Flashback Film Friends is a series in which a Jezebel staffer watches a movie she or he has seen a million times, with a staffer who has never seen it once. Then they discuss—just like friends.
Four years after the WNBA was founded, Love & Basketball hit theaters, in April 2000. This was in the middle of a rush of now-classic black rom-coms, including The Best Man and The Wood in 1999 and Brown Sugar in 2002. But it was Love & Basketball that grabbed me the most and that I used to sheepishly cite as my favorite movie of all time, thinking it was too cheesy to fully admit. Years later, I realized that many of my peers had similar mushy feelings about it—all of us united in cheese.
A then fresh-faced Sanaa Lathan (as Monica Wright) and Omar Epps (Quincy McCall) played young basketball phenoms who meet as kids, fall in love and continue their relationship through high school and adulthood, battling all the sucky elements of adolescent love with the added pressure of basketball responsibilities. The tagline: All's fair in love and basketball. I was 16 or 17 at the time and remember desperately wanting to see it, as both a basketball junkie (slash perpetually crushed Knicks fan) and a naive, lovesick high schooler who'd had a couple boyfriends but nothing like real love. The storyline was one of my earliest experiences of a rom-com, at a point in life where I could realistically comprehend feelings of overwhelming desire and disappointment.
I watched it for the first time in a friend’s bedroom on bootleg DVD, with three or four girlfriends, gathered around a TV eating microwave popcorn. Back then, the draw was that it centered around young people making mistakes while trying to choose a sensible future for themselves apart from their parents wishes (Note that in the four-quarter time span that plays out in the movie, the WNBA had yet to be established). Retrospectively, I also realized how attracted I was to the idea of a young woman shooting down stereotypical expectations and challenging her man, her mom (and the audience, in turn) to do the same.
On a recent Wednesday night, I sat to watch Love & Basketball for the roughly millionth time with Erin Gloria Ryan, who had never seen it. Here's our conversation that followed.
C: You said you had a different idea of this movie before watching it. I think I was in love with the idea of it before I even saw it. At the time, I seriously thought I would marry Kobe Bryant. Not a stand-in for Kobe Bryant. Specifically, Kobe Bryant. I thought love and basketball was my life, even though I neither played basketball nor dated any basketball players. My first AOL screenname was LuvBall (plus a random number). I got a lot of balls jokes because of it. You actually played basketball, though.
E: I did actually play basketball, and I guess my idea of what the film would be was like The Pistol-meets-When Harry Met Sally. Except taking the most trope-y elements of both. Actually, I don’t even remember it playing in the closest theater to my hometown (half an hour away by highway), so it wasn’t really accessible for me until it was out on video and DVD.
C: I watched it on bootleg DVD at my friend’s house with some other girls.
E: See, that’s the way to do it. I wish we’d made it, like, a team outing.
C: We had popcorn and were just chilling. That made the sex scene very interesting. I remember having feelings while watching it.
E: Sexy feelings?!??!
C: Yeah, haha. I was either 16 or 17 and a virgin. But I don’t think I necessarily knew I was watching a “rom-com” at the time. It has some of the tropes, but I appreciated how they flipped it. Like, Monica and Quincy’s meet-cute happens when they’re kids. I just really liked that it set up a story where the girl is dominant. That was clear upfront. She’s as good and maybe better than the dudes. I only played basketball in gym class, but I was a diehard Knicks fan. I would tell boys how much I loved basketball and they always thought I was just watching for the cute players. I’m like, no, actually I know all these stats. I watched games and learned 'cause I was genuinely curious.
E: I didn’t expect it to feel as fresh and innovative as it did. And like you said, there are only a couple of moments in the movie where cheesiness took me out of it. The part where it’s implied that she sees his boner for the first time, and she’s like OMG and he’s like, Yeeeeeeah that’s my dick. And the part, like you said, where she said she was playing “for (his) heart.”
C: The boner scene is great. ’Cause it’s REAL.
E: True. A high school boy would be pretty proud of his penis. “Yep, that’s my dick.” Going back to what you were saying about the film being girl-centric, and the girl being steadfast about her dreams: it was more progressive than a lot of movies I’ve seen recently. She was strong, and fully realized. But she wasn’t flawless. I also loved that her “transformation” into the school dance didn’t really change anything about how she looked. She was always pretty. She was never unrecognizable.
C: That white “Nike” dress. Gabrielle Union is like her nemesis.
E: Gabrielle Union, quintessential self-assured ’90s teen enemy. A new kind of teen enemy.
C: She should just only play that role forever.
E: She probably could because she still looks about 27 years old.
C: It was one of those movies where I could just see myself in it, which is one mark of a great coming-of-age story.
E: Ha, yes. I didn’t feel exactly that way, but if I had seen it as a teenager, I probably would have.
C: Wait, were you a good ball player? I forget.
E: LOL. I was the team captain and starting point guard, which makes it SOUND like I was good, except my school had only 200 kids in it and our basketball team was very bad. By the middle of my senior season, I started arguing with the coach in practice because he kept making us do dumb shit like practice a motion offense before games with teams that only played 1-3-1 or triangle 2 zone defense. Anyway, by the end of the year, I pretty much did not play at all. Which was fine. I had gotten into college and could not wait to be out of there. Years later, I discovered that I was actually a better ballplayer left handed. Cool.
C: Erin: “Just let me coach.”
