I don't think it's too much of an exaggeration to say that, as a result of Title IX, a new kind of woman has emerged upon the world stage--a fierce competitor who can set a pick, dribble behind her back, duke it out under the basket and go one-on-one with anyone who still thinks that basketball is a boy's game. There'd been great women athletes before, of course, but never this many of them, and not with this kind of institutionalized confidence. Now, with a league of their own, women b-ballers can foresee a life beyond college, and girl b-ballers can lose themselves in their very own hoop dreams. But at what price? What have women who got game had to give up? Everything and nothing, according to a new film by Gina Prince-Bythewood. Love & Basketball, which stars Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps as a pair of friends/lovers who've been guarding each other since they were kids, is a Cinderella story in which that bouncy orange sphere is in constant danger of turning into a pumpkin. Lathan's Monica is a newfangled rag-girl who'd rather stay home and practice her jump shot than attend the ball. And Epps' Quincy is an oldfangled Prince Charming who wants to squeeze Monica into a glass slipper. "All's fair in love and basketball," he tells her at one point, not realizing that Monica may just whup his ass at both. Prince-Bythewood divides her story into four quarters, which leaves us praying it doesn't go into overtime, but each quarter has at least one moment that'll make it into the highlight reel--e.g., Monica and Quincy's first-quarter kiss, which the 11-year-olds treat like a homework assignment. By the second quarter, Quincy's an NBA prospect who sits back and waits for the world (especially the world's women) to come to him, but Monica's stuck in the tomboy years, perhaps forever. Her housewife-mom, brought to poignant life by Alfre Woodard, wants her to put some bows in her hair, worried about a daughter who has such a serious basketball jones.
We worry about her too, and the movie, to its credit, sticks with Monica, allowing Quincy to fade into the background a little. That it fudges the question of which should come first, love or basketball--apparently, they can tie--is easy to forgive when you stop to consider that this may be the first movie since Personal Best that treats contemporary female athletes with the respect they deserve. Somewhere between Title IX and Cloud Nine, Love & Basketball shoots and scores.