The Games People Play; In 'Love and Basketball,' the conventional and the cliche are slam-dunked in favor of a fresh, authentic take on passion, ambition and coming of age.


"Love and Basketball" is "Hoop Dreams," "A Star is Born" and every John Hughes movie you've ever seen, all rolled into ... well, a ball. In anyone else's hands, this would not be a good thing.

But first-time director Gina Prince-Bythewood has taken the conventional coming-of-age romance genre and invigorated it with such vivid characters and such alertness to the culture she's representing, that she makes what might have been derivative into something brand new.

Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan play Quincy McCall and Monica Wright, who meet as 11-year-olds and bond over their mutual love for basketball.

At first Quincy doesn't know whether to be impressed or intimidated by a girl who shoots hoops just like a boy. But after some thought, he decides he should ask her to be his girlfriend. Monica, who has just moved in next door to Quincy, agrees, and suggests that they seal the deal with a kiss. Their first kiss ends in a wrestling match on the front yard -- which pretty much sums up the dynamic that will play out between them into adulthood.

"Love and Basketball" follows Quincy and Monica as they pursue parallel courses: They both win scholarships to the University of Southern California, where their healthy-sized egos get a reality check from older, better players.

And they both have an eye on the pros, although their futures are dramatically different. It's assumed that Quincy will wind up in the NBA (where his father, played by Dennis Haysbert, is a star), but Monica's career is not so assured. Prince-Bythewood gracefully evokes the sexism that has vexed women's basketball, a situation that thankfully is beginning to change.

But the cardinal question of "Love and Basketball" is whether Quincy and Monica will get out of their own way and realize they were meant for each other, and it's a question that Prince-Bythewood keeps dangling with finesse. None of the obstacles that are thrown in the couple's path -- or that they throw in their own path -- feel forced or contrived. "Love and Basketball" is a portrait of two ambitious young people trying to find a balance between their hard-won independence and intimacy.

"Love and Basketball" is graced with a terrific ensemble of players. Scenes between Lathan and Alfre Woodard, who plays her stay-at-home mother, are particularly good, evoking the curious dynamic of tension and unconditional love that characterizes so many relationships of mothers and daughters who have chosen different paths.

As good as her co-stars are, "Love and Basketball" belongs to Lathan, who has been a supporting actor in the past but claims her rightful role of leading lady here with uncommon assurance.

Her Monica is an attractive, complex, at times self-destructive woman, whose competitive edge masks an even deeper vulnerability. Lathan embodies all of these qualities in a wonderfully nuanced performance. Reportedly, Prince-Bythewood found a way to work a real-life scar on Lathan's chin into the plot, creating a heroine and a leading lady who can wear their scars proudly, as badges of honor for surviving in an often hostile world.

Even more refreshing, the inevitable makeover scene, in which Monica sheds her tomboy look for something a bit more incendiary, is devoid of the cliches that characterize so many teen-Cinderella fantasies. She's the bomb, all right, but nothing, especially male approval, is going to get in the way of her game.

True to its title, "Love and Basketball" is equal parts gooey stuff and equal parts hoops. Prince-Bythewood films the game and locker room sequences expertly, fully capturing the sport's energy and competitive buzz. (The women's locker room scenes are particularly fun, proving that towel snaps aren't just for guys anymore.)

It's appropriate that Spike Lee is one of "Love and Basketball's" producers: In the best sequence of his basketball movie, "He Got Game," Lee set a series of shots of young people playing basketball to a soaring Aaron Copland piece. It's as if Prince-Bythewood plucked two kids out of that montage and chose to tell their story, which she has done with verve, taste and great care.

One last thought: I've said it before -- about such films as "love jones," "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" and "The Best Man" -- but I'll say it again: If film-goers -- black, brown, white and every shade in between -- who love screen romance don't flock to "Love and Basketball," it's their loss. The term is "crossover appeal," and if any movie has it, this one does.

'Love and Basketball

'Starring Omar Epps, Sanaa Lathan, Alfre Woodard, Dennis Haysbert

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood

Rated PG-13 (sexuality and language)

Running time 124 minutes

Released by New Line Cinema

Sun score * * * 1/2

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