It’s hard to encapsulate the enduring legacy and significance of the romantic classic “Love & Basketball.”
If you were to ask any contemporary black filmmaker — from Issa Rae to Stella Meghie to newcomer Rashaad Ernesto Green — what film shaped their earliest perceptions of love and inspired them to tell their own love stories, “Love & Basketball” would almost inevitably be high on their lists.
It led generations of moviegoers to imagine new possibilities for themselves in love and offered a glimpse at a rarely depicted slice of black life.
But Gina Prince-Bythewood’s sports drama, released April 21, 2000, about young neighbors who fall in love as they bond and compete over basketball nearly did not make it to the big screen. The young filmmaker struggled to garner studio interest and found difficulty casting the lead role in her deeply personal feature debut.
“When I first started out writing it, my goal was to do a black ‘When Harry Met Sally,’” said Prince-Bythewood with a laugh. “I love that movie, but I wasn’t seeing myself in movies like that, in love stories. And in addition to that, there was a semi-autobiographical story in my head about a black girl who wanted to be the first girl in the NBA.
“As an artist, you hope you’re making art that resonates and reaches people, but you never know,” she added. “So the fact that 20 years later we’re still talking about my first film is humbling and amazing to me. Especially when I think back to trying to get it made and knowing how many times it was dead in the water.”
Prince-Bythewood says executive producer Spike Lee had a major impact on her ability to get the film made. “I think Spike’s involvement was probably the thing that allowed New Line to say, ‘Just let her direct her script’ because I’m sure in their minds if I started messing up, they knew Spike could step in and ‘save me.’ Thankfully I didn’t need that.”
“I go on the first day, wish everybody luck and then I’m out,” said Lee, of his producing role. “I don’t want them to feel like ‘Spike Lee is looking over my shoulder.’ If I don’t have confidence in them I wouldn’t make the film with them.
“It’s always been my mindset that if I made it [in the movie business], I was going to try to bring as many people along with me. Gina is one of many people in the last four decades, and she’s very talented. I knew what it feels like trying to get that first feature made having gone through high holy hell to raise $175,000 for ‘She’s Gotta Have It.’”
In recognition of the film’s 20th anniversary, The Times shaped this oral history from conversations with the “Love & Basketball” cast and crew about how the film came to be, why it’s considered a classic and how the romantic genre has fared in the intervening two decades.
Prince-Bythewood quit her job writing for TV to dedicate a year to writing the script of “Love & Basketball.” After shopping the story around to near unanimous rejection, she finally brought the script to Mike De Luca, then president of production at Warner Bros.’ New Line division, who took a chance on the relative newcomer.
Prince-Bythewood (writer-director): I didn’t have any other directing credits except for a school break special, but he trusted me and gave me more money than I asked for, which never happens. And then he said, “My only thing is, you can cast an unknown for Monica if you cast Omar [Epps] as Quincy.” Omar was a star at the time, and he was also my first choice, so there was no compromise whatsoever. We had one phone call, and it was great. Then it came down to finding Monica.
Gabrielle Union, who wound up playing Shawnee Easton, Quincy’s high school love interest, originally auditioned for the role of Monica.
Union (Shawnee Easton): I auditioned and came in literally in the same clothes that I played basketball in. And Gina was like, “Yeah, you don’t really look like a baller to me.” I was like, “Wait, what? But I am. I don’t know what to tell you. Do you want to go on the court? What do I need to do?” She was like, “Yeah, I don’t think you’re right for Monica, but I think I have a role that you’d be perfect for.” And she gives me the sides and I’m like, “Hoe?” Basically she was like, “You don’t look like an athlete” — which I was my whole life — “but you do give me hoe vibes.” I was very offended, but it was one of my first bigger breaks. It was only the third movie I ever did, so I was very new and grateful.
