Love & Basketball
Liara Tamani is the author of the acclaimed Calling My Name, which was a 2018 PEN America Literary Award Finalist and SCBWI Golden Kite Finalist, and All the Things We Never Knew, which was a 2020 Kirkus Best YA Book of the Year. She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College and lives in Houston.
Lily Percy, host: Hello, fellow movie fans. I’m Lily Percy, and welcome to our last episode together. It feels so right that we end this podcast by talking about a movie that I love dearly, Love & Basketball, with the wonderful writer Liara Tamani. As always, if you haven’t seen the movie, don’t worry. We’re gonna give you all the details you need to follow along.
[music: “Soul Sista” by Bilal]
Love & Basketball, written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, is a movie that gets better and better with each viewing. The first time that I saw it, I was in college, and I was so struck by the relationship at the center of the movie — the love story. But the older that I get, the more that I marvel at all of the things that I didn’t see then — the way in which the character of Monica is a star and a role model for all of us as women, of what we can become even from a young age.
[excerpt: Love & Basketball]
The movie tells the story of Monica Wright, played by Sanaa Lathan, and Quincy McCall, Omar Epps, two neighbors who grow up next to each other, first as friends, sometimes as enemies and competitors on the basketball court, who over time start to see each other in new ways. They start to fall in love with each other. While Monica and Quincy are falling in love, they’re also trying to navigate the pressures that come with trying to make a career out of something that they love, basketball. That’s already stressful enough, without the added pressures that their parents bring.
[excerpt: Love & Basketball]
Parental pressure is something that the writer Liara Tamani knows very well. When she was growing up, she felt that she needed to become a lawyer, just like her father — she even went to Harvard and started law school; then saw Love & Basketball, and the movie completely changed her life. She realized watching it that this wasn’t what was right for her — that she had to listen to herself, to listen to what her body was telling her, and to change her career.
Well, I’m very excited, as I told you, to be here talking about a movie that I love, Love & Basketball. And I’m really, really excited to take you back in time to the year 2000. And I’d love for you to just close your eyes and think about where you were when you first saw that movie, how you were feeling, who you were with — any memories that come to mind. And I’m just gonna ask you to do that for ten seconds, and I’ll chime back in.
So tell me what came to your mind.
Liara Tamani: That I was completely lost. [laughs] It’s funny now, but it wasn’t, then. And at the time, I wouldn’t even have articulated it like that; I just knew that I was way more than sad. And it was my first time being in that place, a place I didn’t know really how to name, but I felt a deep darkness. I was living in Cambridge, in my first year at Harvard Law School, but I did not want to be a lawyer. And I had known for years that I did not want to be a lawyer, even before I applied, really.
Tamani: But my father was a lawyer, and I was expected to follow in his footsteps. And really from a young age, I was a high achiever, and I was really very attached to that part of my identity. And so, for me, becoming a lawyer equaled guaranteed success. [laughs] But I was starting to awaken to the reality that not being connected to what I loved came at a cost, a huge cost, really — happiness.
But, going back to the theater, I was with my girls, I was with my friends — we were excited to see it. We were looking forward to it for weeks, just because it was a love movie, and a love movie featuring Black characters. We had other Black love movies at the time, like Love Jones and even Brown Sugar.
Percy: Poetic Justice…
Tamani: Poetic Justice! Oh my gosh.
Percy: Poetic Justice, I remember going with my girlfriends to see that.
Tamani: So good. But the familiar songs; I think of, when you say Poetic Justice, the braids, the hairstyles — you know.
Percy: Oof, Tupac. Yes. [laughs]
Tamani: Oh, Tupac, the jokes, the outfits, the language — all of that, and just seeing people who looked like me loved, being loved, and loving other people up on the big screen — it’s a big deal. And I remember, with Love & Basketball, “Love and Happiness” by Al Green playing even before the first shot was up on the screen.
[music: “Love and Happiness” by Al Green]
That song played, and I was like, ooh. It took me there. It took me out of my misery, and it just swept over me, the feeling of love, and made me just so ready to take it all in.
Percy: There’s such intention behind it, because Gina chooses that song at the beginning as this kind of entryway into this childhood, this suburban childhood that these kids are experiencing.
Tamani: Yes. And each scene unfolds — the movie opens up and the kids are there, and she walks over and wants to play ball with her neighbors…
Percy: And she’s new to the neighborhood; they just moved there.
Tamani: She’s new to the neighborhood, yeah.
[excerpt: Love & Basketball]
They were like, “OK, cool. You can play.” But then, when they see she’s a girl — she takes off her hat and she has long hair — they’re like, “Oh, girls can’t ball,” whatever.
