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Saturday, May 18, 2024

'Last Chance U: Basketball' follows the East LA College Huskies work towards a state title, as they try to navigate their passion and talent.

‘Last Chance U: Basketball’ is an intense, emotional whirlwind

“I regret a lot of things. I f*cked my life up.”

That’s how the sixth installment of the Netflix documentary series “Last Chance U” starts, an impassioned interview with Joe Hampton, a forward for East Los Angeles College during the 2020 season. Prior to the release of “Last Chance U: Basketball,” the series had covered junior college football in Mississippi, Kansas and California throughout last season. For “Last Chance U: Basketball,” the series stays in California and focuses on ELAC, the second largest community college in the country. The urban setting is key and provides a stark contrast from the first four seasons of the show which were set in the remote, rural south. The show establishes this sense of setting right away, placing us in gritty, diverse and multicultural East Los Angeles.

“Last Chance U: Basketball” covers the ELAC Huskies as they try to get over the hump and claim the ever-elusive state title. The team is led by head coach John Mosley, who was the most prolific point guard in the school’s history and also the first African American head coach featured in the series. ELAC basketball has been a force to be reckoned with in California since the Mosley era began, but they have yet to cement their legacy with a state title. The fact that ELAC is a contender trying to prove itself keeps the stress level consistently high throughout the show.

The team itself consists of a wide variety of talent levels and personalities. There are high-school recruits, Division-1 bounce-backs and local walk-ons. Forward KJ Allen, one of the most gifted players on the team, was the Los Angeles high school basketball player of the year, but his 2.2 GPA kept him from reaching the next level. This is a common trend in the series — incredibly skillful athletes plagued by laziness and procrastination, as well as a lack of resources to help them. With no meal plans or dorms at ELAC, the struggles of these student athletes are magnified, and this season represents one of the best jobs the show has done advocating for the importance of community college.

The 2020 ELAC Huskies were a highly emotional team and the show does a fantastic job capturing this with its camerawork. Basketball, more so than football, is a visibly emotional sport. Players aren’t wearing pads and we can constantly see their faces. The show takes advantage of this with the use of slow-motion during especially emotionally-charged moments like an on-court celebration or an emphatic alley-oop. The camera crew consistently gets great shots even in a hectic junior college gymnasium. They use a wide variety of shots and camera angles, constantly providing a refreshing view. The selected shot is almost always perfect for the moment, like when a ferocious slam dunk is shown from a camera directly above the rim.  

“Last Chance U: Basketball” boasts an absolutely killer soundtrack. The chosen song always fits the mood of the scene, and the pure diversity of music is equally as impressive. The show calls on a variety of artists, from 60s/70s gems The Meters and David Axelrod to the old-school hip-hop of The Pharcyde to contemporary rapper Kendrick Lamar. Whenever music is blasting in the background of the locker room, it’s never filtered out. In fact, it’s often focused on. The show clearly takes its music seriously.

Following a mostly chronological order, “Last Chance U: Basketball” realizes that a regular season of basketball is entirely different from a regular season of football. With basketball, there are simply many more games, and each individual match-up doesn’t mean as much as a single football game. The show uses a “Days until playoffs” countdown that appears on the screen every so often to keep the viewer oriented, but sometimes we’re dropped into a game with no knowledge of the result of any of the past few games. This is a transition from the football days of “Last Chance U,” but it’s a pretty seamless one. The viewer understands immediately that they’re going to miss some of the action.

“Last Chance U” often becomes infatuated with several players and coaches that end up receiving more attention than others, and this season was no different. The show concentrates on the charismatic head coach John Mosley, and for good reason. Everything he does, he does for his players. He sweeps the court before every home game himself. He has incredibly high energy, literally bouncing off the gym walls at practice. He also teaches a spin class and a weight training class on the side to make a living, and those motivational skills readily translate to the court. He’s also deeply religious — with episode four beginning with Mosley leading the singing of a hymn in church.  

As the head coach of a team of highly emotional young men, Mosley needs some plays up his sleeve that don’t involve five players and a ball. He has plenty of tactics for cohesion and conformity amongst his team. His religion is one, but his players don’t take it as seriously as he does. More effective are his psychological punishments, like when he gave his whole team the silent treatment for over 10 minutes during a practice in episode four. He evidently subscribes to the theory of positive reinforcement, as he also gives rewards, such as skipping a lifting session after an impressive victory. Usually very collected and level-headed, we see Mosley’s tensions rise on the eve of the playoff run, including an outburst where we hear him swear for the only time. “Last Chance U: Basketball” is so detailed with its coverage of Mosley that it could be an individual character study.

The show does a great job capturing the emotion oozing from the intense, passionate world of junior college athletics. The series has never shied away from heated moments, and the 2020 ELAC huskies are one of the most emotionally-charged teams the series has covered. This is in part an intrinsic quality of the players, but it’s also specific to basketball. In football, the 11 starters on either side of the ball are rarely subbed out in a competitive game or for non-injury reasons. The lineups remain relatively constant mid-game and throughout the season. In basketball, who is getting minutes and playing time carries extra weight, thus the drama associated with it is magnified.

“Last Chance U: Basketball” pulls the viewer in and quickly creates a sense of attachment. The show builds suspense in a way a documentary shouldn’t be able to. It puts viewers in the moment, making one feel as if they’re courtside, sitting on the ELAC bench. A large array of individuals are interviewed, from teachers to parents of athletes. This builds anticipation and hype for a big game, but it also helps the audience feel more attached to the athletes they're watching by providing their raw, unfiltered life stories.

Despite the school’s record-setting win streak during the regular season, the coaches are never fully satisfied.  This keeps the intensity, and likewise the emotion, consistently high. There are very few periods of calm throughout the show. There is a period of mourning, when the death of Kobe Bryant rattles the Huskies amidst a tough stretch in their season. This grim but necessary reminder of the tragedy that rocked the basketball world right before the pandemic examines Kobe’s death through the eyes of people who have devoted their whole life to basketball.

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The premise of “Last Chance U” may seem simple: Troubled young athletes trying to reach the next level for their shot at the big time. But there is much more to these athletes than their hopes and dreams, and the show does a great job depicting that. It shows the messy apartments players live in. It shows shooting guard Deshaun Highler’s relationship with his girlfriend. It tells the painful stories, like Highler losing both his parents or Joe Hampton tearing his meniscus at Penn State and eventually ending up in jail.  

When the creative minds behind “Last Chance U” sense there's more to a player than meets the eye, they’ll take investigative steps and uncover information that might otherwise be glossed over. The show goes to the root of why these players are troubled, like when they seriously examine the factors playing into Deshaun Highler’s midseason shooting slump.

“Last Chance U: Basketball” does not disappoint. For avid fans of the series, the change of sport is refreshing while the general structure remains. The players and the college are very likeable, and watching episodes morphs into a rooting experience. Once again a strong advocate for hard work and dedication, the show examines the sacrifice and passion that goes into turning your life around and harnessing your potential. As center Malik Muhammad puts it, “Everybody has the possibility to be great. It’s just whether you want to or not.”

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