Omar Epps for “Love and Basketball”

In the acclaimed new film Love and Basketball, star Omar Epps plays the game on screen as if he belonged there. Clearly, he has some genuine passion for the game. “I was a basketball fan like anybody else”, the young actor explains. “I was like THE fan, like De Niro in that movie. I go to the games, they hate me,” he adds laughingly. And for the record, Epps is a Lakers fan.

It helps to have a love for basketball if you’re playing someone who is passionate about the game, as is part of the focus for Love and Basketball. In the film, Quincy McCall (Epps) and Monica Wright (a dazzling Sanaa Lathan) grew up in the same neighbourhood and have known each other since childhood. As they grow into adulthood, they fall in love, but they also share another all-consuming passion: basketball. They’ve followed the game all their lives and have no small amount of talent on the court. As Quincy and Monica struggle to make their relationship work, they follow separate career paths though high school and college basketball and, they hope, into stardom in big-league professional ball.

Love and Basketball was the first feature film for writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood, who wrote Quincy with Epps in mind. It’s a character with whom he can identify. “I can relate to his vulnerable qualities”, the 27-year old actor quietly explains. It was a script, Epps recalls that spoke volumes to him. “When I first read it, it jumped off the page at me. I think Gina really, as a first time director, did a good job. Also the one thing that me want to do the movie besides it being a good movie was that the guy didn’t get the prize. He ultimately got what he NEEDED, but this time round, it’s the woman who gets her cake and eats it. That’s a rare thing in movies.”

Bearing talent and good looks in equal measure, Epps first became visible to audiences and critics alike with his 1992 film debut in Ernest R. Dickerson’s urban drama Juice. Epps shone in his role as one of a group of four Harlem friends trying to make good, with the praise he earned for his work paving the way for steady industry employment. Born Omar Hashim Epps in Brooklyn, New York, on May 16, 1973, Epps was raised by his mother, an elementary school principal. He recalls that there were two reasons why he wanted to be an actor. “Firstly I was writing since I was like seven or eight: Poetry, short stories, etc.” Secondly Epps saw acting as a means of escape, “because through my writing, I was going through a whole other world, so to complement that with my acting, I was like physically and literally escaping.”

He nurtured his interest in acting at both the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and the New York High School for the Performing Arts. After his breakthrough in Juice, Epps ran the risk of being typecast, playing athletes in a series of films. However, his performances were consistently solid, and he earned particular acclaim for his portrayal of a young man attending college on an athletic scholarship in John Singleton’s Higher Learning (1995). Around this same time, Epps also excelled in a brief recurring role as an emotionally stressed intern on E.R.; he would later identify that role as the one that made it possible for audiences to finally put a name to his face.

A brief but memorable role in Scream 2 (1997) signalled a degree of Hollywood acceptance for Epps; two years later he could be seen starring in no less than four films in the same year. Two of these, a remake of The Mod Squad and Alan Rudolph’s disastrous adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, were all-out turkeys, but Epps did strong work in both The Wood, in which he played one of a group of close-knit high school friends; and In Too Deep, which featured him as a police detective trying to bring down an underworld boss (L.L. Cool J).

The following year, he returned to the college sports realm in Love and Basketball. Epps continues to be busy. He’ll next be seen in Takeshi Kitano’s Japanese underworld crime drama, Brother and Absolute Zero, with Ed Harris. But it’s Epps original love, writing, that is finally reaching professional heights. “We’re in negotiation for 2 scripts to be sold, and one of them [dealing with the rise and fall of a hip-hop star] should be given the go ahead imminently.” Epps is not concerned about competing in an industry dominated by a handful of Black actors his age. “I’ve been in this business longer than most, while guys like Taye Diggs have only been doing this a few years.” Epps hopes that with more Black movies making money at the box office, that Black cinema will find broad audiences internationally, as well as throughout the US. “We have a lot of great stories to tell.” Love and Basketball is just one of them.