Gotta Play Defense: Love & Basketball, Glory Road

I’ve always been more or less neutral towards basketball and futbol. Though both sports are momentum-driven and require their athletes to move with lightning speed pretty much all the time, I never took to either sport via telecasts.

March Madness comes and goes on TV without a glance from me; same thing with the NBA Finals. A friend of mine is a huge basketball fan and while I was working on my thesis, he would frankly insist that shooting hoops was superior to making touchdowns…conceptually and in actuality. Basketball, he argued, demands a lot more out of its players than football does its own. Excelling at the former sport utilizes a combination of intelligence, athletic ability, and talent that surpasses that of the latter.

I still love the gridiron game, but I have to admit that my appreciation for basketball has increased considerably after watching Love & Basketball (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2000) and Glory Road (James Gartner, 2006).

I vaguely remember Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film being in the theatres. As it turns out, I was less familiar with its plot than I was with the film’s place in the year 2000. Prior to watching the film, I had not read up on what the film was about–I knew there was basketball and a romance subplot. I didn’t know that the lead female character would be playing ball too.

Written and directed by Prince-Bythewood, Love & Basketball follows Monica Wright (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy McCall (Omar Epps) from childhood to early adulthood as they pursue their NBA dreams and grapple with the distractions and tensions commensurate with realizing their respective goals. The film is divided into four parts. It begins with Monica and Quincy as pre-teens (played by Kyla Pratt and Glenndon Chatman respectively), establishing how they first meet. She’s the new next-door neighbor and can play ball just as hard as he can.

The second, third, and fourth sections of the film focus on a different period of their lives. “Second Quarter” covers the 1988 basketball season at Crenshaw High School where Monica plays on the girls team and Quincy the boys. “Third Quarter” spans the 1988-1989 schoolyear at USC where Monica and Quincy also play basketball as freshmen. The “Fourth Quarter” looks at both characters’ lives in 1993; Monica has been playing in Spain for seven months and Quincy is recovering from a torn ACL injury he sustained while playing for the Lakers. The love component to the story manifests itself through Monica and Quincy as they realize that they mean more to each other than default friend.

In addition to developing the mutual attraction and affection between the two main characters, Prince-Bythewood’s film also uses this relationship to raise questions about gender roles and equality. Monica isn’t simply characterized as a tomboy or even slightly more athletic than her mother would like. She is feisty, temperamental, and a fighter. Quincy’s “personality” is less complex and functions more as a counterpart to Monica. In fact, as sports movies go, Love & Basketball virtually reverses the gender dynamics of its two primary student-athletes–at the very least, it assigns certain qualities typically associated with the (male) athlete to Monica rather than to Quincy.

For instance, the object of most sports films is to present a coming-of-age or redemption narrative by forcing its protagonist (an individual or a team) to learn the hard way how to succeed. Whoever is a bit too cocky, a bit too introverted, or a bit too unruly are all made to recognize and then relinquish or re-appropriate those characteristics. Along this journey, the protagonist must overcome obstacles and conflicts such as his own pride or fear as well as others’ critcisms.

Love & Basketball re-works this narrative pattern by offering cockiness and stubborness to Monica. She exhibits the attitude of an athlete who prioritizes the game above all else. Quincy, on the other hand, provides a contrast to that mentality by assuming somewhat of feminized position within their relationship. She is “better” at the game than he is; and while he still participates in archetypically male behavior (with female characters), the film is more interested in defining him in terms of or against his father, a former Clippers player (Dennis Haysbert) who proves to be a less than ideal role model. When the like-father-like-son mentality that Quincy had been carrying all his life suddenly fails to suffice, his insecurities become too much for him.

I would argue that Prince-Bythewood’s film is more about Monica and Quincy as individual basketball players on a thematic level. Furthermore, it is the way in which their lives play out on and off the court that builds and fuels the viewer’s concern. I’m not one to pull out the “F” word lightly, but I think it’s relevant here. From a narrative and ideological perspective, Love & Basketball can be considered a feminist film. That the film features a real high school (Crenshaw) that is known for its great girls and boys basketball teams and real USC women’s basketball players, that the story depicts Monica as more of the athlete (including being shouted at repeatedly by her USC coach) is just part of it.

I think the film has feminist undertones because it allows basketball to serve metaphorical purposes for Monica instead of Quincy. I don’t want to give away the last important scene in the film (or the film’s ending for that matter) because I really enjoyed Love & Basketball and highly recommend it. I will, however, say that the game means to Monica something that is usually associated with young males.

This film conveys the basketball-is-not-just-a-game message but through the eyes of a female. I’m sure some feminists would find it problematic that the film can’t tell this story without making Monica adopt a few male-athlete personality traits but I have no complaints. I don’t even mind the love thread–in the end, it works out better than I could have imagined. So go Netflix it or Blockbuster it today!

Because I am not very familiar with basketball’s game-play terminology and structure, I gave myself a crash course. According to the wikipedia entry on the sport, “Games are played in four quarters of 10 (international) or 12 minutes (NBA). College games use two 20 minute halves while most high school games use eight minute quarters. Fifteen minutes are allowed for a half-time break, and two minutes are allowed at the other breaks. Overtime periods are five minutes long. Teams exchange baskets for the second half….. games generally take much longer to complete than the allotted game time, typically about two hours.”

No wonder the games in Glory Road were two halves of twenty minutes each. Jerry Bruckheimer, the man who brought Remember the Titans (Boaz Yakin, 2000) to audiences, also produced Glory Road.

Based on the true story of Texas Western College’s 1966 basketball team path to the NCAA Men’s Division I championship game, Glory Road chronicles the journey a coach and his players take as they make NCAA history in a time when college athletics were not integrated across the board. After leading his girls’ high school basketball team in Fort Worth, Texas to state championship, Don Haskins (Josh Lucas) is offered a coaching position at Texas Western College. Despite the school’s less than impressive budget and record, Don cannot pass up an opportunity to coach Division I basketball. He and his family move to El Paso and the film proper begins.

I’m not going to delve into the plot points of Glory Road or how well it brought reality and history to screen because I would like to discuss or rather explain how watching this film has enabled me to view basketball differently (refer to this article on those matters). Like all sports-inspirationals, this film must balance game-play scenes and non-game-play scenes in a manner that allows for character development and advances the plot. Moreover, the game-play sequences, whether in practice or an actual game, have to be timed and edited to maximize and emphasize rhythm, momentum, and suspense. Slow-motion and a variety of angles and shot scales are obviously the methodology of the day.

While Love & Basketball includes competently shot and edited game-play sequences, they function more on the behalf of the characters, either to further the plot or to highlight the way that mistakes affect them. In the case of Glory Road, though, the games don’t just exist in the story world–they also occupy a here-and-now space for the audience watching the film. In other words, those scenes are not just reenactments of real events; they are also genuine basketball plays. From the execution to the cinematography to the editing, they have to come alive on screen and convey a sense of happening “live” right then and there. Even though the viewer knows how the film is going to end and that the game-play isn’t live…if that makes sense. ^*^

There are six games, including the NCAA championship game, and a newspaper-headline-montage of victories featured in the film. At first, I was just getting caught up in the narrative tension of these game scenes. But, by the fourth game sequence, I was paying more attention to the players’ (aka actors’) bodies and how they moved. My friend wasn’t wrong about basketball game-play. Not to suggest that football players don’t also have to employ intelligence, athletic ability, and lightning-speed reactions, but football is such a mechanized sport that successfully executing plays hinges less on improvisation–not to the same degree as it would in basketball.

Teamwork is just as important in basketball as it is in football, but basketball players–if I understood my friend correctly–have more leeway in terms of their next move. Thus, their teammates have to respond in the blink of an eye. Reaction time this quick requires the same kind of chemistry that characterizes a good jazz or rock band. They don’t just play their respective instruments and make their respective melodies at the same time. They play together. Glory Road addresses this very issue in the game against Seattle. After an incident involving racial slurs on a hotel wall, the black players on the Texas Western Miners’ team let their fear and anger distract them. Consequently, their game weakens significantly when they play Seattle. It takes a post-game locker room rant and monologue before the boys get their heads back on straight–the white boys too.

Of course, a football team cannot score or effectively move the ball ten yards within four tries if its players haven’t developed trust and chemistry. But it isn’t the same and having watched Glory Road, I now understand…even if I can’t quite articulate it the way I would like.

I’ll probably be watching the game sequences again in the near future when I tackle another basketball movie. Perhaps by then, I’ll have something more pithy.

FYI/P.S.: Derek Luke plays Bobby Joe Hill in Glory Road. He also played Boobie Miles in the football film Friday Night Lights (Peter Berg, 2004). That’s two sports films. I wonder if there’s a futbol film lined up in the future. I wonder if he’s told his agent, “no more sports films!” Kidding.

One thought on “Gotta Play Defense: Love & Basketball, Glory Road

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