E: My dad called me “uncoachable.” He was the HS boys’ team assistant coach right around when I was playing. I was like, Dad. I’m not uncoachable. I just don’t listen to dummies. I thought the dynamic between the college coach and her players was pretty well done, though. Friends who played for non-idiots reported similar power trip stuff. I JUST REALIZED WHO THE COACH IN THE MOVIE REMINDS ME OF. ANN COULTER.
C: Ohhhhh. Wow, that’s so spot on.
E: Ann Coulter with muscle tone and warmth.
C: One thing I didn’t like as I got older and re-watched it was some of the dynamic between Monica and Q.
E: Also I realized that it's a strong woman’s fantasy about the asshole she loves growing into the man she needs. Q at the beginning is an honest construct of what kind of person he is. Monica loves him even though he’s kind of a stunted, spoiled jerk. He doesn’t really do anything dramatically unselfish at any point in the movie (save the condom scene, which was very cool of him) and then at the end we’re supposed to believe that he suddenly becomes dramatically unselfish. He can’t even put aside his ego for long enough to let Monica win at 1-on-1. I dunno, maybe you’ve got a more generous reading of him.
C: Ugh, the part where she comes to his dorm room and he totally plays her by kissing the other chick, without regard for her feelings, and acts like nothing is wrong. And yet, there’s still that element of her wanting him to “choose” her. I remember (as a teen) disliking that scene and then hating him. But it’s also... we’re supposed to.
E: Oh god, when he flips it on her…the cheating. “Uh, you followed your team rules rather than getting in trouble because I needed to talk to you.” Something that could have been TOTALLY SOLVED if FaceTime had existed in 1991. Can we talk a little about the soundtrack? You kept going, “Oh, this is such a good song,” every time a song started playing. Did you have the soundtrack? Do you still listen to it?
C: I did, I do. It’s one of my favorites, introduced me to a lot of songs that I still love today. Like, that was the first time I heard Chaka Khan/Rufus “Sweet Thing,” which is now in my official top-5 favorite songs ever. I melt every time I hear that song, and I guess this movie has something to do with that? Maybe it’s some additional feeling of nostalgia. Roger “I Wanna Be Your Man,” I loooveee. That’s the one that plays at the spring dance when Q’s giving her the eye. You said something funny during that scene.
E: I think I just went AHHHHHH and put my hands on my face. I did that, I think, four times during this movie. This movie turned me into a teen.
C: Haha. I think they look like love in that scene. I thought the songs matched up really well, especially Maxwell’s “This Woman’s Work" during the sex scene. Also, that song “Fool of Me” that plays during their one-on-one game for his heart.
E: For <3 his <3 Heart. That song is so sad. That scene is so sad. I loved that they reverted back to their 12-year-old dynamic for that scene. Her kind of goading him by saying he was wimpy if he didn’t do it.
C: Her trash talking was great.
E: She was an exceptional trash talker.
C: There’s also the tropey tension between the kids and the parents and Monica and Q’s pushback against being like their parents. Quincy’s dad is the ex-baller who somehow can’t help accidentally falling on top of groupies. Monica’s mom is the prissy housewife and Monica thinks she’s a pushover.
E: I would watch a miniseries of this where the side characters could be more fully developed. Like we talked about last night, I think it could be really great, provided the leads were as strong as the leads in this movie and it didn’t turn out dumb and terrible.
C: I remember that Omar and Sanaa’s chemistry almost made me embarrassed as a teen watching.
E: Yeah, my god, it was pretty potent. His thirst look during the dance. Pure Teen Longing. What was it like to watch that in a room full of teen girls?
C: Yesss. We all had that unspoken collective embarrassment/curiosity/wonderment. It was in my friend’s bedroom and we were pretty silent throughout. One of the girls had seen it already and would tease upcoming scenes and I kept telling her not to spoil it. I was very engrossed.
E: Hahaha, teen sex scene discomfort.
C: Exactly. It’s also that “Is this what it’s like?” feeling.
E: That was a very romanticized version of virginity loss. But, you know, good for them.
E: And like I mentioned before, the condom part was a very responsible touch on the part of the filmmakers.
C: You were really into the game scenes, which is what I love about sports and sports-ish movies. That meta intensity.
E: Oh my god, the game scenes were so well shot. The scene that was her POV, when you hear her inner monologue: "You got this. You got this, girl." I also liked that the peaks and valleys of the games were pretty realistic. There was no slow build to The Championship; she had good and bad things happen in games, and so did he. It really painted how the game must feel to people who play it for years and years.
C: And she ends up in the WNBA and he’s watching her from the stands with their daughter, which kind of drives home the point that this is really her story and they’ve grown up mutually (although he has been the asshole through it all). When I interviewed [the director] Gina Prince-Bythewood, she said this about Beyond the Lights: “The film is really about two people saving each other.” And I kinda get that sense from this, too.
E: Interesting. I think fantasy comes in when the movie shows us somebody like Q realizing that he needs saving. The problem with assholes is that they don’t realize they’re assholes.
C: I’m guessing he finally realized it and “forgave” her even though she did nothing wrong. They kind of glossed over that in the end. But in conclusion, after my millionth time viewing, I still love it. Btw, he totally inherits his father’s entitlement.
E: Oh TOTALLY. I loved it, too. And I want to see Beyond the Lights now. Thank you for eating Sriracha popcorn and watching it with me. Final thought: She also inherits her mom's pushover-ness in a way. A sort of odd reformulation of it, at least.
C: Moral is, you will be just like your parents.
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