[excerpt: Love & Basketball]
[music: “Candy Girl” by New Edition]
But then the song “Candy Girl” plays, New Edition’s [sings] “Candy Girl” when she’s schooling them — like, she schools them. [laughs] And I thought that was a perfect song.
Throughout the movie, it’s song after song. MC Lyte’s, I think “Lyte as a Rock,” when she then is the older character, when she’s Sanaa Lathan, and she’s schooling girls on the basketball court at school. The whole song — they’re very, very intentional with the music, and it was a beautiful thing to experience, for sure.
Percy: So it sounds like when you went to see it for the first time, you went really to have this lovely, celebratory experience with your girlfriends. And then what you experienced was really personal.
Tamani: Yeah — what I was not ready for was the gem hiding inside of that romance. And really it wasn’t even hiding — it’s at the center of the movie.
Percy: It is.
Tamani: It’s at the center of the movie, this girl who is going after her dreams. And my first year of law school, it’s like — you’re out of college, and you’re at that point where you’re like, OK, this is not playtime anymore, [laughs] I felt like. When you’re in college, it feels like school. It could be a plaything, oh, deciding you’re gonna study this or this. But I really started to look out into my future at that point and see misery. And I was like, I can’t live like this. I was starting to get that feeling. But then, who is gonna drop out of law school? Who’s about to do that?
Percy: Harvard, no less. People talk about Harvard like it’s the pinnacle thing you can achieve.
Tamani: Exactly. Exactly. And so seeing Monica, who from the very beginning of the movie, she knows what she wants, and she is strong and aggressive, and she is about going after it no matter what anybody else has to say about it. And that was a beautiful and inspiring thing. It was a message I really needed to hear at that time.
[excerpt: Love & Basketball]
Percy: And you wrote about that in your really just beautiful essay for Time magazine, called “Love & Basketball Was More Than a Movie. It Changed My Whole Life” — very appropriate title. You talk about how you were feeling at that time, when you first encountered Monica. And I love what you say here. You say:
“I’d become a master at taming, hiding and cutting out the parts of myself that weren’t compatible with the person other people wanted me to be: the rebellious, curious and sexy parts; the questioning and fearless parts. The free parts.
“That mastery had led me to the most prestigious law school in the country. But I hated this sanitized, diminished version of myself. I was uncomfortable inside her — sad, confused and anxious. And I was starting to get this terrifying sense that if I stayed in law school, I could get trapped in her the rest of my life.”
Tamani: [laughs] That is exactly how I felt. It’s funny, when you’re growing up, people don’t emphasize to you, “Hey — you, and only you, can create the life you want for yourself.” And watching Monica up on the screen, it kind of made me realize that. Other things in my life at the time — just the misery, too — [laughs] was making me feel like that. But it’s so basic, you know? But nobody ever emphasizes it, to most kids, I think.
Adults like to tell kids what they expect them to do or what they think is right or what they think is good, instead of encouraging them to look on the inside of themselves or to figure out what they love. And when you are so focused — or when I was so focused on success, success, achievement, achievement, and worried about what other people would think of me if I dropped out, or if I went down a path that was less traveled and less set up for the type of success that society thinks is successful, there was a great fear in departing from that, because it’s about setting up a version of success for yourself or defining success for yourself. Because it’s easy for other people to look at you and say, “oh, how good you’ve done” or “how successful you are,” and it looks all good from the outside. But you cannot be successful if you are absolutely miserable. [laughs]
Percy: Exactly. Exactly.
Tamani: You cannot. So you have to start defining that for yourself. And I was just at that point where this motivated me to start doing that. And I was already feeling like, “I have to,” because you know, when you get to that low point, it’s like, “I can’t stay here. I can’t live here. I can’t — my future cannot be here.” That’s how I felt.
[excerpt: Love & Basketball]
Percy: Yeah, and one of the things that the movie shows, which honestly — I’m your same age, and so I saw the movie and had this very — all I focused on was the love story, at the time. And that says a lot about, I think, where I was, [laughs] just thinking about the love story. And now, re-watching it preparing to talk to you, I realized that, as you said so beautifully, Gina Prince-Bythewood, she was telling us, “This is actually what the story is about. It’s about figuring out who you are and who you want to be at the core.” And she does this through the character of Monica. And the thing that struck me is that both sets of parents — we have Monica’s parents, and then we have Quincy’s parents, so Omar Epps, who plays Quincy — both parents are trying to put their own insecurities and their own fears and shame in the expectations that they set for their kids.
Tamani: Oh, yes. And it’s human.
Percy: You’re a parent too. I’m so curious if that’s something that strikes you.
