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Sanaa Lathan

Hometown: New York City

Favorite thing about the biz: “The acting itself. It’s what I’m passionate about.”

Least favorite: “The number of auditions before they make a decision.”

Where you might have seen her: As Robin in “The Best Man” and as Alicia in “The Wood.”

Upcoming roles: She’ll be in the HBO production, “Disappearing Acts.”

For Sanaa Lathan, playing the part of Monica in “Love and Basketball” required her to explore two distinct areas: Love. And basketball.

The love was relatively easy. As a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, with film credits such as “The Best Man,” “The Wood,” “Life” and “Blade” gracing her credentials, Lathan had little trouble grasping the character of Monica, a determined young woman passionate about everything she does in life.

But the basketball? Lathan considered herself athletic, even a tomboy who was usually the first girl picked for sports teams as a youngster. Her role in “Love and Basketball,” however, required portraying a skill level that usually is found only in the college and Women’s National Basketball Assn. ranks.

“I think (the film creators’) dream (for) Monica would have been a professional basketball player who could act,” she says.

Instead, they got a superbly talented actress who couldn’t make a layup, but who was determined to be as good as needed by the first day of principal photography.

The film’s director and writer, Gina Prince-Bythewood, first considered Lathan for the part during a staged reading in Los Angeles. “There were several auditions,” Lathan explains. “There were basketball auditions, where I would come on the court, do dribbling exercises, crossovers, layups, jump shots. I never played before, and it was pretty embarrassing.”

So Prince-Bythewood set her up with Colleen Matsuhara, an assistant coach with the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks. Matsuhara became the actress’s personal tutor as well as one of the film’s technical advisers.

“When they first showed me a video of Sanaa playing, I said, ‘It’s going to take a lot of work,'” Matsuhara recalls. “But then I saw how focused she was about learning the game. She had the attitude you would hope to find in any basketball player.”

The dedication with which Lathan tackled her basketball preparation also served her well in exploring her character’s emotional side. In “Love and Basketball,” Monica sets out to have both. Her basketball career and her relationship with Quincy (Omar Epps) are of equal importance.

“She wants her career and this man, she’s passionate about both, says Lathan, “and she won’t settle for either, but wants both. She’ll fight to the end. I love the fact that she never compromises.”

Next up for Lathan is a role in the HBO production “Disappearing Acts,” based on a book by Terry McMillan. Beyond that, she’s considering her options, which multiplied after “Love and Basketball” screened in January at the Sundance Film Festival.

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