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'Basketball' scores two points for romance

It's a familiar story: girl loves boy, boy loves girl, but boy and girl are also both in love with someone else. In the case of "Love and Basketball," written and directed by Gina Prince-Blythewood, however, the "someone else" is a something else: basketball.

While "Basketball" does not exactly rival such great sports movies as "Hoop Dreams" and "The Program," Prince-Blythewood does an excellent job in setting this movie apart from the others. And while it does have definite weaknesses, the movie tells a charming story of Monica Wright (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy McCall (Omar Epps) as they go from being 11-year-olds competing during pick-up basketball through high school and college and into their professional lives.

Prince-Blythewood divides "Basketball" into four quarters, just like an actual game. The first quarter is 1981, when Monica and her family move into an affluent black community next door to Quincy. The two fight to show who cares most about the game. In the second quarter, set seven years later, Monica and Quincy (now known simply as "Q") are high school seniors, the leaders of their respective teams at Crenshaw High School. They still appear as friends, but in that very awkward "fighting like a married couple" sense.

Quick Cut
Title: "Love and Basketball"
Directed by:
Gina Prince-Blythewood
Starring:
Omar Epps
Sanaa Lathan
Grade: B

That all changes, however, at the Spring Dance, when Quincy finally sees Monica for who she really is, a beautiful young lady who is not just about basketball. The two lock eyes, come home early and wind up making love in Monica's bedroom. While the love blossoming between the two is powerful, it also suffers from the movie's key weakness: making the sentimental scenes appear incredibly cheesy.

Fast forward to the third quarter, when Monica and Quincy are freshmen at the University of Southern California. Quincy is once again the star, while Monica needs to fight her way to the top. But when Quincy finds out that his father (Dennis Haysbert) has been cheating on his mother, things change drastically for the two lovers, forcing them to question their individual priorities.

The chemistry between Epps and Lathan is what makes this movie. While Q occasionally lapses into stereotypical movie-athlete form, Lathan's portrayal of Monica is touching and powerful, especially since women are seldom portrayed as athletes in sports movies.

Most of the movie's weaknesses, however, come from Monica and Q's interaction with the supporting cast. Haysbert's scenes with Epps, especially after his cheating is revealed, appear trite at best and downright unbelievable at worst. Similarly, Lathan's scenes with her parents and teammates do little to develop her character. She does not appear to have friends of her own and her family relationships remain underdeveloped through the entire movie.

But the charm that Lathan and Epps portray makes forgiving the weaknesses easy. "Basketball" may not be not a slam dunk, but it is still a potential contender for sports movie greatness.

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