Love & Basketball is one of those movies that other people talk about and I just sit there wondering if we watched the same movie. For some reason, people watch this movie and just absolutely love it while I think it’s just ok. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s a bad movie but I just don’t get why people seem to love it. On a basic level, it’s a love story about the girl and boy next door who meet as kids, become high school sweethearts, go through some rough patches, and ultimately end up together. But there’s a lot of nonsense along the way that left me wondering why this one-sided relationship was being prolonged.
Love & Basketball begins in the early 1980s and is set in Baldwin Hills, an affluent historically Black neighborhood in South Los Angeles. A young Quincy McCall (Glenndon Chatman) meets Monica Wright (Kyla Pratt) shortly after her family moves in next door. Wearing a hat and having a bit of a peg leg walk, it’s not immediately obvious that the new kid on the block with a nice jump shot is a girl. Upon removing her hat to reveal her face and hair, Quincy reveals that despite his young age, he’s an entitled jerk who holds surprisingly antiquated views about gender roles.
The pair along with two of Quincy’s friends square off for a game of two on two in the driveway. There are the expected basketball movie shots of dribbling, shooting, etc. which show that Quincy and Monica are pretty good while the other two kids are scrubs who are non-factors in what becomes a game of one-on-one. As the game winds down, Monica goes for a shot, and Quincy is so determined to beat her at any cost that he commits a flagrant foul. Quincy’s push causes her to not only miss the shot but in falling, she cuts her face which leaves a small but visible scar on her cheek.
Yes, Quincy is still a child at this point and kids can be jerks who hit or push to get their way. But, Quincy isn’t a toddler or preschooler so he is old enough to know that pushing someone to avoid losing a basketball game is unacceptable. He makes Monica a card as a way of apologizing and the two make up which later results in him asking her to be his girlfriend. Unclear about what their new relationship status means he explains his understanding as they play basketball, ride to school together, and he gives her flowers when she’s upset. The terms sound fair so Monica agrees. But just moments later when she declines to ride to school on his bike’s handlebars in favor of riding her bike, the situation once again devolves into a physical altercation.
It’s around this point that we get a peek into his and Monica’s home lives.
Quincy doesn’t have enough life experience to personally know about the finer points of dating and relationships but he’s picked up these ridiculous ideas from somewhere. He is the only child of a dad, Zeke (Dennis Haysbert), who plays professional basketball for the Los Angeles Clippers, and a mom, Mona (Debbi Morgan), who is I guess an O.G. basketball wife. His father offers him a pep talk about what it means to be a man and the philosophy of not using the word “can’t”. It sounds like some life coach mumbo jumbo that initially glosses over Quincy’s use of profanity. While it might be a brief moment, it offers a bit of insight into how manhood and masculinity are being defined for Quincy. On a basic level, the message is to be determined at all costs and to consider respect and decency if you have time.
While Zeke is somewhat famous as a basketball player, Monica’s dad, Nathan (Harry Lennix), is a regular guy with a well-paying job (it seems to be something in insurance or finance). Monica’s mother, Camille (Alfre Woodard), is also a stay-at-home mom but seems a bit more down to earth in comparison to Mona. Nathan encourages Monica’s passion for basketball and seems to be fine with her being a tomboy. Camille on the other hand is frustrated by Monica’s passion for basketball and lack of interest in feminine things. She makes somewhat unkind remarks to Monica in hopes of getting her to be more like her ultra-girly older sister, Lena.
All is well between Quincy (Omar Epps) and Monica (Sanaa Lathan) by the time they get to high school though they are just friends. Both are stars on their school’s basketball team but this means different things for their social lives. Quincy is living the typical life of a popular athlete who is expected to make it to the pros. He gets even more attention because his father is a basketball player and his family is financially comfortable.
Monica on the other hand is burning up the court but has a dry personal life. She’s a passionate and aggressive player but instead of being celebrated like Quincy, she’s constantly chided for her demeanor. It’s a foregone conclusion that Quincy will play basketball in college and go on to the pros while Monica has to fight for a spot on a college team.
I liked the relationship between the teenage Monica and Lena (Regina Hall). It’s obvious that off the court Monica is uncomfortable in her skin and lacks confidence. But, instead of stepping in to give Monica pep talks and help her navigate adolescence, Camille makes negative comments about her lack of femininity. Yet, throughout Love & Basketball, Lena steadfastly has Monica’s back and encourages and supports her by knowing just the right thing to say. With a school dance looming she gives Monica a makeover and finds her a date who turns out to be in his prime Boris Kudjoe. Forget about Quincy or Monica, Lena is the real MVP and a champion wing woman.
Quincy has a starting five of his own as he rotates between high school heathens who are vying to follow in his mom’s footsteps and become a basketball wife. Shar Jackson pops up as one high schooler trying to shoot her shot while Gabrielle Union accompanies Quincy to the dance. Something to note about Love & Basketball is that seemingly every Black actor or actress who was active at the time had some kind of a role in the movie. And while several of the actors and actresses were grown 20- or 30-somethings playing high school and college students they looked quite a bit older then than they do now. And although the film was released in 2000, it continued the 90s trend of banging soundtracks and film scores.
Up to this point, the two were friendly but seemingly had no romantic interest in or chemistry with each other. Monica puts on a dress and temporarily stops walking like she has a wooden leg and Quincy now has eyes for nobody else. Honestly, I think it was part Monica cleaning up quite nicely, (because after all, it’s Sanaa Lathan,) but also her being on the arm of a taller man who is in college and arguably borderline pretty. I would argue that it’s one of those situations where Quincy wasn’t particularly interested in her like that until someone else was interested. Unfortunately, Boris Kudjoe’s character, Jason, turns out to be very physically attractive on the outside but a stereotypical college boy on the inside. But before he even showed his true colors, Monica and Quincy were inexplicably making googly eyes at each other from across the dancefloor.
While much of Love & Basketball focuses on Monica and Quincy, there is also some attention paid to Quincy’s parents and their relationship drama. Over the years, I’ve come to know Dennis Haysbert as the older man with the deep voice who appears in the Allstate commercials. I previously knew him as Whitney Houston’s classy but trashy married love interest in Waiting to Exhale. But it wasn’t until I recently re-watched Love & Basketball for this review that I realized that he was a very nice looking man, face and body wise. Debbi Morgan has always been a cutie patootie and an incredible actress so the two playing opposite each other seems a bit more balanced though their marriage is an absolute dumpster fire.
Zeke, now retired from basketball, has returned to school to get an MBA and is now a businessman. I don’t know what kind of business he was running but apparently, it required frequently attending “meetings” in the dead of night. I was put off when Mona started talking to him about never being at home and he copped an attitude and became rude. But, it gave me pause when she picked up whatever it was and threw it at the wall over his head. With the two of them at war, Quincy grabs his stuff and crosses the yard to sleep on the floor in Monica’s room. The two were so unfazed by the arguing and the sleeping arrangement seemed like a regular occurrence. Is it any wonder that Quincy is such a mess?
Neither family is hurting for cash but Quincy’s family seems to be doing a bit better or at least Quincy’s parents give him more stuff and are lax. In high school, he has a car and while his mom tells him about girls being out to trap him, she doesn’t exactly put her foot down about him having random girls in the house. His dad gives him a lot of sports coach pep talks but not much in the way of being a decent man. Monica’s family isn’t perfect but they seem a bit more solid and stable.
When the two head off to college, it’s more of the same with Monica and her struggle life on and off the court while Quincy continues to easily thrive in both areas. Quincy and Monica have had different experiences in pursuing their hoop dreams. There is no doubt about Quincy’s ability to get into USC or his getting a spot on their basketball team. Things are less certain for Monica as she doesn’t receive offers from multiple schools and when an offer is made by USC, she has to fight for a place on the team. Likewise, while Quincy assumes that he will go on to play in the NBA, there is a less clear cut path for Monica as there was no WNBA at the time. And this is where things once again begin to go off the rails for the couple.
As a freshman without her father’s name behind her or SportsCenter features, Monica has to toe the line. Quincy can take chances and liberties that Monica can’t as it would jeopardize her spot on the team. When Mona finds out (or more accurately gets concrete proof and finally admits to herself) that Zeke is cheating she decides to kick him out of the house and file for divorce. The split ends their marriage but understandably devastates Quincy in part because his father lied to him about the situation. I felt sorry for Quincy and Mona because this man who was respectively their father and husband presented himself one way and turned out to be someone else.
It was understandable that Quincy needed someone that he could talk to about his feelings of hurt and confusion and thus turned to Monica. But, Monica had a team curfew on the night they met to talk things over and while they spoke for a while she eventually had to leave. I thought Monica had been understanding and supportive but didn’t pick up until a later conversation that Quincy was upset and felt she should have stayed to continue talking.
