Preparing For Her Love & Basketball Performance Took A Toll On Sanaa Lathan Before She Even Got The Part

Sanaa Lathan's breakout performance came when she starred opposite Omar Epps in the 2000 romantic sports drama "Love & Basketball." Her character, Monica Wright, desires to become the first woman to play in the NBA, but her love for basketball is challenged by her relationship with Quincy McCall (Epps), who is the bigger hoops phenom of the two and at one point expects Monica to prioritize him and their relationship over her commitment to the game.

The title is a dead give away, but there's a lot of basketball in this movie –- and love too –- so, it is understandable that the film's writer and director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, wanted natural athletes in the lead roles. Her first choice for the male protagonist was Epps, who had experience playing pick-up basketball in the park; he played in a youth football league and studied martial arts too. A trio of films on his résumé also beefed up his credibility as an athletic performer: He played a collegiate running back in the 1993 football drama "The Program," center fielder Willie Mays Hayes in the 1994 comedy "Major League II," and a track star in the late, great John Singleton's 1995 college drama, "Higher Learning." As Prince-Bythewood frankly told Buzzfeed in 2015, in the '90s, Omar Epps "was the man."

The ultimate challenge for her was finding the right person for Monica. Prince-Bythewood, who played basketball in high school and ran track at UCLA, describes "Love & Basketball" as semi-autobiographical. Due to her personal connection to the heroine, she had extremely high expectations during casting. She even contemplated playing the role herself but was dissuaded by the love scenes. Her desire for the would-be Monica to be an athlete — preferably a basketball player — would serve as an almost insurmountable obstacle for Sanaa Lathan. 

'I had never played basketball, I had never dribbled, I had never done a layup'

When Sanaa Lathan showed up to auditions, she immediately made a not-so-good impression on Gina Prince-Bythewood. "I walked in the door and she shows me this Vibe magazine spread that she just did which was like a bikini spread," Prince-Bythewood told Buzzfeed. "I was like, 'This is so not the character at all! I didn't know how she was going to get the part...'" Prince-Bythewood admitted she was impressed with Lathan's reading, but that wasn't the end: Lathan had to meet "The Secret Life of Bees" writer-director on the basketball court. "The acting part was easy for me," Lathan told the HuffPost in 2015. "But I had never played basketball, I had never dribbled, I had never done a layup. So she was like, 'Well, I'm going to have to start auditioning you as a basketball player, like on the basketball court.' That was pretty tough." 

Lathan began working on her basketball skills solo. Meanwhile, Prince-Bythewood continued her search for her golden girl. She and casting director Aisha Coley went through more that 700 actors and athletes; they even eyed tennis icon Serena Williams and former track and field star Marion Jones. When Lathan got word that Prince-Bythewood hired an acting coach to work with an athlete atop her list, Georgia Tech standout Niesha Butler, she requested a basketball coach; she was given Colleen Matsuhara, basketball advisor and assistant coach of the Los Angeles Sparks. Matsuhara told ESPN in 2020, "Gina made Sanaa carry a basketball everywhere she went. I would work her out — she could get cut up pretty well, muscle tone and everything — and then we'd go to eat and she'd carry the basketball into Coco's [an eatery in Los Angeles]."

Love over basketball

The role of Monica Wright became a two-woman race between Sanaa Lathan and Niesha Butler. They both read well with Omar Epps. According to executive producer Jay Stern per ESPN, Spike Lee, who backed the project through his 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks production company and helped secure a distribution deal with New Line Cinema, wanted Butler. Lee had just written and directed the sports drama "He Got Game," which starred real-life NBA legend Ray Allen. Stern himself wanted Lathan. "The New Line position was: The love story has to work first and foremost with the basketball good enough," Stern said. "Sanaa worked her a** off." Still, Prince-Bythewood couldn't reach a decision. She detailed to ESPN how she finally landed on Lathan:

"I get a call from Sanaa's dad, my mentor, [Peabody and Tony award-winning producer] Stan Lathan, and he says I was damaging his daughter by putting her through this. Sanaa was training every day for three months with no promise of a part, and same with Niesha and the acting coach. Finally, my husband, Reggie, said, "Are you making a love story or a basketball movie?" I realized it's a love story set in the world of basketball. You could fake a jump shot, but you can't fake a close-up. I had to go with the actor."

It was a triumph for Lathan. She worked hours everyday to develop a talent that taxed her body for a role she may or may not have gotten but stayed with it to the very end. She must have felt euphoria when Prince-Bythewood broke the news to her ... or maybe not.

Love & Basketball ruined basketball for Sanaa Lathan

Gina Prince-Bythewood told ESPN what happened after she called Sanaa Lathan to share the good news:

"I called Sanaa to tell her she got the part and she said I sounded disappointed, like I had to give her the part. I said, 'I need you to come to the office, we're gonna sit and talk.' She said no. And I was so mad! I was like, 'I'm giving you this part, this is my baby, and you can't find the time to come talk to me?' But she put so much into it and she was exhausted and it wasn't a celebratory moment for her."

in 2019, Lathan told CBS Los Angeles she was "miserable" and that "there was a lot of crying behind the scenes for me" while filming the movie. She told radio personality Sway Calloway the experience has ruined her interest in merely watching basketball.

This all saddens me because "Love & Basketball" is one of my favorite movies. I remember watching it for the first time with my brothers and sister in theaters. I've seen the movie a million times and I can't imagine anyone other than Lathan as Monica. Her performance feels so real. She won a BET Award and an NAACP Image Award for her performance, and her chemistry with Omar Epps is absolute fire; it turned out the pair were secretly dating during production.

Despite her tough experience, she and Prince-Bythewood are able to laugh about it now as the two have remained good friends for more than two decades. They even reunited when Lathan starred in the 2017 miniseries "Shots Fired," which was created by Prince-Bythewood and her husband, Reggie Rock Bythewood.