In his new column, Notes on Hoops, Hanif Abdurraqib revisits the golden age of basketball movies, shot by shot.
Before any of this unfolds, I must first be honest. Before I can talk romantically about the way a basketball hoop, ornamented by a clean net, glows even as a starless nighttime empties its dark pockets over a cracked court. Before I can talk about the way when a well-worn ball begins to lose its grip it spins wildly in your palm, but is still the ball you have known and therefore you must care for, as you would an elder who whispers the secrets of past and future worlds into your ear. Before that, it must be said that you, reading this now, from whatever cavern you are riding out this ongoing symphony of storms, could beat me in a game of one-on-one if the opportunity arose. If you have ever made two shots in a row on any court anywhere. If you have known, by the sweetness left on your fingers, that a shot was going in before it reached the rim. If you have talked some shit that you could back up, even one single time. I want it to be known that I am getting too old to not surrender to the truth, and I know I am no good in one-on-one. It is not my game and has never been, though it isn’t for a lack of trying. Depending on the day, I might give you some thrilling competition. I don’t want to oversell myself, but I also would never ask you to take it easy on me. That’s a fine line to walk. One that requires an opponent at least a little curious about mercy, as I am sometimes.
Here’s what I will say, for the sake of whatever confidence I still carry around: there are some very strict circumstances that might allow me to take a game off of you, and they would all have to work in my favor. Let’s say we were playing first to five, and let’s say I get the ball first. Let’s say whoever makes a shot gets the ball back, as it should be. Let’s say that I’m feeling good and hit a few long jump shots over your hand, which is maybe skeptically outstretched on the first two shots, but then urgently outstretched on the last one. And then we’ll say that you are a smart enough defender to push up on me and take my jump shot away. I’ve still got enough of a first step to get by you once for a layup, probably. And then, finally, let’s say you are the easily discouraged type. Who, down 4-0, might throw in the towel, ease back and go through the motions. I could steal a winning bucket. But that’s never how it goes, is it? It’s always a game to ten, at least. I’m always finished before we even begin.
It was the held-over bitterness of this knowledge that likely animated my distaste for the iconic ending to Love & Basketball when I first saw it, tucked underneath a blanket on a high school Friday night in the crowded basement of a girl I’d gotten a crush on. Quincy and Monica, lifelong neighbors, rivals, once romantic partners, play one-on-one. By the film’s final act, the two haven’t spoken since their breakup in college four years ago. Quincy is back home, recovering from an ACL tear. Monica, upon visiting him in the hospital, finds out he’s engaged. This sets up the grand emotional collision two weeks before Quincy’s wedding.
It has to be said now that I have great affection for Love & Basketball and all of its romantic movie clichés. It was, when I first saw it, one of the first times I’d seen those clichés played out with a Black cast. Black characters playing a sport I loved, complicated Black families with complications that were not all that close to my own interfamily complications, but were familiar enough. In retrospect, I appreciate that the clichés were given room to flourish here, as they were in all of the mostly white teen rom-coms of the era. We are to believe, somehow, that Monica (Sanaa Lathan) is not attractive, but could be, if she would just do something with her hair. We get that scene—packaged within a school dance, of course—where Monica “becomes” beautiful, her beauty pulled to the surface by the hands of her sister, accented by the pearls her mother places around her neck.
In traditional rom-com fashion, the relationship begins to shatter in a manner that seems like it could be worked out with middle-school-level communication. When we reach the end of the film, with the one-on-one matchup looming, we haven’t been shown Monica longing for Quincy through the intervening years, but, rewatching now, I realize we didn’t need that. The longing was there, in Monica’s reaction when Quincy’s fiancée is revealed.
And with this understanding, we arrive at the closing moment. The two crawl out of their old childhood windows, and meet in the grass between the houses where they first fell in love. There, Monica proclaims she’ll play Quincy one-on-one, for his heart. Quincy, annoyed and exasperated (and, it must be said, still with an injured knee) agrees to play. Quincy wins, 5-4.
This is where I would have liked the film to end, back in my youthful bitterness. Not out of cruelty or out of spite, but because it seemed to me that if this were the ending, they’d both get what they deserved. Both of them, equally unsatisfied with whatever their future holds, would regret hanging their emotional fates on a shaky rim, on a bad knee, on an outdoor court governed by cracks and wind and poor lighting.
