Starring: Hoopsters In The Making

Actor Justin Long appears on MTV's "Total Request Live" at MTV Times Square Studios, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2006, in New York. The actor's latest film, "Accepted," opens in theatres Aug. 18.
AP Photo/Paul Hawthorne
This week John Leonard reviews Love & Basketball from New Line Cinema and On Hallowed Ground premiering on TNT on May 6.
We are still in the best-of-five first round of the National Basketball Association playoffs to decide who loses the championship to the Los Angeles Lakers. The team is playing for pride, of course, and tens of millions of dollars, but also for sneaker commercials and TV ratings. Since the grounding of Air Jordan, those ratings have gone south.

Pro basketball, the postmodern game, all velocity, attitude and hip-hop, is looking for its lost chic. What this will probably mean is a new marketing plan. What it should mean is the recovery of joy.

For instance: In the new movie Love & Basketball, from writer-director Gina Prince-Blythewood, the boy-next-door meets the girl-next-door when they're 11 years old. Growing up to be Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan, they go to high school together but play basketball separately. Omar's pro-ball father, Dennis Haysbert, wants him to go to Princeton. Sanaa's mother, Alfre Woodard, wants her to be more girlish.

Prom night opens some eyes. So Omar and Sanaa go to the University of Southern California to play team ball as well as one on one. But Omar has family troubles, Sanaa has a curfew, he quits school for the NBA draft, she'll play in Europe, and they end up playing one on one again.

Love & Basketball ends up too cute. But Sanaa Lathan is a fiercely gorgeous revelation, a woman warrior with what Yeats once called "beauty like a tightened bow." Imagine a basketball movie that's not about race or even winning; it's about excellence.

Too bad you won't see any Sanaas Saturday night on TNT cable in On Hallowed Ground: Streetball Champions of Rucker Park. But Rucker basketball in Harlem is all about men and boys and jive and joy.

The Leonard File
Read past reviews by John Leonard.
Loosely structured around the quest of the team sponsored by Bad Boy Records for a second straight championship and undefeated season in last summer's Rucker tournament, On Hallowed Ground introduces us to people including Captain Nappy, The Future, The Main Event who was formerly The Coming Attraction, and Half-Man Half-Amazing - not to menion their competition - from Vacant Lot to Relativity.

As well there are famous former streetball players like Dr. J, Vince Carter and Mark Jackson, and playground legends like Pee Wee Kirkland, who went to prison instead of the NBA, but came out teaching - plus a ref who lost his son to a different side of the street and even a fistfight that calls off a game, which Captain Nappy will explain.

Asked about it, these players can't really imagine life after hoops. It's as if the ball were a saxophone, a laptop or an artist's brush. Nor is Rucker Park innocent of marketing plans. Teams are sponsored by hip-hop record labels, and after-school programs, by sneaker companies; and if you can't play, forget about a job; and if you're a girl, have a baby.

But I'm not trying to change society, at least now. I'm remembering instead when basketball was love, back before I failed to make my college freshman team because, while I could shoot, I couldn't jump, which is why I'm sitting here - in your face.