Monica spent as much time as possible talking to him but could have lost her chance to play had she broken curfew. Quincy had emotional needs and wanted support at that moment but Monica also had equally important responsibilities. His expectation for her to break curfew was essentially asking her to choose him over basketball which was an unnecessary and selfish demand to make. They could have just as easily continued the conversation over the phone, in her dorm room, or picked things up the next day.
Quincy shows himself to be an overgrown child; he’s the same brat that he was as a kid but now in a young adult’s body. What difference would it have made if his father was honest with him about his inability to be monogamous? In high school, Quincy was already juggling multiple women. He’s seemingly faithful to Monica while in college but enjoys the attention from other co-eds. And the moment Quincy is upset about Monica not giving him enough attention, he tries to get back at her by openly flirting and encouraging the advances of another woman.
So Quincy can be mad at his father for treating his mother poorly but it’s ok for him to treat other women poorly because they’re not his mother? He can be mad at Monica for not being available on his terms as a shoulder to cry on. But he can downplay her aspirations by telling her not to worry about making the team as she’ll be “Mrs. McCall” one day. He can add to the nonsense by not supporting her in making the team’s starting lineup and encouraging her to get in on time to ensure she remains eligible to suit up.
I was “girl change your number and walk by this fool as if you’ve never met him before” over it at that moment. Other women were interested in him because of his father and the expectation that he would become a professional basketball player. Monica was understandably hurt but I didn’t get her maintaining any kind of interest in Quincy even just as a person after that exchange. She certainly didn’t owe Quincy an apology and the whole choose me / pick me / play me for your heart business at the end was ridiculous.
Monica isn’t perfect and is honestly a bit boring but she’s harmless and doesn’t bother anyone. Quincy on the other hand is self-centered and incredibly selfish with no clear redeeming qualities beyond the possibility of maybe making a lot of money in the future playing basketball. This is part of Love & Basketball’s major flaw: neither character realistically grows or develops during the film.
After a successful college basketball career, Monica gets the chance to go overseas to play in Europe. Yet, she continues to be a wallflower instead of having a great time and enjoying herself while in Spain. Quincy puts aside his education, enters the draft early, lands a spot on a team, and has a less than stellar career before it’s ended by an injury. While in the hospital, Quincy has a chance to see his father for the first time in five years, and tells him how he feels. When Monica visits, the two have a chance to talk and clear the air which was fine but nothing happens after that to justify Monica eventually wanting to get back together.
And that’s my problem with Love & Basketball, it’s not some great love story. They were simply neighbors as kids who dated as teens. Not all high school or college sweethearts end up together. Monica should have left Quincy and his stank attitude behind at USC and gone on to enjoy her life. Yet, she is always the one doing the reaching out and apologizing while Quincy couldn’t care less and nonchalantly goes about his life. I saw nothing in their relationship that indicated they were meant to be together.
I always side-eye these struggle love movies because they romanticize dysfunction in relationships. Romantic comedies tend to follow a formula where the story brings two love interests together and throws obstacles in the way of their relationship to force them apart before bringing them back together. Love & Basketball tries to follow this formula with basketball and some other problems thrown in to create drama.
But, excluding Monica’s basketball dreams, the main characters and their relationship didn’t give me anything to root for. Instead of being a charming cad or a lovable jock, Quincy is just cocky and selfish until literally the last few minutes of Love & Basketball. Monica is the girl next door and she manages to momentarily break out of her shell for their school dance before immediately regressing.
In a similar vein to Quincy’s parents serving as a terrible example of how to be in a romantic relationship so do Monica’s parents but to a less dramatic degree. There’s a scene late in the movie where Monica confronts her mom about her not standing up for herself in her relationship or supporting Monica’s basketball aspirations. The mom spouts off some nonsense but that’s not the important thing. Monica’s mother allows her dad to take her effort for granted and not support her talent for cooking. With that example of being a woman in a relationship and her mom’s constant harping about her lack of femininity is it surprising that Monica tolerates such nonsense from Quincy?
All in all, Love & Basketball isn’t a bad movie but its problematic love story is trash. And I think it gets a pass with most people because the basketball story is decent and the lead characters don’t fit the stereotype of being poor and down on their luck.
Odds are that you’ve already seen Love & Basketball. I’d like your perspective if you agree with my take on the movie. But I also want all the smoke if you disagree with my assessment.
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