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.