I watched Love & Basketball again for the first time in years before writing this. And I have become more romantic with age, it seems. If not age, then with the ache of loss, of wanting to return to a moment I once turned away from. And so, I am more forgiving (welcoming, even) of the moment after the game, when Quincy calls out, when Monica turns back.
But do not ever get it twisted. There are ways I am dangerous on a basketball court, though they are sneaky ways. Nothing that will keep you up at night, but enough to give you constant headaches on the floor. For all the poor decision-making ability in my actual, real life, I was blessed with elite sports decision-making skills. I am a well-above-average passer. I can thread the ball through a space you don’t even know is there. I am lethal as the ball handler in a pick-and-roll, especially if the pick setter times their peeling off from the defender at just the right moment to create a small stitch of chaos, which the two of us might be able to fashion into something beautiful. You certainly do not want to catch me below the foul line in a game where I have any more than two teammates, with enough options to leave you wondering if you should defend the rim or look out for the pass. I have a floater I can get off even over the highest-reaching fingertips, and it goes in enough times for me to think highly of it. Yes, it is true that I am a horrendously streaky shooter, but in the rare hours that are my hours, if I make two in a row, I’m probably going to make a third and there ain’t much that can be done to stop it. I have an intimate relationship with my own many insecurities, and so you can believe that I will be able to spot yours. Even if I can’t make you pay for them, I can see them. And some might say that type of seeing is dangerous.
The problem with most (to all) of these skills is that they don’t serve me much in a one-on-one game. They all rely on the presence of teammates. And even then, very specific teammates. I always played best with athletic bigs who relentlessly ran at the rim, eager to receive a pass in motion, who loved the physicality of setting hard screens. All of my weaknesses are illuminated by isolation. There are hoopers who have the natural ability and body type to play defense, and they don’t have to try very hard to get by. There are those who work hard on defense to make up for their size deficiency. I do not have the size, body type, or natural ability to play defense, nor do I work hard at it. I know how this sounds, but I have just never been all that interested in it. I can go through the motions, and get in the way for long enough to present an average challenge, but not to actually stop anyone. But, more than anything, the issue is that I cannot create my own shot.
Once, early on, a poetry mentor told me that I needed to identify what I was good at, and that I needed to do it on my own. To not only know how to celebrate myself and my writing, but to be aware of when I’m turning away from a signature move in favor of something else. To also revel in that turning away. I was told I would know what I was good at when I started thinking about the things I relied on to get to the exit point of a poem I was wrestling with. A finishing move I’d attempt to deploy, even if the work itself wasn’t finished.
Basketball is like this, too. Good players, even decent players, have at least one move that they know will bail them out of a bad situation. If the double-team is coming and the shot clock is winding down, Damian Lillard or James Harden might do a dribble step back into just enough room to heave a desperate three-pointer. On the courts I grew up on, Lorenzo shot fadeaways from the post. Kenny, more athletic than anyone around him, just jumped into the air and figured it out while cradled by the breeze.
This is the part I never figured out. It’s a part of one-on-one that is vital if you are forced to pick up your dribble in the midst of ferocious defending. Alone, I have no exits. I have nothing with which I can beat back the dilemma of having to be responsible for my own escape. With no one around, and the forest growing longer and darker than it seemed, I build myself a house with no doors, no windows.
At the start of MC Lyte’s “Lyte As a Rock,” Milk Dee asks, “Do you understand the metaphoric phrase ‘Lyte as a Rock?’ It’s explaining, how heavy the young lady is.” He asks this as high school Monica comes into frame in the film’s second act, fiery and dominant on the court for Crenshaw High. I love the entirety of Lyte As a Rock, both the album and the song. But I especially love its opening question, which depends on interpretation. When I was young, I’d hear the song from my brother’s stereo or from the backseat of his car, and I certainly did not understand the phrase as anything but a feeling. Something so immense that it left an absence in the stomach where something else arose—sometimes sinister, sometimes beautiful. Like waking from a dream where I’d imagined I was falling.
