- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2000

NEW YORK After months of searching, director Gina Prince-Bythewood finally found just the right actress to star in her debut movie.

There was only one hitch: Sanaa Lathan couldn't dribble.

"I always knew she was a great actor, but she had never picked up a ball before," says Mrs. Prince-Bythewood. "I was, like, 'I can't hire someone who can't play ball.' "

So Miss Lathan endured a five-month, six-days-a-week training session just to be able to do layups and post up like a pro in Mrs. Prince-Bythewood's new "Love and Basketball."

Director James Toback had the opposite problem while making "Black and White." He had to turn a couple of athletes New York Knicks star Allan Houston and boxer Mike Tyson into actors.

"You have to give them something that feels close to the way they would talk and the way they would think," says Mr. Toback. "You're basically just asking them to respond the way they would respond."

Jocks memorizing dialogue? Actors practicing three-point shots? It can mean only one thing: Hollywood's love affair with sports is at fever pitch.

And watch out: It's getting harder to tell the two worlds apart.

"When you talk about sports and Hollywood, you really have a marriage of two truly central American institutions. America is a society that likes to watch things," says Charles E. Marskie, a St. Louis University sociologist.

"We are in an era where people are flush with money. Enormous amounts of that money are pouring into entertainment and sports. And it seems to me that sports has become almost indistinguishable from entertainment."

Mr. Tyson and Mr. Houston are only the latest in a wave of jocks hitting the screen. Football legends Dick Butkus, Johnny Unitas, Barry Switzer and Jim Brown recently appeared in "Any Given Sunday," while former linebacker Lawrence Taylor snagged roles in "The Waterboy" and "Any Given Sunday."

Basketball stars Dennis Rodman, Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Jordan have each made films, while Kobe Bryant has dipped his toe in the world of entertainment with a debut CD. Can a Tiger Woods cameo be far behind?

It's no wonder actors are becoming jocks. This summer, Keanu Reeves runs the fictional gridiron in "The Replacements." Boxing's especially hot among filmmakers: On the heels of "The Hurricane," "To the Bone" and "Price of Glory," this summer brings "Girlfight," while Will Smith has been hitting the heavy bag to play Muhammad Ali.

At the box office, sports movies have found both victory "Rocky" and defeat "Price of Glory."

Before Mr. Ali, though, Mr. Smith plays a golf caddy and spiritual guru for Matt Damon in a summer flick, "The Legend of Bagger Vance," directed by Robert Redford ("Downhill Racer" and "The Natural").

"The infatuation with athletes among people from all walks of life is at a high point. It's the ultimate form of celebrity," Mr. Toback says. "Essentially, they are at the center of the whole culture."

Hollywood's attraction to athletes is nothing new, of course. One of the earliest films ever was a real 1897 prize fight between James J. "Gentleman Jim" Corbett and Robert Fitzsimmons.

Over the next century, sports lent its built-in drama and symbolism to hundreds of films, from "The Pride of the Yankees" to "The Longest Yard" to "Chariots of Fire," from the triumph of Rocky Balboa to the brutality of Jake LaMotta.

Now, though, the small screen which turned mere athletes into celebrities in the first place is changing the way athletes are portrayed on the big screen. With ESPN and a smorgasbord of sports on the airwaves 24 hours a day even spilling over into fictional behind-the-scenes shows like ABC's "SportsNight" how can Hollywood compete?

Sports on the big screen now has to look even more authentic to audiences reared on up-close, instant-replay sports coverage.

That's why actor Jon Seda, a former Golden Gloves boxer, was a natural to cast for "Price of Glory;" it's why Ray Allen, a pro basketball player, anchored Spike Lee's "He Got Game"; and why Kevin Costner threw fastballs until his arm ached in "For Love of the Game."

It's also the reason Sanaa Lathan had to spend hours pounding a gym floor before the cameras could roll on "Love and Basketball."

But films also have to aim for more.

"There's so much pure sports on cable that to produce a movie that's simply a replication of sports on the field doesn't seem to me to add much," says Mr. Marskie.

Mrs. Prince-Bythewood agrees: "There seems to be a little less sports involved in the actual movie itself. That's probably because, especially with basketball, you have got the NBA on every single day. And how can you make your footage that much different than what people are actually seeing on their televisions?"

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