Last Chance U: Basketball puts a new spin on a trusted franchise: Review
Netflix's sports documentary series finds hoop dreams in East Los Angeles.
When anyone asks me what show they should be watching, I always say Last Chance U. The fabulous docuseries spent five seasons documenting harsh truths and impossible aspirations in junior college football, every team stacked with young talents desperate for scholarships. Creator Greg Whiteley's style is almost too perfect, and ideal for anyone who [raises hand] spent their youth specifically not caring about athletics. The filmmaker (who also made the buzzy-then-controversial Cheer) merges striving backstories with down-to-the-wire games, all shot from infinite camera angles.
Last Chance U: Basketball swaps sports but maintains the mix of social investigation and high-stakes emotion. The Huskies of East Los Angeles College are a squad of destiny, full of Division I prospects with personal demons. Shooting guard Deshaun Highler recently lost his mom, and his two-hour drive home from school turns into three on Fridays. "I for sure got a lack of peace," he admits. Yet as the team captain, he's the peacemaker, smoothing tensions with a playful we-can-do-this attitude. Injury-haunted forward Joe Hampton fell from Penn State into lost years off the court. Now he suffers the curse of the Big Man, forever hacked when the refs aren't watching. Basketball begins with Hampton telling the camera, "I wish I did a lot of things differently." On Last Chance U, all the young men have old souls.
They're just two of ELAC's big personalities. And Coach John Mosley has enough personality for 30 30 for 30s. A deeply committed Christian who started working at ELAC for a $15 thousand stipend — with three kids at home, in California! — he's almost won State multiple times. His coaching style bends Shakespearean, full of heaven-pointed speeches and punitive eight-minute silences. Endless practices include mandatory post-victory weight lifting. He scrubs the home court himself. You cannot believe how much energy Coach Mosley has. The man also teaches physical education; we see him lead a spin class! "The only way you win these games is self-sacrificial, bro," he tells the Huskies, comparing athletic success to something like crucifixion.
Basketball tracks the 2019-2020 season. So everyone in 2021 hears the suspenseful clock ticking toward, well, something. This eight-part season gets closer than ever to its players. Prepare yourself for the absurdly wonderful fifth episode, which follows them to a mountain retreat. (It's the first time I've ever seen a team-building exercise actually build a team.) Meanwhile, the heavily Latino community around the college never comes into focus. Maybe that's inevitable with a school full of commuters. It's still a bummer after the final Last Chance U football year turned into a passionate Oakland love song.
This franchise remains invigorating, though, matching no-look-pass thrills with telling little moments. (My favorite: sardonic assistant coach Rob Robinson, paid in peanuts, hanging every dude's laundered uniform on their locker to give them that luxurious D1 sensibility.) The players are on necessarily selfish solo missions. They want to climb higher: to a four-year school, to the NBA. Nobody wants to be what assistant coach Kenneth Hunter calls "the six-nine dude in the factory or on the dock or in the grocery store." This season vividly — miraculously — dramatizes how these individuals get stronger together. "That's all I needed," Hampton tells Coach Mosley, "was someone to stay with me." A–