment to imagine me spitting every lyric with a heavy Brooklyn accent like MC Lyte. I’ll wait.) I still have my pink-and-black Love & Basketball hoodie embellished with a female Air Jordan symbol on the back—I begged my parents to buy it at one of my AAU tournaments. I owned the film on VHS and DVD. I know the script verbatim and quote it as part of my everyday vernacular. I wanted to be Monica—I even took an upperclassman’s spot on the varsity team as a freshman in high school. I wasn’t afraid to show my emotions on the court; I was a ballplayer, and like so many young athletes watching the movie for the first time or the 100th, I felt seen.

“I want girls to be proud of their athletic prowess and that it’s not something to be embarrassed by,” Prince-Bythewood says. “If nothing else, the fact that the movie has done that is perfect for me.”

Authenticity, Prince-Bythewood says, was her main objective. When she wrote Monica’s character, she envisioned the players she studied and idolized as a kid: Lisa Leslie, Tina Thompson, Dawn Staley, and Sheryl Swoopes. She even interviewed each of them to make sure Monica’s story closely resembled their experiences. “I wanted to make a movie for them to be proud of. Hearing from them after the film came out that they saw themselves in Monica meant everything to me,” Prince-Bythewood says.

How they played the game inspired Prince-Bythewood to pick up a basketball at a young age and never put it down. Her love of the game moved her to put pen to paper to draft her story. Monica, Q, and Sidra have become those heroes for so many. Twenty years’ worth of hoopers have come up quoting Love & Basketball, idolizing the #relationshipgoals that Monica and Q set. Countless pick-up games on blacktops around the country have been played “for your heart.” It’s a cult classic that shall remain in the vault forever. All’s fair in love and basketball, right?