Fate & Persistence & Love & Basketball: The female-powered story behind the indie classic
Gina Prince-Bythewood and Sanaa Lathan reflect on the iconic romance, 20 years later.
It's a double decade or nothing for Love & Basketball: The romantic drama celebrated its 20th anniversary last week, having hit theaters April 21, 2000.
Sanaa Lathan stars in the iconic indie as Monica Wright, a determined young woman who dreams of playing pro basketball. Omar Epps plays Quincy McCall, Monica's childhood friend and next-door neighbor who plans to follow in the footsteps of his NBA star dad (Dennis Haysbert). Monica and Quincy are clearly meant for each other from the moment they have their first kiss as 11-year-olds, but they both spend their young lives torn between the all-consuming pursuits of love and basketball.
The film marked the debut of writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights, Netflix's upcoming The Old Guard), who was inspired by her own experience as a female athlete. And while it's now cherished enough to merit trivia-filled Twitter viewing parties in celebration of its 20th anniversary, it was a challenge to get the project off the ground in the '90s.
"I knew how hard it was going to be to sell it, but I think as an artist, you have to tell the stories that are in your head and in your heart," the filmmaker tells EW. "One of the things that I kept getting pushback on is that people can't identify with these characters if they're not black, and that's a thing that we still deal with today in the industry. But my hope was that, despite the fact that they're black characters in this film, that anybody would be able to look up and just see a love story."
Over the course of a year and a half of pitching the project to studios, Prince-Bythewood heard only a chorus of no. "That is a hard thing, to continue to pick yourself up," she admits. "But it was because I so believed in the story — that got me up off the floor."
Her persistence paid off when the project got the attention of the Sundance Institute, which selected Prince-Bythewood to participate in its Directors Lab before the film finally found a home at New Line. The Sundance program included a staged reading of the script, which is where Lathan first played Monica. "The actress that she had got sick and [Prince-Bythewood] asked me to fill in," says Lathan, who almost turned it down, not yet having read the script.
Luckily she went for it, and "her performance was amazing," the director says. "And it didn't matter for me that she didn't play ball, because she was sitting in a chair, you know? But going into this, when we started casting, I said I would never cast a woman who never played ball."
"I had never — I don't even think I really had picked up a basketball," Lathan says. But she proved to be as tenacious as both Monica and the woman who wrote her: During a months-long audition process, Lathan trained with a basketball coach from the L.A. Sparks (while her athlete competitors studied with acting teachers) to develop skills, also relying on her dance background to learn authentic posture. "She was putting me through the real basketball drills that they put the real players through," the actress recalls. "It was grueling — especially because I didn't have the role."
Many of her friends suggested she give up, but one gave her the advice she needed: to take her eye off the prize. "I said, 'Okay, you know what? I'm just going to enjoy this journey right now and have fun learning this skill,'" Lathan says. "As soon as I switched that, when I stopped worrying about getting the part, it's almost like that's when I got the part."
Prince-Bythewood had to shift her perspective too in order to choose her leading lady. Lathan's indelible performance at the Sundance reading "was stuck in my head," the director says, but "if the basketball was wack, you wouldn't believe in the story or believe in women as athletes." She credits her husband, Reggie Rock Bythewood, with boiling down the decision to the question of the true heart of the film: love or basketball?
"In my mind, it was a love story set in the world of basketball, and so those acting chops needed to be the first thing," the filmmaker says. So Lathan became her Monica.
The film's central romance is as irresistible as they come, but "for me, I feel the best love stories are not stories that just focus on the relationship," Prince-Bythewood says.
"That's why I think it's such a classic," Lathan adds. "Because not only does she have that amazing love story at the center, but her quote-unquote 'B-stories' are so resonant too."
One of the richest is Monica's tense relationship with her mother (Alfre Woodard), whose model of womanhood Monica openly rejects. "I think the best writing is therapy for the artist, and it really was me working out things that I had been struggling with," Prince-Bythewood says. "One was my relationship with my mom, and the dynamic between us, and who she was as a woman, and the things that I wanted not to be. And in retrospect, in doing this film, it actually healed our relationship."
In chasing her hoop dreams, Monica contends not only with the stiff competition and physical demands of the sport, but also a narrow, conventional notion of femininity. "I really did want to reframe, redefine what it means to be female," Prince-Bythewood says. Even from her first appearance as an 11-year-old (played by Kyla Pratt), Monica is teased for her sporty clothes and called a tomboy — all of which was true to the filmmaker's own experience. "One of the beautiful things for me is just how many men have said that Monica is their ideal," she says. "Usually the cheerleader is the ideal, and the fact that this athlete who was emotional and spoke her mind is attractive now to people — I never felt that growing up. So it was beautiful for me to put all this into a character, and that's that reframing."
In that same scene (which takes place in 1981) where young Monica gets mocked for her boyish appearance, she defiantly tells young Quincy and his friends that she intends to be the first woman to play for the NBA. And while [SPOILER ALERT!] the film's affecting final scene shows Monica playing in the WNBA while Quincy cheers her on with their young daughter in his lap, the original script ended with the iconic "double or nothing" reconciliation — the WNBA (founded in 1996) hadn't been created yet.
"I remember reading the line [about being the first woman in the NBA] and chuckling, because the WNBA had just begun," Lathan remembers. "So that script, in a weird way, was ahead of its time" — and redefining what it means to be female just before the sports world would begin to do the same.
"I thought I had this great ending, but it actually didn't tell this whole story," Prince-Bythewood says. With Quincy having left basketball and no American professional opportunities for Monica, it would have implied a sort of inverse La La Land, where they got each other but not their dreams. But to have the female athlete go all the way, with a hyphenated name on her jersey and her husband supporting her from the sidelines, "really was the fairy-tale ending," the filmmaker says. "I do believe, as an artist, everything happens for a reason. And the fact that it took so long to get made gave me the perfect ending to the film."
The only more perfect ending is the one happening 20 years later: Prince-Bythewood scored The Old Guard, which marks the biggest film of her career so far, in part because the producers loved Love & Basketball. And based on the Twitter reaction to the watch party, fans are still celebrating Monica's timeless story as if it happened yesterday.
"I just love that she went after what she wanted," Lathan says. "She wanted her basketball career and she wanted her man, and she didn't let anything get in her way. I think that that strength is something we all can learn from."