First-time feature filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood divides Love & Basketball into four quarters, and like a really satisfying game, the score at the end of each is no indication of who will win at the final buzzer.
The love part is the bounding and rebounding relationship between Quincy and Monica, next-door neighbors who tussle and spar as Los Angeles kids (first quarter), then mature into strong-willed sweethearts, played with sparky chemistry by Omar Epps (The Wood) and Sanaa Lathan (The Best Man). The basketball part is the ardor each lover has for the game: Quincy, the son of a famous NBA player (Dennis Haysbert, who plays slippery men so smoothly), has been groomed from childhood to take the court, as well as the accompanying perks of a good college (second quarter), great money, and willing women. Monica, with none of her neighbor's opportunities but every bit of his talent, nevertheless has remained devoted to her passion, disciplining herself in ways that confound her ladylike, stay-at-home mother (Alfre Woodard, once again telegraphing maternal concern with her big, communicative eyes).
He needs to learn about fidelity; she needs remedial work in flexibility (third quarter). The two are hard-driving, competitive professionals as absorbed in their work as, say, lawyers or journalists. Can they work out their problems? That's the fourth-quarter suspense. On paper, the conflicts may look overdiagrammed Prince-Bythewood put in years as a writer on such TV series as A Different World, and, like many ''uplifting'' films that come out of the Sundance Institute, you can see pencil marks from the playbook on screen. But the story of Quincy and Monica, their personal clashes and their athletic dreams, breaks away from other sports-themed dramas, thanks to the clarity and dash of Prince-Bythewood's agile directorial style and the exciting originality of the subject. We just haven't seen characters like these before. Lathan, charismatic and beautifully strong, holds the screen in every scene, but the perceptive supporting cast is equally alive, including Debbi Morgan (Eve's Bayou) as Quincy's mother, who's married to an errant man rather than an NBA god, and Harry J. Lennix (Titus) as Monica's mild but proud father.
Love & Basketball gets a boost from the recent popularity of women's sports as spectator thrill, no doubt about it. The speed and wiliness of the game itself ensure that movies about men who shoot hoops are exciting, but the novelty of watching women bring their own physical grace to the contest is (as WNBA fever has proven) a turn-on. But Prince-Bythewood is also vigilant and honest about the hard sacrifices made in pursuit of sexual equality. And for that, she scores big in her first pro game. A-