Love & Basketball is a film that easily goes down in history as an understated classic in African-American film. The Gina Price-Blythewood written-and-directed romantic sports drama is always mentioned amongst classic Black films, as her goal was “to do a black When Harry Met Sally.”
The semi-autobiographical film focuses on Monica Wright, a young black girl with dreams to pursue a career in basketball. She meets and befriends her neighbor Quincy McCall, played by Omar Epps, who is also a basketball player. Although maintaining a friendship for years, Quincy doubts Monica will play basketball like him professionally. They continue to play basketball in high school and college, and it was then that their relationship would develop into a more romantic one. The two would fall out later due to their careers taking precedence over everything. In the end, however, the two come together, despite having moved on in their lives, choosing to spend their lives together, and Wright ends up becoming a WNBA star.
The part of Monica Wright was played by Sanaa Lathan, although Gabrielle Union originally auditioned for the role (she would eventually be cast as Epps’s high school love interest). Lathan has been celebrating the 20th anniversary of the film’s release along with the rest of the cast and the director, as they’ve reflected on their time while working on set. In celebrating the film’s anniversary, a resurfaced interview with Nathan on CBS has come about that reveals she had a bit of a hard time while filming.
“I was miserable. I can laugh about it now,” said the Brown Sugar star. “I got the job and I think Gina [Prince-Bythewood] finally got to the point where she had to hire somebody. It’s almost like she hired me because she couldn’t find somebody else.” Producers wanted a real basketball player to be the actor, attempting to follow the Ray Allen model in the Spike Lee produced-film “He Got Game.” “There wasn’t a lot of joy and there wasn’t a lot of trust in me. It was her baby and it was her first time directing. It was a big deal for her and nobody knows me then really. She gets to the point where she makes this decision with me, but I felt like the default.”
Lathan added, “I had to go through so much to get the part and in all the basketball scenes, [they] surrounded me with real ballplayers,” said Lathan. “There was a lot of crying behind the scenes for me.”
She went on to reveal that she didn’t have a background in playing basketball prior to being cast for the film. “The hardest challenge was getting the job, which I think weirdly prepared me for Monica,” said the actress. “I had a dance background, but I had never picked up a basketball. Gina and the producers really wanted a basketball player that could act as opposed to an actress they could teach to play basketball. I was very lucky.”
Continuing, she said “I did a staged reading of the script when she was still working on the script. She couldn’t get my stage reading out of her head. She wasn’t auditioning a lot of actresses. I would always get to the last step and then they would throw in another basketball player. They were giving the basketball player acting coaches. They would always do a basketball audition for me, which was just the worst. Finally, I demanded that if you want me to continue, you’ll have to get me a basketball coach. They gave me an assistant coach for the LA Sparks and she had me training five hours a day before I got the job.”
The actress and Price-Blythewood would end up bonding throughout shooting the film, and working together in the future on films like HBO’s Disappearing Acs in 2000 and Nappily Ever After in 2018.