Tamani: It’s funny; because I grew up in the church, and so I grew up in kind of a strict religious household, I was introduced to fear very early. [laughs] And I learned that the consequences of not obeying had severe consequences — hell, essentially. And it’s funny, because I think that shaped me in so many ways, and so I’m the very opposite with my daughter. I want her to be free. I’m always encouraging her to do what she loves and to explore herself and to think about what she wants or think about what she enjoys. And even though I’m so very conscious of that, she still has people-pleaser in her. It’s funny, because I’m like, “Where do you get this from? I’ve worked really hard…”
Percy: Is it like, “Do we all have this, as women? Is this just our lot? I don’t know!”
Percy: I know.
Tamani: But I think it’s part of the human condition. So many of us suffer from different insecurities or different fears. And if those fears and insecurities are alive within us, and especially if we are unaware of them, of course they’re gonna be passed on to our children. Of course, we are going to be directing them and trying to direct them, according to our fears and insecurities. I’ve spent a whole lifetime, really, trying to break free from fear. So it is very important to me that my daughter not have that fear. [laughs]
Percy: Oh, I so relate to that. I also grew up in the church, and that was my experience, as well. And I feel like most of my adult life has been reminding myself not to be afraid.
Tamani: But it’s hard when — it gets embedded in you, in a sense, when your early self is constructed around it. Sometimes it’s hard to remove that from you, even as an adult. Even when you recognize it and you’re trying to fight against it and say, “No, I’m gonna be free,” it’s hard.
Percy: It is, and when it’s also coupled — and I don’t know if this was your experience, but for me it was also coupled with how to be a woman.
Tamani: Oh — most certainly.
Percy: And that’s one of the things that even watching this movie now I struggle with, and I’m so glad that the message that comes out of it is that you are beautiful, if you’re wearing your hair up in a ponytail and you’re wearing a basketball uniform — you don’t have to be made up. I know that we have the scene where Monica is made over by her sister, and she goes to prom, and her mom for the first time tells her that she’s beautiful. But even with that, the overall message of the movie is that she falls in love, and she is loved, just for who she is, not because of this kind of way of showcasing femininity. She’s feminine simply by being who she is.
Tamani: I think it’s such an important message, maybe the ultimate message, even, is to do you, be you; to fight for what you love even when it’s hard, even when you have to stand alone in yourself. That’s the thing, because Monica has to stand alone in herself many a time, when people don’t believe in her. And it not only has to do with work or even her relationship in general, but I think it’s relevant to every part of our humanity, what we believe and what we value. It’s important to be able to stand in the truth of yourself and to be able to fight for that, even when it’s unpopular or other people disagree with you.
But it’s hard. It’s hard, like we said, because as human beings, also, as much as we say, “Oh, I don’t care what anybody thinks” — you know those people? [laughs] When you say that, it’s like, it’s so not true, though. [laughs]
Percy: “No, I really do care — a lot.” [laughs]
Tamani: [laughs] Exactly.
Percy: “I wish I didn’t.”
But there’s something about the struggle and the pain that you were going through that you describe back in your freshman year that was necessary to your own — I hate using the word “journey” now, because it sounds so silly when people use it, but it was — it was really necessary …
Tamani: No, it’s a journey.
Percy: … to your own journey.
Percy: And I think about, for Monica, breaking up with Quincy, the person that she loved the most in her life outside of her family, going and playing basketball in the women’s league in Europe, because at the time — this is the other thing that blew my mind — at the time, the WNBA didn’t exist …
Percy: … because this movie’s set in the mid-’90s.
Tamani: It formed right at the end, and she added it right at the end.
Percy: Exactly. So it’s amazing to think about that. So she goes to Europe, and she’s so lonely. She’s a superstar, playing in Spain — people know her on the street, people come up to her; she has, in so many ways, the dream that she’s always wanted — but she’s completely alone. And she’s going through such a difficult period in her life that ultimately helps her to understand what it is that’s missing. And I think about yourself and what you had to go through in order to really understand your identity as a writer.
Tamani: For Monica, it’s like with her choosing herself over Quincy. I think everybody will probably have to — I don’t know, it’s not gonna be that stark. It’s drama; it’s the movie. It’s like: “Me, or basketball,” which is what he was asking her at the time. And of course she should choose herself, if somebody’s asking you that.
Percy: But that was also kind of radical, because when I watch it now I’m like, this dude — he was being set up to play in the NBA, and he actually ends up leaving college to go play for the Lakers. And there’s a competition to their relationship, too, around it. But unlike a lot of relationships that I normally see between men and women, where it’s kind of expected that the woman would just say, “OK, no, honey, we’re gonna follow your career. We’re gonna do what you need,” she says, “No. I’m gonna keep playing.”
[excerpt: Love & Basketball]
Tamani: And that’s a part of her strength. And that’s a part of her recognizing her worth and recognizing the importance of her dreams, part of knowing where she wants to go and how important it is for her to get there — a huge part of her character that Gina Prince-Bythewood wrote. She was hugely inspirational in that way, to see such a strong woman, a strong girl.
I don’t think I’d ever, before that point, I really don’t think I’d ever seen a character like her on the screen. And the fact that she was female and that she was Black — and I wasn’t using words like “representation” or “feminism” back then, but it’s like, you feel the energy just the same. I felt empowered. I felt seen — this girl who is like, she’s gonna fight for what she wants, under any circumstances. And she has to go through it.
And like you said, when she went on to play overseas, it’s probably not just Q, Quincy she was missing, it’s her friends and family from home. And we all have to balance that, I think, with our careers and our work. It’s not the only thing. Work is not the only thing. Our families are important. Our whole lives, the totality of our lives, we have to work to balance that to achieve happiness.
Percy: I think it’s the connection to yourself that you’re describing, right?
Tamani: Yeah, because you can certainly lose the connection to yourself, when things get out of whack, for sure.
Percy: So how did you go from watching this movie, realizing “I can’t keep doing this; I can’t go down the path to be a lawyer,” and then dropping out of Harvard? What was the trajectory in your mind, and the steps that led you to ultimately embracing your identity as a writer?
Tamani: It was a long path, because I didn’t even know I wanted to be a writer, when I was in law school. I had no idea what I wanted to be. That was part of the problem, because it wasn’t like, “Let me leave law school to do this big, great thing.” It was like, “Let me leave law school and then tell people I don’t know what I’m gonna do.” [laughs]
Percy: It’s so good for you to say that, because I think a lot of times, especially when you’re a teenager, you just assume there’s gonna be these very concrete steps that you can take, and you’ll just suddenly know things. And even seeing this movie, there’s the way in which she always knew she wanted to be a basketball player. OK. Very few of us actually have that. [laughs]
Tamani: No, it’s very unrealistic. No, in life, in real life for most of us, it’s just putting one foot in front of the other and taking one step and then another toward the things you love, in the direction of the things you love. And I had to try on many things. And along the way, the things that I tried on, I still incorporate them in my life. Along the way to becoming a writer, I worked in marketing, which — I guess I have to incorporate it for my writing, but I don’t enjoy it. [laughs] I don’t enjoy the marketing aspect. I worked in marketing.
But then I also taught yoga. I taught dance, which was, whoo! Yoga and dance are a huge part of my life now. I arranged flowers, which I love still, arranging flowers. I worked for an interior design company. And so along the way to getting to writing, I also discovered other parts of myself. It wasn’t in vain, all these different things. It’s just going in the direction of things you love, you’ll discover things about yourself. And without having the bravery to at least move in that direction, that discovery doesn’t take place.
[excerpt: Love & Basketball]
Percy: I’d love to talk about your favorite things about the movie. And really, this could go on forever, because much like yourself, I love the movie. For me, I can’t go any further without just talking about Sanaa Lathan, who I absolutely love. As an actor, she does this for me in every role that she takes on — even when the movies aren’t very good, she’s still fantastic. But she holds both confidence and strength alongside vulnerability in a way that just literally leaves me speechless, each time that I watch her, and I just fall further in love with her. And it’s one of the reasons why, no matter what the dialogue is, she just brings such depth to it.
And there’s a line in the movie that I feel like summarizes so much of what we’ve been talking about, when she says, “When you’re a kid, you see the life you want, and it never crosses your mind that it’s not gonna turn out that way.” And again, I don’t think anyone else delivering that line would’ve been able to give it the depth that she does; it’s just so much who Sanaa Lathan is. I’m just curious, what are the scenes or lines that stand out to you, even after all these years, after 20-something years of watching this movie?
Tamani: Some of my favorite scenes — I definitely love the first-kiss scene when they’re kids, [laughs] when Quincy decides to ask Monica to be his girlfriend, and then they count to five — well, he counts to five on his hand while they kiss. And I loved how short-lived it is, because he’s like, “Oh, now you have to ride on the back of my bike.” And she’s like, “No. I’m riding my own bike.” And then a fight breaks out. I love that scene.
Percy: [laughs] Me, too.
Tamani: That’s a really good scene.
Percy: It’s so good.