Prince-Bythewood: I didn’t know she was a baller when she auditioned for Monica. I thought she was good, but I had Sanaa’s performance in my head, which was just next level. There’s something that connected Sanaa with that character. But I wanted Gabrielle in the film because I liked her, I just thought there was something special about her. And she was really good in the part that she plays.
However, Lathan was a front-runner ever since a Sundance reading of the script years before the movie was greenlit.
Prince-Bythewood: Sanaa in this film was meant to be. I had almost fired her after the rehearsal for the reading because I thought she was terrible. She comes from the theater where when you do a table read, you don’t act at the time, you’re just kind of feeling the words and working your way through it. I had no idea, I just thought she was terrible. I was so panicked.
I had an hour before the performance and I was desperately on the phone with my husband like, “Who can we get to replace Sanaa?” I couldn’t reach the person I thought could possibly do it so I was like, “I guess I don’t have a choice.” And so the reading starts to a packed house and within 30 seconds of Sanaa opening her mouth, it was a totally different performance. She was Monica, and I remember it was just a magical night. She was that good. It was the reading that kept her in the running for the movie because I said I would never cast someone who couldn’t play ball, because we’d never been represented well as athletes before the film.
Lathan: (Monica Wright) She really wanted a basketball player who could act as opposed to the other way around. But because I had done the stage read, she had that performance in her head, which was kind of lucky for me. But because I didn’t have any basketball skills at all, I had to prove myself as a basketball player which was virtually impossible — how do you even compare to people who’ve played basketball their whole lives? So we would have my acting audition, which would always go great, and then we’d walk across the street to the court.
Prince-Bythewood: She had never played ball in her life. And so finally I said, “OK, let me put her with a coach and let her train for a little bit.”
Lathan: We got an amazing coach from the LA Sparks to work with me before I even got the part, just to see if I could come up to the level.
Prince-Bythewood: At the same time, I had a real ballplayer, a woman named Niesha Butler, who was the No. 1 player in New York. She read, and she was pretty good. I put her with an acting coach, so it came down to these two and they were on kind of this parallel track. And this went on for a couple of months. They both read with Omar, and they both had chemistry. Sanaa had more, and I came to find out that they were dating.
We finally came to a point where Sanaa’s father, who was one of my mentors, called and said, “What you’re doing is cruel, having her continue to train with no guarantee of a part. You need to make a decision.” And he was right. My husband asked, “Is this a love story or is it a basketball movie?” And I finally thought about it and realized it was [the former]. You can fake a jump shot, but you can’t fake a close-up. And so I went with Sanaa and thank God. She absolutely makes the movie.
Lathan: I spent so many hours behind the scenes working on tricks. I could do the two ball trick, I could go in between the legs, I had great form. But if you put me in an actual game, I was horrible. [laughs]
Alfre Woodard (Camille Wright): What she did there was heroic. She’s from Yale drama school. She basically trained to be an elite athlete and changed her body, the way she moved and walked and thought within months.
Besides stars Lathan and Epps, Prince-Bythewood’s eye for casting demonstrated an uncanny prescience. The film features a who’s-who of black Hollywood, most of whom were still early in their careers. In addition to giving Lathan her first leading role and Union her first substantial film role, the director also cast Regina Hall in her second film credit as well as emerging actress Tyra Banks.
Prince-Bythewood: Tyra was my first choice for Kyra [pronounced Kee-rah]. Her name was actually [pronounced Khy-rah], and that was the one thing that Tyra said, “It can not rhyme with my actual name.” So I switched it up. I just knew that who she is influenced people’s perception of the character, and that’s what I wanted.
Banks (Kyra Kessler): I felt it ... tended [toward] the stereotypical role that models were cast in at the time, so I had some reservations. But the project was so hyped, there was a lot of buzz. The character, she was glamorous, semi-vapid, a shallow girl that in the end, doesn’t really get the guy. I remember being crystal clear with my agent that I no longer wanted to play the stereotypical role, that part that the audience is not rooting for at all. That kind of person is so far from what I am, and I wanted to stay far away from that.
Prince-Bythewood: That group was just a really good group of actors that we hadn’t yet seen, so it was exciting to put them together. I saw Regina in “The Best Man,” and I thought she was great. I thought Malcolm [D. Lee] found a stripper who could act. And she and Sanaa were really tight, I think that shows up onscreen.
Hall (Lena Wright): We became friends during “The Best Man.” [For “Love & Basketball”] I remember I had to go in and audition a bunch. Finally I was told it wasn’t going any further, but then Gina changed her mind. And then I had to go in and do a chemistry read with Sanaa. I remember thinking of ways to make sure that I felt like her older sister, that you could feel the difference.
For stars Lathan and Epps, co-starring opposite a real-life romantic partner came with its own set of unique benefits and challenges.
Union: Sanaa and Omar were a couple and both were very ... I’m not going to say they went full Meisner but they were very focused on getting it right and not really [making friends] with everybody. Luckily on that movie there’s so many of us that became really close friends later. But it’s this movie where there’s so many people and everyone’s like, “Well, is that where you became friends?” And I’m like, “Oh, no, no, no.” Everyone was a little tense and nervous, and there was all kinds of anxiety going on.
Hall: [Sanaa] was really focused. There wasn’t a lot of joking around.
Union: During filming Sanaa didn’t talk to me. And I was like, “Yeah, if she’s not trying to talk to me, I’m not going to try to chat her up. I’m going to stay in my trailer until I’m called.”
Hall: For Sanaa, she really wanted to commit to the basketball part. I was watching her practice, literally watching her transform physically.
Lathan: The love scenes were nerve-racking. Every love scene I’ve done to this day, it never gets easy. As seamless as it seems when you’re watching the movie, there’s a bunch of crew members who you don’t know standing around watching you. And we were dating, which doesn’t make it easier at all. It was very uncomfortable, but it was great actually for the scene because she should be uncomfortable, it was her first time.
Epps (Quincy McCall): There’s a certain chemistry that’s very hard to create without having a certain type of intimacy between two people, so I think that we used that to our advantage.
Prince-Bythewood: The first audience was the preview audience, and we did it in Crenshaw, where we shot a lot of it. It was one of the most amazing screenings of my life. It was so raucous and exciting, and the audience loved it. The next audience we showed it to was at Sundance — 1,300 people at the Eccles theater, 99% white. The movie ended, and it was dead silent, and I remember in my head saying, “Well, I guess they didn’t get it.” And then all of a sudden the crowd erupted, and we got a standing ovation. That was amazing to me because first and foremost I made this film so that black girls and boys could look up on the screen and see themselves the way I didn’t get to when I was younger.
Lathan: My mind was blown when it was such a success at Sundance. That’s all you want as an artist, for your work to move people. And the fact that it’s moved so many people across so many racial lines and so many generations is truly amazing.
The $20-million film had a modest domestic opening of $8.4 million on its way to $27.4 million in North American receipts. Internationally it earned an additional $268,503 for a global cumulative of $27.7 million.
Epps: I guess you could say it was lukewarm at the box office. It’s been so interesting to see two more generations fall in love with this film. I’m like, well, if you add up all of those numbers, we should have been at like $80 million to $90 million. But there was no social media, and the word of mouth could spread only so far outside of marketing and promotion. I think had social media existed back then, it would have made a lot more money, it would have been a way different film. And I think that’s maybe part of the magic of why young people really take to it. It’s still like this new discovery.
Because of the film’s modest success, it did little to catapult its cast of young stars to fame.
Union: I was so low on the totem pole, I wasn’t even invited to the premiere. I was just not seen as important in any way shape or form. It was an amazing experience, but it wasn’t until “Bring It On,” which I shot the same summer [and was released in August 2000] that put me on a different trajectory.
Hall: It certainly wasn’t a thing that changed my career at all. I think it was just another great building block to have on my resume. It wasn’t an overnight sensation for me. Sanaa, I’m sure, it changed her entire career.
Lathan: I never felt like I was an overnight success. [The film] put me on the map as an actor, but it felt like a slow build. But maybe that’s just me being inside of it.
Woodard: Nothing opens up things. It does nowadays, but things didn’t open up [back then]. If I had an opening for every time I should have had an opening I’d have a different career right now. I love my career, but it is a career that I and my reps fashioned in the face of no materials to build with, to put it that way.
The golden age
The late ‘90s and early aughts are hailed today as a golden age for black filmmaking because of the sheer number of films that were released theatrically and the emergence of the black independent film scene. Despite the release of fellow romantic classic “Love Jones” a few years prior, depictions of black life were still relegated primarily to stories about gang violence and life in the inner-city.
Prince-Bythewood: It was an interesting time. “The Best Man” was just about to come out, “Soul Food” had just come out. There was “Menace II Society” and “Boyz N the Hood.” It felt like a renaissance was happening because obviously there was a very long dry spell for black filmmakers. And there was camaraderie. It was exciting to be a part of that and all of us being supportive.
Hall: There were a lot of “Boyz N the Hood,” “Menace II Society” [-style] movies and then after that came the romantic comedies. Filmmaking is largely dictated by audiences. Years before that we had “Love Jones” which was an incredible movie but people didn’t go see it at the time. It became a cult classic later, so they didn’t make a lot more.
Lathan: I feel so blessed to have been a part of that period. But at the same time, I could count on one hand and knew or was friends with all the black actresses who were working. And now 20 years later, I can’t count how many of us are working and I don’t know half of them. I think that is amazing. The fact that we are at a place where it is unacceptable to not have representation is awesome. The online streaming has really helped. There’s more outlets for us and so many different kinds of projects being made.
Epps: The reason why I can see that era as being the golden era is because the bar was set so high. I think that for this generation, they might consider this the golden era. This generation is really carrying the torch and taking it to new heights because now you have all of these different outlets and streamers. And so there’s much more opportunity to create content.
Though the emergence of streaming platforms has allowed for more opportunities in the industry, black romantic movies (with the exception of Stella Meghie’s “The Photograph” and Rashaad Ernesto Green’s “Premature,” both of which cite “Love & Basketball as a major influence) are still relatively rare.
Lathan: The truth is, I don’t think that there’s less of an appetite. I just think that for whatever reason, there’s trends in the business. A raunchy comedy will do great and then they’ll just make a lot of raunchy comedies. Or one romantic movie maybe won’t do great and they’re like “Maybe people don’t have the appetite for it.” I don’t agree, I feel like love is always in style. This is a time where we need to be focusing on love, I believe.
Prince-Bythewood: It continues to be a cyclical thing where we have pockets where there’s “a lot” of films being made. In this industry when they’re making 1,000 films and we only get six, it’s pathetic. I want to see diversity of filmmaking. I don’t want us to only get romantic comedies or comedies. We shouldn’t have to only see ourselves in one way.
Epps: Audiences may respond to more pressing issues, if you will. But at the same time I think you can make a great romantic comedy with black people in it and people are going to want to go see it. Love and relationships never go away and exploring those dynamics is a forever thing.
Prince-Bythewood: We rarely just get a love story. Usually it needs to be a romantic comedy. I don’t think we always need to laugh at ourselves to be able to see ourselves up on screen. I want us to see ourselves in love and be inspired by that and give us something to aspire to. Film is so important to the culture. It can absolutely change culture and the way people think.
Woodard: We go through phases. Remember how sitcoms died? But that’s all people used to look at when I was younger. There are these phases and once something catches on or does well, then the industry just makes more of that constantly. Whatever sells, that’s what people want to make more of.
Union: I would literally watch the exact same cast of “Love & Basketball,” maybe chopped and screwed, spun around a little bit — different characters, different story, but exact same people! We had an amazing cast. I’d love to see those same people do more.