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The Boston Phoenix Hoop dreams

"Love and Basketball" finds the net

By Jumana Farouky

APRIL 24, 2000:  "All's fair in love and basketball." Monica, half of the ballplaying couple at the center of Love and Basketball, throws out her version of the familiar phrase when she beats her boyfriend yet again. But as one who has spent most of her life trying to find a balance between love and basketball, Monica knows that both are anything but fair. Just as Spike Lee's He Got Game uses basketball to depict one man's struggle to find himself, Gina Prince-Blythewood's debut (co-produced by Lee) is less about the game of hoops than about the power games that women find themselves unable to avoid playing, even against their teammates.

We first meet Monica Wright in 1981, when, as the new kid in town, she asks to join a backyard game of basketball with three neighborhood boys. Skeptical, they concede they need a fourth player, and when she proves to be better than the three boys combined, young Quincy McCall can't help being intrigued by his new adversary. But he also can't tolerate losing to a girl, so he wins the only way he knows how: he pushes her to the ground, ending the game and leaving her bleeding from a cut on the cheek.

At the age of 12, Monica wears the resulting permanent scar like a medal of honor that proclaims she's as tough as any boy. But as she builds a childhood pastime into a career, the scar becomes a reminder of the battles she has to fight as a woman playing a man's game. All through high school and college, Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps) follow parallel paths to unequal ends. While the men's team plays to a roaring crowd on a huge, brightly lit court, the women's team plays to a handful of fans perched atop old bleachers in a tiny gym. And though Monica and Quincy become the best players on their respective teams, Quincy basks in the adoring gaze of women and autograph seekers while Monica is ostracized for being unfeminine. Her on-court aggressiveness gets her ejected from games; the look in her mother's eyes always seems to be saying, "You would be so pretty if . . . "

The battle of the sexes is an old story, but with the popularity of women's sports peaking, Prince-Blythewood has picked the perfect time to retell the tale. Kudos to a writer and director who can use a predominantly black cast to make a film with a message so universal it has nothing to do with being black, and who can show a woman fighting against the expectations of her family and society without making her into a victim. And Lathan and Epps share an on-screen synergy that makes the man-versus-woman act simultaneously humorous and painful: they spend all day trash-talking over who's the better player, but when Quincy sneaks up to Monica's window to escape his parents' fighting, she lets him in to sleep on the floor beside her, with not a word spoken between them.

The ease of Monica's relationship with Quincy is in direct contrast with the hardships she has to conquer on the basketball court, from pushy coaches to jealous teammates. But it's the challenge she craves, so much so that whenever faced with a choice between anything and the game, she declares, "I am a ballplayer," negating all other parts of herself -- sister, daughter, girlfriend, woman -- in search of something that is hers and hers only.

It's this strength that lifts Prince-Blythewood's film out of the girl-beats-world crowd. All the drama takes place on the court, in scenes so graceful and exciting that even the most sports-illiterate would appreciate them. No matter what humiliations Monica faces off court (when Quincy decides she cares more about basketball than about him, he starts seeing another woman -- again, viciously pushing her away when he feels he's about to lose), she always handles herself with dignity. And when the struggle to balance love and basketball becomes too much, she doesn't break down or give up -- she simply goes to Spain to play pro.

Removed from her family and friends, working with a team whose language she doesn't understand (and whose coach finishes every locker-room talk with "Give the ball to Monica"), she's finally a ballplayer and only a ballplayer. Yet with all those other parts of her missing, the game doesn't feel the same. There's a poignant moment when Monica, now so famous her picture appears on European soft-drink ads, returns home and confronts her mother (Alfre Woodard) about her never coming to watch her daughter play when Monica was younger. Mom knows that Monica is disgusted by her decision to devote her life to family and home, but she feels that a life focused solely on career is an empty one. Here the two spheres of female existence that society still deems incompatible -- family and work -- come head-to-head. But in Prince-Blythewood's world, everyone gets what he or she deserves, and Monica ends up with a life filled with as much love and basketball as one woman can handle.

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