[excerpt: Love & Basketball]
Well, I feel like we can’t talk about our favorite scenes without talking about the end scene. That scene, to this day, it’s so groundbreaking and unexpected. And even though I’ve seen this movie at least, like, probably eight times, I’m always caught off guard by the fact that Gina Prince-Bythewood decided to write a scene in which the woman is the star, and she’s watching her man take care of their kid.
Tamani: And this is 20 years ago. Yes!
Percy: I know. When have we seen that since?
Tamani: Yes. Yeah, I don’t even know. But yeah. No, I love the way that ended, because it’s like she fought for what she wanted, and she got what she wanted. She has her career, and she has her family, and she has her man supporting her. It’s a beautiful thing.
Percy: You write about it in that same essay for Time. You say, “At the end of the movie, Monica’s running onto the court in a Los Angeles Sparks uniform with Quincy cheering her on from the sidelines. She’s living a life of her own, one she created. It took dismissing the pressures from everyone else and standing strong in herself. Not easy — but possible.”
Tamani: Oof, yes. I distinctly remember at the end, after seeing that, I felt like, literally — when she turned around and looked at Quincy and their child, I almost felt like she was reaching through the screen, asking me, “So what you ’bout to do?” [laughs] Like, “I got here, so what you ’bout to do? You gonna try to work on where you want to go?” No, it’s very powerful. It’s a very powerful scene, indeed.
Percy: So I’m curious, as we end our conversation — I’m sure you’ve seen this movie many more times since that first time. How has it changed for you as you’ve gotten older, as you’ve become this — well, you’ve become a mother, first of all. But you’ve also become so many other things as part of your identity, including a writer. I’m just curious how you’ve both grown together, you and Love & Basketball.
Tamani: I would say, now that I’m a writer, I have an appreciation for Gina Prince-Bythewood as an artist, as a storyteller. I just took the movie in, the first time I saw it. I wasn’t thinking about the director or the writer. I wasn’t thinking about any of that. But as a baller herself — she balled, growing up — she was sharing her own truth with that movie, which is a beautiful —
Percy: One of the reasons why it’s so sincere.
Tamani: It rings that way. It rings that way, yes. Truth always rings. You always feel it. Yes.
Definitely, looking back, I’m grateful to be able to see her intention. And every time I watch the film — I watched it last week just to get ready again for this interview. And every time, I ask myself, How can I be more free? How can I shape my life according to what I love, even more? And I absolutely love — love, love, love — that that film begs that question, that it asks that question of me.
Percy: I love that. I love that. It’s just like you ended your essay, because you said in your essay, “Don’t think I’m preaching this message from the mountaintop. I’m still working to be free, still learning how to live outside of fear as I shape my professional space as an author. But for me, Monica Wright will always be a shining example of what’s possible when we have the courage to stand alone in the truth of ourselves.”
Tamani: You make that sound so good. [laughs]
Percy: No, those are your words! Those are your words. What song would we cue up right here for you? What would be the perfect song to cue up for freedom?
Tamani: Just “Love & Happiness,” because that is what it’s about. It’s like, figuring out what you love — that’s freedom, living towards what you love. That’s freedom. Worrying about your happiness instead of the expectations and opinions of others. That’s freedom.
[music: “Love and Happiness” by Al Green]
Percy: Liara Tamani is a writer and proud Harvard Law School dropout. She’s the author of the books All the Things We Never Knew and Calling My Name. Her lovely essay for Time magazine, which inspired this conversation, is called: “Love & Basketball Was More Than a Movie. It Changed My Whole Life.”
40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks produced Love & Basketball, and the clips you heard in this episode are credited entirely to them. The songs you heard in this episode were “Love and Happiness” by Al Green, courtesy of Hi Records, “Candy Girl” by New Edition, courtesy of Warlock Records, and “Soul Sista” by Bilal, courtesy of Interscope Records.
The team behind This Movie Changed Me is: Gautam Srikishan, Chris Heagle, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Christiane Wartell, Tony Liu, and Kristin Lin. Special thanks to Grace J. Kim, who created the beautiful artwork for all of our episodes this season. This podcast is produced by On Being Studios, which is located on Dakota Land. And we also produce other podcasts you might enjoy, like On Being with Krista Tippett, Poetry Unbound, and Becoming Wise. Find those wherever you like to listen, or visit us at onbeing.org to find out more.
I’m Lily Percy. This is our last episode of This Movie Changed Me, and I want to say thank you. Thank you for listening, for your emails, for your support, and for learning and growing alongside us. It has been a joy for our team to make this for all of you. As one of my prophets, Roger Ebert, famously said, “I’ll see you at the movies.”
[music: “Love and Happiness” by Al green]