Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

SG Reviews: Last Chance U: Basketball Season 1

Posted on 25 June 2021 by Joe Giovanelli

Last Chance U: Basketball, Season One, shifts gear from its traditional college football formula and adopts a different approach, trading the familiar flood lit fields for the glistening hardwood floors of the basketball court. But is it a welcome change?

A compelling narrative

Last Chance U‘s award-winning formulae is an under-dog premise that instantly connects with the audience. It taps into human conditioning and the process of progressing into adulthood. When younger, everything feels possible — milestones are drawn up and dreams are made. Last Chance U understands this, tugging at the heart of the viewer who can’t help but feel empathetic for young athletes who desperately try to do everything they can to make themselves who they want to be, regardless of circumstance.

Initially, when it was announced that American football would be dropped and replaced with basketball, there was a sense of deflation. However, most viewers can agree that whilst the last season of Last Chance U was still enjoyable, it had lost its spark. The switch to Basketball is the chance for a reset and to go again. It freshens up the series with a different sport, but the outcome is essentially the same; examining the lives of the coaches and athletes, while raising the importance of winning. It’s one more opportunity to get that scholarship and have a genuine shot at a sporting life. It films in community colleges in ordinary or deprived boroughs, coupled with highly competitive, win-at-all-costs junior sport.

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East Los Angeles College Basketball

After five seasons of football in Mississippi, Kansas and California, Last Chance U has switched to basketball, following East Los Angeles College through their 2019-20 campaign. They are several leagues below the big time and their dreams of gaining sports scholarships to elite institutions have almost been extinguished – but not quite. If this season is a winning one, and if they can stay in school and get their grades, they could still make it.

From a distance, average collegiate games look like commonplace, insignificant competitions. But zoom in tighter on any team — its coaches, its players, and the things that motivate them to keep showing up for their sport — the wins and the losses – suddenly become significant milestones, markers of personal growth and moments that can tilt a life toward hope or further into dark corners.

The change of game brings problems. With basketball being a high-scoring sport where inferior opponents are slowly crushed – the product becomes less rich in dramatic, ‘last minute touchdown’ turning points.

Last Chance U has always been about the players

Like all great observational documentaries, Last Chance U is a character drama – and ELAC has all the right archetypes. Leading the supporting players is Joe Hampton, who made it to college basketball’s top division once, only for a serious injury to put him out of the game and into a wayward funk that ended with jail time. He is the team’s best player, but his temperament is short, and the referees keep penalising him when opponents bounce off his 6ft 8in, 17st 12lb (2-metre, 113kg) frame.

Then there is the captain, Deshaun Highler, a wiry hustler with a tough core forged by adversity. His mother’s recent death from cancer has left him with no one but his teammates and his wonderfully supportive girlfriend to rely on. You would always want a man like him on your side, but there is a snag: Deshaun is only 6ft 2in tall. When the recruiters for division one teams come around, he is asking them to pick him over bigger kids who want it just as badly.

Hampton, Highler and the rest have placed their destinies in the palm of one man: their coach. The players in Last Chance U, football or basketball, have all the ability to break free from their precarious existence, but they can’t do it by themselves. They need the team to win. For that to happen, they have to hope that the guy whose coaching career hasn’t progressed beyond the underfunded community college down the road is the right combination of father figure, driven competitor and tactical genius. So, the coach is always the main protagonist and in previous seasons of Last Chance U, his flaws have turned promise into failure.

The East Los Angeles Coast Huskies. Credit: CCCAA

Not at ELAC. Their basketball man is the God-fearing, endlessly grafting John Mosley, who is explicit about his responsibility to help his boys find their only way out. He is a fierce mentor, pouncing on any drop in commitment using his favoured technique of screaming the same phrase over and over; “What do you want? What do you want? WHAT do you WANT?”. Although other people have given up on them and although they might want to give up on themselves, he never will.

Mosley is the embodiment of a teacher’s noble purpose. It is here that the intimacy and intensity of basketball – with nowhere to hide on that small court, or in a tightly woven squad of 16 players – brings this season of Last Chance U to an emotional pitch that the show has not always been able to hit.

Basketball: A welcome change in pace

As such, the weird trick Last Chance U pulls on the viewer comes off once again. At the end of every episode, ELAC play in another crucial match-up, whereupon you find yourself fully invested in a basketball game that took place a year ago and 5,400 miles away between two small, local educational establishments. They are your team now – and every point matters.

Last Chance U: Basketball would have been an excellent sports docuseries under any circumstances, but what makes it extraordinary is the fact that it was filmed during the 2019–2020 season, which means that certain real-life events collide with the Huskies’ story. We get to see the reaction to the death of Kobe Bryant, which hits these L.A. players hard. On the day of his death, a sign near the locker room reads: “Today has been cancelled. Go back to bed.”

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It also doesn’t seem like a total spoiler to say that the coronavirus pandemic eventually affects the team as well, leading to one of the more visceral and moving attempts on television so far to capture the loss and uncertainty that immediately set in as the epidemic began.

Last Chance U: Basketball is available to watch on Netflix.