REVIEW: Netflix’s ‘Last Chance U: Basketball’ takes a twist on junior collegiate sports

Promotional artwork courtesy of Netflix.

Despite the challenges that the pandemic and lockdown have imposed upon high school sports, East’s Wolves brought home — for the first time — the Crosstown Challenge trophy after last Friday’s football game against the Panthers.

It was an unprecedented success for the Wolves and, hopefully, a sign that the world will soon return to normal.

But for some athletic programs, the pandemic hasn’t been quite as kind.

Following five successful seasons worth of documenting junior college football teams, Last Chance U’s sixth season debuted from a new approach on March 10th. Still focusing on collegiate sports, the popular Netflix series premiered eight hour-long episodes showcasing East Los Angeles College’s basketball program in Last Chance U: Basketball.

The series in the past has done an exceptional job of shining a light upon small town, hard-nosed football with tough coaches and gritty players. Instead of following elite Division 1 programs such as Alabama, Clemson, or Ohio State, Last Chance U focuses on small junior colleges. Bearing the fact that these are smaller programs, the players usually struggle with academics, work ethic, or family problems that tend to be out of their reach. These smaller colleges are essentially gateways onto a bigger and better platform for the players. With most of them having the ability to play at a higher level but falling short due to other issues, the vigorous path of junior college is what is needed to give them the extra aid to elevate their careers.

Now that the precedent was set for tough and gritty competition, could Last Chance U: Basketball follow with the same intensity?

Coach John Mosley certainly does his job in doing so. Mosley, the first African American coach starring in Last Chance U, brings intensity to each and every episode. The energy that he brings to the team exemplifies just why basketball is more than just a game for him, as well as for his players.

Coach Mosley is the sole reason for ELAC’s recent success after the school’s history of having many underperforming teams. Of course, he would never claim to be the underlying man who brought prosperity to the program. Humility is one of the defining qualities that set Mosley apart from some of the more narcissistic coaches that were documented prior to him. Aside from his humbling nature, Mosley takes a high initiative in character and ensures his players carry a similar set of good morals along with them. 

“Basketball builds character?” Mosley questions in the opening episode of the show. “No. Basketball reveals character.” Dealing with the players’ volatile emotions and off-court issues commonly comes along with junior college head coaching gigs. As is, the coaches in these programs operate off of an underwhelming budget. Mosley’s dedication to his players is put on display for all to see as he takes initiative in going above and beyond to help his players personally, along with coaching the team as a whole each and every day. 

The setting of east Los Angeles where the documentary series opens is certainly not what the typical person pictures when they think of L.A. It’s not all palm trees and sunshine; the area where the show takes place is slightly less glamorous. It’s more so an impoverished, rural downtown with historical buildings and consisting of a high Latino population. Aligning with the setting, the soundtrack consists of a unique combination between hip-hop and jazz music. Together, they convey the Los Angeles lifestyle through the hip-hop and the small town vibe through smooth jazz. 

The acid jazz pioneer Rob Ayers and the late rapper Nipsey Hussle, both L.A. natives, have tracks showcased throughout the documentary series. Ayers’ classic song “Everyone Loves the Sunshine” is often heard to kick off most episodes, commonly when showcasing the scenic views around campus in eastern Los Angeles. When the players take to the court and begin their intense workout regimen, the up-tempo rap music of Nipsey Hussle’s “Hussle & Motivate” begins to play, contrasting with the smooth jazz once the players

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Last Chance U is the high-profile athletes. It seems as if each and every one of them deals with troublesome matters off the court, ranging from family issues to school struggles. On the court, many play as if it is a life or death scenario (which for many, it somewhat is considering basketball if all they have). Nevertheless, the intensity and hot tempers of the star players such as Joe Hampton and Deshaun Highler keeps the documentary wildly entertaining. 

The authenticity of the series is essential, as it is what brings it all together. Every shot and angle taken in the final cut of the show by executive producer and lead director Greg Whiteley puts the viewers into the scenario of the team, whether that be in a heated locker room with yelling and harsh coaching after a loss, or on the court after a game-winning shot. Whether it’s joy, disappointment, or embarrassment, the feelings translate well over to the audience.

Unfortunately enough, the show is almost too real as it inevitably concludes at the point to where everyone wishes to forget — the day COVID-19 changed life as we know it. As the ELAC team was fighting for their chance at their state championship, the pandemic struck, resulting in the cancellation of their season. With coach Mosley losing his best shot for his first championship and the players falling short despite their hard work and commitment was nothing short of a purely depressing moment for all. Whiteley does a phenomenal job of building up all the blood, sweat, and tears that the players put in just for the opportunity to be stripped from them. As the camera pans around the room, each person’s face is filled with emotion. Being a viewer, you cannot help feeling as if you had lost everything as well.

Following the success of his critically acclaimed football Netflix series, Whiteley had a difficult task at hand to follow it up with something equally as amazing when shifting to basketball. Regardless, he was able to do so here by displaying all the emotional ups and downs of a small-town basketball program throughout their season. Providing all athletes and sports-lovers with an exhilarating and motivational experience kept the ball in Last Chance U’s court, with even more space to work with now.

Last Chance U: Basketball is now streaming on Netflix.

Charles Jaegle is a staff writer for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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