On September 17, 2014 director Gina Prince-Bythewood broke a million hearts. In the days leading up to the 18th Annual Urbanworld Film Festival, a rumor had been gaining traction online that a sequel to her beloved debut film, Love and Basketball, was in the works. A photoshopped image of her leads, Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan, was tagged with an ambitious “coming Valentine’s Day 2015” promise.
The semi-autobiographical story of two friends-turned-lovers sharing mutual hoop dreams was released on April 21, 2000, and filled a void for coming of age films featuring Black leads. Prince-Bythewood, a former basketball and track star, had taken her experience writing for shows like A Different World and Felicity to create a watershed moment in film, thanks to an amazing cast, sensuous music and a nuanced portrayal of love and competition. The story was as complete as you could get, but fans still held out hope to see the fairytale romance of Quincy McCall (Epps) and Monica Wright (Lathan) continued on screen.
However, Prince-Bythewood, then promoting her upcoming film, Beyond The Lights, revealed to reporters standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the red carpet at the SVA Theater that there would be no sequel to Love and Basketball, and confirmed as much on Twitter stating, “Cute picture of Omar and Sanaa though.”
Over the phone six years later, Gina chuckles at the memory (“People are creative.”) but is still humbled at the continued love for her first film written on an old Mac, shot in 35 days on two continents.
“I’m telling you it never gets tired hearing people love the movie,” she says when asked about NBA Champion Steph Curry naming it his favorite basketball movie of all time. “To be someone’s favorite movie is amazing. When I heard that I felt like I had just hit a three at the buzzer. Steph Curry, who I watch and admire so much, dug something that I did. So, I love that.”
To celebrate the 20th Anniversary of this classic film, BET spoke with Director Gina Prince-Bythewood to share 20 things you might not know about her masterpiece.
That’s something nobody knows. The original title was Next Door. And in retrospect it does make sense as a first instinct. But I love the title Love and Basketball. It was interesting because I had balked at first at changing the title and then I did change it. Then when we had our first audience preview the studio was not sold on the title Love and Basketball. They asked the group what they thought of the title and at first people were ambivalent about it, but then they said what else would you call it? By the end of it people said it’s about love and it’s about basketball and the title makes perfect sense. So, we decided to stick with it.
The original inspiration for it was I wanted to write a Black When Harry Met Sally. I wanted to make a love story where I could look up on screen and see myself reflected in it. I really dug that movie. I thought it was such a creative way to tell a story and showed a long period of time with this relationship evolving and going from friends to lovers. Then, of course, the big ending where I’m rooting and praying for these two people to get together.
I cast from my gut. It’s the scariest and most exciting part of the process. Gabrielle Union (Shawnee) had auditioned for Monica but she wasn’t quite right for Monica, but I knew I wanted her in the movie. She hadn’t done a film before [but] there was just something special about her. Regina Hall (Lena Wright), I saw her in The Best Man and I thought Malcolm [Lee] had found a stripper who could act. And it turned out she and Sanaa were friends and that chemistry really showed up on screen. Boris Kodjoe (Jason), when he read with Sanaa, their chemistry was so great that she forgot her lines and that’s exactly what I needed for that character. Someone that could make her feel that uncomfortable. Dennis Haysbert (Zeke McCall), I saw him in a movie called Love Field and thought he was so good in that. Harry Lennix (Nathan Wright), same thing. I’m excited to see how the majority of them have gone on to make great things.
I had auditioned Dawn Staley, Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes. I wanted them in the movie playing [Monica’s] teammates in college, but we had to push our shoot to the summer and they had to train for the Olympics, so we lost out on using them. In retrospect it was good that I gave players who weren’t as known a chance to be in the movie. Maybe having those pros would have taken people out of the movie. Who knows. But I was able to sit with those women after I auditioned them. I spent a half hour with each talking about their lives, what they went through as female ballplayers, how it felt to play overseas, and I was able to put it into the movie.
Sundance Labs put on a reading of the film where Sanaa was reading for Monica and that’s when Spike came aboard as a producer. It was an absolutely magical night. I know one of the big conversations Spike and I had--and we were in agreement--was that we had to find a real ball player to play Monica. It was important to me and it was important to him given that he had just done He Got Game (which starred NBA player Ray Allen). So, the fact that Sanaa ended up in the film is a long tale, but everything happens for a reason and I’m glad it did. Because I can’t picture anyone else playing that role.
It was my first film and it was my baby. It was autobiographical. I was Monica. I needed the casting to be right. Sanaa gave such an incredible reading of the script that I could not get her performance out of my head. But she had never touched a ball. And I knew I could never cast her. I couldn’t set women’s basketball back 10, 15, years by putting someone wack up on the screen.
But I saw 700 people for the role and I could not find Monica. Sanaa had been training with her brother to learn how to play, but you can’t learn in a month. But at some point she said if I’m going to do this training with no guarantee of a part, you’ve gotta get me a trainer. And she was right. So, we got her Colleen Matsuhara, who was an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Sparks. She started training her [but with] still no guarantee of the part. That went on for two to three months and at that point her father, Stan Lathan, called me, and I had a relationship with her dad, and he said this is wrong, this is abusive. You have to decide. And he was right.
When I made the decision to cast Sanaa, Spike thought I was making a mistake. There’s no way he would say that now given her performance, but it did scare me a little bit since he was my producer and he said I was messing up my film. But I saw her work ethic. Don’t get me wrong, when I called her to say she got the part—and she and I laugh about it now-- she says I sounded defeated, ‘Fine you can have it.’ It was not a big joyous thing for either of us because I still had reservations about the basketball [ability] and if she was able to step up. But I had a basketball double who we only used in two shots in the entire film. Sanaa did everything else. To this day I’m still blown away by that.
She was able to use that extremely tough experience in her performance and understand who Monica is, a young woman fighting to be heard.
I knew I wanted to do a cameo. I’m shy and I can’t act so I knew it had to be me playing ball, because that I can do. That [scene] was fifteen takes because I couldn’t turn my brain off. I kept getting the ball. I was like Sanaa, you gotta come harder. I’m not just going to give it to you. The very last take is in the movie and if you pause it you can see me start to laugh, because in the moment it was “Finally, she got it!” But my knees were jacked.
That was interesting because nowadays it would be easy with Go-Pro cameras, but back then it was trial and error. We had a giant contraption that had to be on a basketball player’s head, but that was too unwieldly. Ultimately, we went [with a] handheld camera up at shoulder height. It was something that hadn’t been done before. That was probably the hardest stuff that we shot in the entire film because the choreography was so specific. It was a lot.
I hated the poster that came out. There’s another version that is hanging in my home that I love and fought so hard for. But in retrospect when I look at it, it is just the basketball. It doesn’t say anything about the love and the marketing people were right.
The version in my house is the two of them sitting on the bench. Sanaa has the ball in the crook of her arm and staring right at the camera. Quincy has his arm around her and he’s looking down at her. It’s just a dope shot. If you’re a ballplayer it says everything. But it doesn’t say love.
When they decided they were going with holding the ball and kissing, there were four versions of it, and one where she’s not holding it was one of them. But it was so counter to what the movie was. It felt like it was falling back on tropes that it’s always the men’s story and the woman is the girlfriend. But Monica was equal. Thankfully they heard us on that.
I wanna say I found out after I cast her. If I had known they were dating I think it would have affected the casting. I woulda been freaked out about that. What if they broke up in the middle of shooting? What if they got in a fight? Sometimes they say when you’re a real couple it kills the chemistry, but thankfully that was not the case with Love and Basketball. And props to Sanaa for never trying to use ‘I’m dating the lead.’ They kept it quiet. I figured it out during rehearsal and at that point I’m not going to fire anybody. That was a trip.
In the original script [young Quincy] knocks out her tooth. But once I cast Sanaa, she had made a comment that they always covered up her scar in previous projects. I was just thinking about who Monica was and she takes pride in all the bumps and bruises and I thought it’d be interesting to use what’s there. So, I flipped it.
We went back to the ratings board three times, we kept getting an R. They kept telling us that the sex scene was too real. My argument was that was a good thing. I wanted to show the truth of a girl’s first time. There’s no nudity. The camera is on their faces, what is the issue you’re having? And I gave the example that Meet Joe Black had just come out, and they showed Brad Pitt’s first time and that got a PG-13. Something wasn’t adding up.
Finally, the last shot I cut out was a wide shot where you see one grind. To this day I don’t think it was overtly sexual, but it was real. I remember saying if I don’t get the PG-13 after making this last cut I’m going to keep the R. But it scares me that I thought that way because so many girls wouldn’t have got to see the film because of the R. I felt wounded as an artist but looking back the scene absolutely works. The process just offended me.
Quincy using a condom was always written in. It was her first time and he was probably taught from his early teen years by both his mom and dad to use a condom and don’t get caught. But I think he also wanted to protect Monica. He would never go raw with her. So, I’m proud of that. It added to the care he took with her for her first time.
That was shot in two nights. We went back the second night, and the editor and I cut it together and felt like we were missing some more emotion moments and tight shots. So, we went back the second night to get her hand slapping the ball out of his hand, him grabbing her jersey and all those little touches that helped elevate [it].
In the script the game goes to ten, but what I realized after we started shooting is that would take forever. And going to five felt disrespectful, like I don’t care enough about you to go to ten. Let’s get it over with. And I felt it heightened the stakes. I was happy to make that change.
I did shoot a scene that I cut and it’s the only regret that I have with the movie. I absolutely believe the movie still works, but I cut it for time. It was a scene with Quincy and Kyra (Tyra Banks) in his fly crib on Venice Beach, a baller’s crib. He was trying to tell her that he wanted to quit basketball and go back to school, but she was not trying to hear it. She told him he’s a ball player and that’s what she signed up for. And you got the issues in the relationship. Then you cut to Monica who embraces what he wants to do and you were truly able to see the difference between the two women.
When Monica goes to play overseas, I really wanted to go to Spain but we could not afford it. I had to go look at the back lot of Universal Studios where they had a ‘Spanish set.’ But that’s exactly what it looked like. It didn’t look like Spain, it looked like Tijuana. But that’s what I was going to have to do. And then we got a lifeline.
Virgin Atlantic Airlines said if Tyra Banks (who was playing Quincy’s fiancée, Kyra) agreed to wear a Virgin Atlantic Airlines flight attendant uniform in the movie they would give us all the flights to Barcelona for the crew for free. So, thank you Tyra, because it was her name and visage, not the character. She said yes and that allowed us to shoot in Barcelona.
That may go back to When Harry Met Sally. I feel like the best love stories are when the two characters are equal. I want to be invested in both characters so I wanted them to have issues to deal with separately and influence them as a couple. And in doing all the research that I did, what truthfully continued to come up with the male ballplayers was infidelity. It wasn’t just something that happened, it was a norm. I’m not saying anything about who people are now, but this was back then. I felt like that was a true thing that would’ve happened in that family.
He knew, however, him getting hit in the head was not planned. That was all a real reaction. Props to Dennis for staying in the scene because that bracelet was heavy. That was all real jewelry. Every time I get to that moment I cringe because he really got clocked.
In some of the early drafts I was much harder on the mother character [Alfre Woodard's Camille Wright]. Writing the movie helped me appreciate my mother and see things I didn’t see. I only saw the woman who barely came to my games and would bring a book. Whereas my dad was the loudest one in the crowd. But how my mom raised all of us, we had homemade meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the house was spotless, and on top of that she was also a nurse. What she did, for me to sit and judge her because I was an athlete and I’m gonna have a career was so wack. But as a kid that’s how you think. Doing the movie enabled me to see how great my mom was. She didn’t understand sports, but she didn’t discourage me from it and was there when she could. It healed our relationship.
We get to the scene [in the kitchen] and they do it a couple of times. Alfre misses her on purpose. A fake slap. And I was not getting the reaction I wanted from Sanaa. When you’ve been slapped by your mother—especially as an adult, it only happened to me one time in high school—you go back to being a kid in an instant. Alfre came to me and asked ‘Do you want me to hit her for real?’ As much as I wanted to say yes, I wanted Sanaa to trust me and know that she’d always be safe. So, I said no.
In the next take Alfre slapped her on the leg, but that just made Sanaa laugh. So, I’m sitting at the monitor on the next take and I hear CRACK, Alfre slaps her across the face. I was in such shock, as was Sanaa, but she stayed in the scene. That performance was what I was looking for. As soon as the scene was over they grabbed each other in this incredible hug. Both were crying. Alfre knew what Sanaa needed, but it wasn’t for me to say yes to that. Later on, Sanaa came to me and asked me if I told Alfre to slap her and I was truthfully able to say no.
I loved the music so much in this film. We were almost finished with the movie and could not find a song for that spot [the final 1-on-1 game]. We had score in there that was ok but it wasn’t killing it. Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s album Bitter came out and Terry [editor Terilyn A. Shropshire] was playing it in the edit room. She played ‘Fool Of Me’ and she just dropped it in. Normally, if you put a song in a movie you gotta cut it up and take parts out, but she just laid it in and it was like it was written for the movie. We were running around the edit room so excited that we found it. It was an amazing moment.
I got to meet Maxwell like two years ago in the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental hotel. He walked past me and this whole time I’ve never spoken to him, so I introduced myself and he just lit up. It was very cool to just thank him for allowing the song ["This Woman's Work"] in the film and him thanking me for elevating the song for him. That was very cool.
Follow Gina Prince-Bythewood on Twitter @GPBMadeit
Photo Credit: Warner Bros Studios/ DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images)