Over five seasons on Netflix, the docuseries Last Chance U developed a formula for success — or at least a set of tried-and-true parameters for good sports drama. Every season is set in the junior-college scene, where teams are populated by young men who have struggled through academic, economic, or personal setbacks, including “drop-downs” from major conferences, each hoping to play their way up from the bottom rung. Every season has a charismatic coach, whether they’re the belligerent screamers of East Mississippi Community College and Independence Community College or the hug-it-out zen master of Laney College. And every season pays close attention to its milieu, from the rural outposts of Scooba, Mississippi, and Independence, Kansas, to Downtown Oakland, which is so gentrified that most players have to commute from outside the city.
The sixth season, which dropped last week, switches sports from football to basketball but feels like the same stylish, high-stakes, emotionally gripping series. This time, creator Greg Whiteley and his team bring their cameras to East Los Angeles College, one of the largest community colleges in California but only recently a better-than-subpar basketball program. ELAC’s turnaround in the standings is owed mostly to head coach John Mosley, an alumnus whose own experience as a junior-college star gives him credibility on the court, where he hustles through drills alongside his players, and off the court, where he often has to manage their volatile emotions.
Though Last Chance U: Basketball follows ELAC through the winningest season in school history, the trip to the state championship is more turbulent than the Huskies’ ranking suggests. One of Coach Mosley’s most difficult players is perhaps his most talented: Joe Hampton, a six-foot-seven forward with an imposing frame and a soft touch, was once a star recruit at Penn State before an ACL tear and personal issues led to his departure. After getting bounced from another junior college, Hampton arrives at ELAC with a short fuse, easily touched off by bad calls or a lack of playing time. Even Mosley’s most reliable player, team captain Deshaun Highler, is still reeling from the loss of his mother and sole remaining parent a year earlier and occasionally struggles with uncertainty and loss.
And then there’s the pandemic. As with all college-basketball teams one year ago, March Madness was abruptly and dramatically shortened by the coronavirus, which proved especially challenging to second-year junior-college players fighting to get to the next level. It also robs Last Chance U: Basketball of the big-game finish the filmmakers, the athletes, and the Netflix viewers were surely expecting. Whiteley and Mosley spoke to Vulture about the unique drama of the junior-college scene, coaching “uncoachable” players, and improvising an ending to the season when reality wouldn’t cooperate.
What inspired the show’s shift from football to basketball? And why did you decide to stay in the California junior-college scene after Laney last season?
Greg Whiteley: We actually started talking about basketball after the very first year we did football. There’s just a lot of basketball fans in our office, and we thought, What would this look like? We began to process, even back then, of looking for a basketball school. There was not a “We’re done with football. Let’s move on to basketball.” It was more that we finally found a basketball school where we wanted to go to next.
When we were introduced to East L.A. community college, that was just the next place we wanted to go. It really didn’t feel like a shift in sports. And the person that you have on the line here is the main reason for that. It took one conversation with me, after talking with Coach Mosley, to realize this is somebody that we wanted to hang out with. This is somebody’s story that’s worth telling.
How do you cast a school?
We have a set of criteria. Everything from: “How good is the marching band? How interesting is the town?” One of those barometers is: “How good of a football team, or how good of a basketball team, are they?” It helps if they’re really good, but that’s not necessary. They could be bad or even mediocre, and if you’ve got a really interesting coach, or a really interesting town, or there’s some other compelling story — there’s a player there that’s up against something unique — we take all things into consideration.
I don’t know, Coach, if you remember this, but we just went to lunch with him in East L.A., and just five minutes after sitting down with him, I just knew this is who we want to be with. He’s one of those guys that wears his heart on his sleeve, and we could tell he cared about a lot of the same things we cared about. It just made it easy to choose. We were pursuing him. We were wooing him. Coach, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this. My memory of it was we had to persuade you. You weren’t onboard initially with being filmed.
John Mosley: Yeah. Initially, I wasn’t onboard. I just didn’t think I could be as entertaining. I thought my story was boring, just because of the life I lead. I’m enthusiastic. I’m intense. Some of the kids say, “Coach Mosley, he’s a little crazy.” But for the most part, I was like, There’s no way I’m doing that.
Coach, did you have a lot of concerns going in? You’re dealing with players who are very vulnerable. You bring cameras into a situation that could already be combustible in certain ways. Were you concerned about the impact that would have on your team? And what impact did it ultimately have?
That was an initial concern, but there was nothing to hide, for me. I feel like there’s a camera on me all the time. I feel like ever since I declared my faith and I decided I’m going to live a life that’s an example to these young men, I felt like there’s been a camera on me from the early ’90s. There’s a certain accountability that I have in terms of the way that I carry myself. If I went in there and I act normal, I act genuine, I still was enthusiastic, I still had my sense of humor, I still talked straight up like I was from L.A., just kept it normal, eventually it was normal to the guys. I think it took maybe a couple shoots and it was normal. Plus, everybody’s on social media, on Instagram anyway. Everybody’s showcasing their whole life anyway, so they’re on film 24/7, so it became normal and I didn’t have any problem with it.
A lot of these young men, just as in previous seasons of the show, have tragic personal stories or difficult economic circumstances. They struggle with injuries, with academics, with behavioral problems. As I said before, there’s a tremendous amount of vulnerability at the core of these men. How do you handle those vulnerabilities as a filmmaker? And how do you handle them as a coach?
