I love sports movies. Always have. I still tear up the moment Rudy takes the football field for the first and only time of his infamous college football career at Notre Dame, get chills as soon as Rocky yells, "Adriaannnneeee" after his marathon fight with Apollo Creed, and shake off the overwhelming feeling of nostalgia whenever I watch The Sandlot.
Look back over the course of sports movie history and you'll find plenty of thrilling, heartstring-pulling, tear-jerking, inspirational works of art featuring athletes in all their glory. But in Hollywood, when you talk about "sports movies," it seems like the assumption is you're talking about "men's sports movies." Films that focus on female athletes, like A League Of Their Own and Million Dollar Baby, are exceptions to the rule, and there are only a handful of them.
And then there's Love & Basketball, which is not only about a female athlete but about one who happens to be African-American, and who also happens to excel at basketball even more than the movie's main male character. These three simple things may not be priorities when it comes to listing the best sports movies ever, but they are important—and, even today, they're still rare to see.
In 2000, when Love & Basketball hit theaters, I was a senior in college. I went to see it with a few members of the women's basketball team. We ate it up, every last second of it, no popcorn needed. As athletes with varying athletic abilities, each one of us found an element we could relate to in the film, whether it was fighting for respect on a playground basketball court full of boys or dealing with the assumptions that go hand-in-hand with being taller, tougher, and little more rough around the edges.
Love & Basketball follows Monica Wright (Sanaa Lathan), a tomboyish baller with raw hoop skills and tenacious determination. Monica struggles to reconcile her competitive and aggressive style of play on the basketball court with her off-the-court female sensibility. "You jump in some guys face, you talk smack, and you get a pat on your ass. But because I'm a female, I get told to calm down and act like a lady," she laments. "I'm a ball player."
The challenges extend to her relationship with Quincy McCall (Omar Epps), the son of a NBA player and an aspiring pro himself, who expects Monica to put him above all else—even basketball. Will Monica set her dreams and sports career aside for the sake of love? That was the expectation for women, even at the turn of the millennium, but what I love about Love & Basketball is how it flips the predictable romantic cliché. Instead of Quincy having the All-Star NBA career, the movie's final scene shows Monica being called to the court for the starting line up of a WNBA game as a member of the Los Angeles Sparks. The camera pans away to the front row, where Quincy is sitting courtside holding their baby daughter.
It's a Hollywood ending that was made possible by the real-life creation of the WNBA. Love & Basketball was released just three years after the WNBA's inaugural season. That historic milestone for women's sports was incorporated into the movie's plot, and it's because of the WNBA that Monica is able to pursue her dream of becoming a professional basketball player. Before that moment in the film, she settles for some desk job at a bank and her soul slowly begins to crumble.
"What's kind of amazing is when I first wrote the script, the WNBA was not in existence," Gina Prince-Bythewood, the movie's writer and director, told me over the phone recently. "And so, when it did I wrote a new ending to the piece. I wanted to show that a woman could and should have it all. They should have love and a career, and it's okay to aspire for both. And it's possible to have both. And it's normal to have both. You shouldn't have to choose one or the other. I wanted to give a different narrative for young girls and women that you can aspire to have it all. Having Quincy in the stands, too, you know—his dream didn't pan out but he was right there cheering and supporting his wife and her love of the game and her talent. That was an important message, too."
The themes that Prince-Bythewood put on full display in Love & Basketball—gender inequality in sports, lack of professional options for female ballers, women being judged for being too athletic, having to choose between sports career and family—jumped straight from the screen and seeped into our young female consciousness. They were so powerful at that time and, in some ways, are even more so today.
While women have made immense progress in the world of sports over the last few decades, the gap between respect for female athletes and male athletes still feels wide. The U.S. Women's National Soccer Team is fighting for equal pay. The WNBA, now in its 20th season, is still fighting for relevance and coverage. Strong female athletes like Brittney Griner, Caster Semenya and even Serena Williams are relentlessly scrutinized and still criticized for being too masculine.
"When [women] talk about the film with me, they say they saw themselves reflected on the screen for the first time and that they were able to see that it was okay for them to be who they were," Prince-Bythewood said. "It's OK to be an athlete, it's OK to be strong, it's OK to be aggressive and go after what you want. That's the biggest impact to me—that I normalized girls in sports. It's not a weird anomaly [to be a female athlete], it's OK."
"When [the WNBA] first started, it was so precarious," she added. "And I remember when they would do write-ups about a game, they wouldn't just put the score but they would also put the attendance, you know? Early on, it just felt as if the league was in an unstable situation. The fact that it's now going on 20 years later and the talent just keeps getting better and better, it's just a beautiful thing to see."
What Love & Basketball celebrated and highlighted sixteen years ago was a female protagonist who succeeded both on and off the court, without having to compromise who she was as an athlete. So many female athletes today are under the microscope for how they look, how they portray themselves, what they say, and how they say it in social media and the press. Monica's character stayed true to herself, and in Love & Basketball's world, that was rewarded, not punished. But what I really love about this film above all else, and why I will always place it in the top five of my favorite sports movie list, is the feeling I got when I left that movie theater sixteen years ago: pride in being a female athlete.
I was never going to be in the WNBA. I knew that. But at least this movie showed me other women could. Women could be the breadwinners. Women could have a sports career and a family. Women could be athletes and moms. Women could rise above stereotypes and unfair treatment in sports and succeed. I had yet to see that kind of story portrayed on the big screen, and even now, few movies have followed the example of Love & Basketball.
"There's so many sports movies that I love that don't have any women in them and I can enjoy them," Prince-Bythewood said. "You would hope that films centered around women could have the same impact, and men could watch them and shed their beliefs that women shouldn't play sports, or they are not as good, or it's not as interesting. It's not true."
Talking with Prince-Bythewood also got me thinking that it's time for a successor to Love & Basketball—a movie that can pass on the same feelings of inspiration and pride I had to a younger generation. After all, female athletes still have stories to share, too. Look around. They're being written every day.
"There are more women achieving higher ranks in Hollywood," said Prince-Bythewood, who has been part of the growing chorus calling for more diversity in the film industry. "And it's going to take filmmakers who have a specific vision of a story that they want to tell. For me, I grew up as an athlete and that absolutely defines me as a writer and director, and how I conduct myself in Hollywood. It all goes back to being on the court or being on the track. There's the new show Pitch that's coming out [on television] soon, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out, what the reception is and who watches it."
I've seen the commercials for Fox's upcoming show about a black woman pitching in Major League Baseball and I'll say this: I know I'm not the only one who'll be watching. If it's anything like Love & Basketball, I'm all in.
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