Lyte as a father looking a son in the eye and lying about the women he’s been sneaking out of the house to see for years. Lyte as a mother’s hand across her grown daughter’s face, and lyte as the years of rage behind the hand as it cleaves the air. Lyte as dancing with one person while locking eyes with another. Dangerous looking, again. Looking that unlocks a hunger that could be chased for months, for years. I’ve fallen for the trick of this specific feeling. The movies have convinced me that falling in love is something grand, something other than a series of clumsy and/or awkward missteps, and I have often failed to be aware of its pawing at my doorstep. As Quincy was, and then wasn’t, and then was again.
Of course, when I was young, I was in love with everyone. Or willing to fall in love with everyone. There was no complication or tension to it. It was a ruthless pursuit of feeling, and nothing else. Nothing that ever needed to be weighed or acted on. Once I arrived at the glittering, irresistible emotion, I simply settled into it, stagnant, uneager to act.
Because of this, I did not (and likely still do not fully) understand the complications that come with loving someone for a long time. Or wanting someone to love you for a long time. What might arise when the person you’ve fought against desiring finally comes to you in a nighttime that cradles your past and present, and says, This is it. It’s now, or else.
And so, of course, I was young and annoyed when they played for his heart. And now, I know. The heart is always being played for. The heart is always playing itself. The game within the game—Quincy angry, and then hesitant, and then ferocious, and then forgiving. The heart can be a Rubik’s Cube that doesn’t need any help twisting itself into misalignment.
Watching the film as a teenager, I joked that if the outcome never mattered, why would they even play the game? But I was considering it merely from a standpoint of the game’s mechanics. The effort I wouldn’t want to exert, or the shots I’d never be able to get off, even if I tried. I didn’t consider what I do now: the buying of time, where confusion turns into a commitment, where hesitation becomes taking the leap that once seemed equal parts inevitable and impossible.
In most sports movies, no one can actually play the sport. This leaps out most aggressively for a viewer if it is a sport they know, play, love. My football-player pals would groan about a tackler’s form while watching the montage of big hits in the football films of our youth. I had a pal who played baseball, and he’d complain about finger placement on a ball’s seams as the camera zoomed in on a pitcher’s hand.
Basketball films get a lot wrong when it comes to the mechanics of the game itself. A big part of this is because, like most sports films, the actual playing of the sport is secondary (at best) to the larger narrative arc. Love & Basketball is a bit better than most films in its on-court depictions of the game, in that Quincy and Monica’s shooting forms and defensive stances look realistic enough to be possible. But I always watch the defenders. The actors who might simply be extras, or who might be real athletes, instructed by a director to sell the abilities of the film’s main character. Defenders lunge at shadows, are in the air before a pump fake is even fully executed, jump to block shots while drifting backward. I peep this because I understand the motions. It would be comical if I didn’t. Defense is solely an act, a willingness to be fooled.
But what Love & Basketball gets right is the truth of competitive basketball as an act of physical intimacy. One-on-one matchups, entirely isolated or within a game, are intense moments of connection. Tiny feuds that are not without touch and therefore become intimate whether the dueling parties like it or not. In practice at USC, Monica attempts to shake free from her rival. The camera slows down and zooms in close. They pull at each other’s jerseys, grab at each other’s arms. They collide, separate, and collide again.
When I play, I sweat. I sweat through my shirt with a ferocity and generosity that means my sweat might become yours during our tangling, and yours might become a part of mine. It would be easy to compare this intimacy to a fight, to the moment afterward when you assess the blood staining a shoe or a pair of pants, the damage, mapping out your wounds. But I think of it instead like dancing. Specifically, dancing in a packed and enthusiastic space, the point when you drift from whomever you came with and just find someone who is doing their best to mirror your energy. Sweat evenly exchanged, and it is clumsy, until it isn’t.
The final one-on-one scene in Love & Basketball gets this right, too. The point when the game decidedly gets serious. Trash talk replaced by silence, which is then replaced by slow, heavy, methodical breathing. A person leaning their weight against the sturdy tower of another’s body. Toward the end, when the legs have given whatever it is they could give, there is the turn. To stay upright, or to grab onto the waist of someone you are too tired to keep chasing. Now, tell me again about the distance between competition and romance, between rage and necessity. Tell me the exact point where the distance collapses and everything blurs, for a moment, before something new comes into focus.
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio.