Hoops, There It Is
Love & Basketball Gives You Love and Basketball
Back in the summer of 1989, when Spike Lee dropped Do the Right Thing on the American moviegoing public, panicky commentators paced in fretful circles around the ambiguity of the title. What was the right thing? Did Lee mean that the movie's climactic race riot was the right thing? That people should do that? What was this piece of Black Cinema trying to tell everyone?
Arriving 11 years later, the Lee-produced Love & Basketball offers no such interpretive challenges. This feature debut by writer/ director Gina Prince-Bythewood is about love, and it's about basketball. Not since Love Story has a movie been so agreeably easy to file.
Whether this says something good or bad about where Black Cinema has gone over the past decade, I leave to other interpreters. Love & Basketball glides smoothly around such questions. Like The Best Man, with which it shares some cast members, it is resolutely middle class and middle of the road, a mass-market movie that happens to star African-American actors. For marketing purposes, it's what's still known as a "crossover film," even as what's being crossed (and who's crossing it) gets harder and harder to pin down.
All of which is to say that Love & Basketball is familiar, sturdy stuff, owing more to John Hughes than to Spike Lee. It is conceived, essentially, as a three-cornered love story, with a basketball holding down the third spot. It begins in 1983, in a prosperous Los Angeles neighborhood, as 11-year-old Quincy McCall (Glenndon Chatman) meets his new neighbor, Monica Wright (Kyla Pratt). Quincy is wearing a Los Angeles Clippers jersey -- because, it turns out, his father plays for the Clippers. (As basketball jokes go, this is not a bad one.) Monica is wearing a Lakers hat, because she worships Magic Johnson. And, it emerges, she's a slightly better player than Quincy is. They scuffle; they smooch; they scuffle.
We then jump to 1988 and to high school, where Quincy is now Omar Epps, Monica is now Sanaa Lathan, and both are now star players. Quincy flirts with the ladies; Monica feuds with the refs. College scouts watch them from the stands. For the big spring dance, she pretties herself up -- and voilà! Romance blooms, again. We jump to college. Their careers develop and complicate. Their love life develops and complicates. They smooch; they scuffle. Will they ever smooch again?
As love stories go, Love & Basketball is reasonably successful. The main thing for the viewer to keep in mind is to ignore tradition -- and the actors' billing order -- and watch the film as a girl-meets-boy movie rather than vice versa. Quincy is a decent enough fellow, but he never develops into more than a romantic foil, a good-looking cipher. The film is carried by the two Monicas: first the sassy, incandescent Pratt, then the slightly less sassy Lathan. Both are charismatic and fiery; you can feel their joy when they have a ball in their hands. Lathan's entrance in the high-school section of the movie, in a quick-cutting closeup to the strains of M.C. Lyte, is an athletic-heroic tour de force.
The basketball scenes are, with a few exceptions, the real highlights of the movie. Lee has raised loud complaints about the usual corniness of movie basketball action, and Love & Basketball reflects his priorities. Games rarely come down to that one . . . last . . . shot, and when they do, Prince-Bythewood subverts it. Monica's high school championship game, in particular, ends on a ragged and authentic note, on a series of plays that add up, gradually raising the probability of the outcome till it's inescapable. Even little Kyla Pratt looks natural gathering in a rebound -- more natural, truth be told, than Epps does.
Throughout, Prince-Bythewood shows a good eye for detail. Shorts fit the way they fit in 1983 or 1989; high-school boys hang in the corner by the bleachers during games rather than taking seats. Epps wears a three-line part in his hair and one-strap overalls when he's in college. A college party scene might be the truest such in movie history -- it's dark and crowded, people are drunk and dancing badly, and unhappiness lurks by the keg like a bad smell. And the movie's final section features a terrific locker-room scene, which would be spoiled by describing it.
The only major anachronisms appear to be the fault of Nike. Throughout the college scenes, the sports bras appear to be several years ahead of their time technologically. And on them all (and elsewhere) sits the now ubiquitous free-floating swoosh, well before Nike had started using it as a standalone emblem. It's an annoyance, as is the way the movie starts shilling for the WNBA in the final reel. Both the NBA and Nike have endorsement deals with Spike Lee, of course. The meaning of that is perfectly clear.