Mosley: I can answer first, as a coach. I just think the first step is to build a relationship with the young men. I’ve taken on the fact that they’re going to respond in those ways that you just mentioned. They’re going to have poor responses to adversity because of their background or their environment. And as I state in the film, I can see me in all of them. I know why they’re responding that way. So it’s up to me to say, “Let me just calm them down. Let me find out what’s going on so they know that I understand.” Now that I understand, because I went through what they’ve gone through, or I’m listening to what they’ve gone through — now that I’m listening, they know that I care, and now they know that I care, now I have their attention, they’ll change their response based on the direction that I give them.
To me, rules without relationship equals rebellion. You have to have a relationship before you can even dig in. I think that’s the mistake that we can make sometimes. If we don’t build that relationship, then of course we get a bad response. No knock to community college or junior college, but a lot of these young men are here because of their response at a previous institution, or their response to academics, their response to a coach, or their response to a drug habit or some type of crime or something like that. They’re here for that reason. Now we need to teach them how to respond. I like to see it play out. I want to see them respond. I welcome it. Let me see what you got. Let me see your best punch. Now let me help you change that and turn that.
Whiteley: I think you get a taste right there of why we so badly wanted to film Coach Mosley. I think if you’re a player of some talent and you are at a junior college, something has gone wrong. You’re there because of some misstep, whether it’s grades or some other thing that happened. But what’s also true about you if you’re at a junior college, especially if you’ve chosen to go play for somebody like Coach Mosley, is there’s something deep inside of you that does not want to give up, that you’ve taken a punch. What’s true about all of them is this flame of hope that’s refusing to be extinguished. As a storyteller, as a filmmaker, that is inspiring.
Joe Hampton, at least by appearances, is the most volatile player on the team as well as one of the most talented. We see him skip practices. We see him blow up on the court and in the locker room. Coach, did you come close to thinking his presence was simply too detrimental to the team?
Mosley: I’ll just tell you this: It’s not just Joe. We were grateful that Joe got to share his story and it was compelling, but there was more than just Joe. There’s 15 guys there. They all have a story. They all have responses, but I don’t think they had enough film for all 15 guys. There were 15 guys, and they were able to capture his story and Deshaun and KJ [Allen], but there were 15 guys with the same story. They have the same baggage, and you try to manage all of that.
If you walk out the door because I am trying to lay down some type of rule, law, or “This is how you need to respond,” if you walk out the door, that’s your choice. If you’re still there and you take it, you’re going to make it. Nobody’s going to fail; nobody fails on my watch. If you’re here, if you’re in the gym, nobody fails. You got to give up on yourself in order for us to give up on you.
We see a lot of really emotional scenes this season. Is there a particular memory or moment that you think five or ten years from now that’s really going to stand out for you about this particular year, Coach?
Mosley: You know what? I shed a tear watching how they put the story together. I shed a tear throughout the show but had a lot of moments off-camera that were very impactful.
I just remember a moment, man, and it almost brings tears to my eyes right now. We had just won a game in San Diego, and Deshaun … We were on this run. We just went on an eight-game win streak and then we were all in the van. We’re getting ready to go eat. We were going to drive back to L.A. We’re all in the van, and Deshaun is just walking outside by himself and he starts crying. I’m like, Oh, shoot. Did somebody else die in his family? I walked up to him and then he just grabbed me and hugged me and started crying. I was like, “You all right, man? What’s going on?”
He was like, “I just want to talk to her, Coach.” I’m like, “Who?” He was like, “I just want to talk to my mom, man.” I said, “Dude, you’re mine forever.” We still talk. And he is mine forever. I’m like, Shoot, I got another son. [Laughs.] He calls me for advice and all that. Just so many moments, but that epitomizes what it’s all about at the junior-college level.
The pandemic obviously threw a huge wrench into the works for East L.A. as well as Last Chance U as a series. I’m sure both of you wanted to see what happened when these guys went to state. How did each of you manage this tough set of circumstances, both on a coaching level and also on a filmmaking level?
Mosley: There’s always been a sense of tough love, and so I think they’re prepared for anything. Joe didn’t just drop everything and say, “There it goes again. I was all-in and everything failed.” To me, that was more successful than anything else — that they all handled it well. It’s still tough. They’ve done phenomenal, and I’m just really disappointed in leadership in terms of handling the pandemic.
Our community-college kids are like stepchildren now. Nobody is talking about them. You have not heard one thing about it in the media. You’ve heard high school. You’ve heard university. You’ve heard youth sports. You have not heard one person talk about community-college students. Nobody. Now it’s getting to a point where it’s hard to blame these young men if they fall through the cracks. It’s hard to blame them.
How about you, Greg?
Whiteley: From a human standpoint, it broke all of our hearts. We were monitoring things in real time. We saw them cancel first-conference tournaments at the Division I level, and that started to get us nervous. Maybe they’ll cancel the junior-college tournament. And then the NBA season, then March Madness, and you’re just holding out hope. Is it possible that you can still have the junior-college tournament and you could stream it, where D1 coaches could stay at home and still watch players and still scout them and still conceivably offer a scholarship to some of these kids? When that was taken, it was devastating.
From a storytelling standpoint, it was incredible. I couldn’t believe what just happened. But going through that footage that was so carefully shot, I’m so grateful for the format that we’ve stumbled across. We got to spend time and go, Where is the drama and the poetry in the way that season was ended? It seems so obvious now that I say it to you, Scott, that here are these kids that have not had things work out for the most part of their lives, and here is this opportunity, and it is coming and they have worked hard, and it looks like it’s coming together. Then because of forces, again, beyond their control, it’s taken from them. It is so heartbreaking.