tv review

Last Chance U: Basketball Is a Riveting, Heartbreaking Sports Doc

Joe Hampton, on the line in Last Chance U: Basketball. Photo: Netflix

With March Madness currently in progress, college basketball players all over the country are experiencing galvanizing wins and heart-wrenching losses. Where they are able to play, teams in high schools, middle schools, and rec leagues are doing the same. From a distance, all those 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 — and the Ws and Ls suddenly become significant milestones, markers of personal growth and moments that can tilt a life toward hope or further into dark corners.

The makers of the Netflix sports docuseries Last Chance U have always understood that and, for five seasons, applied that up-close, vérité approach to the world of junior college football. They also did something similar in the offshoot Cheer, which focused on the squad at Navarro College, a community college in Texas.

With Last Chance U: Basketball, creator Greg Whiteley and his fellow directors Adam Leibowitz and Daniel George McDonald pivot toward the world of hoops, specifically hoops at East Los Angeles College, or ELAC, where some talented players are hustling toward associate’s degrees and, hopefully, a state championship that will position them for scholarships at Division I universities.

As was true in the football iteration of this series, many of the guys on the ELAC team are at a crucial flash point in their young lives. Some have been to Division I schools, been bumped from their programs and are desperate for a path back onto a team at a four-year college. Some have spent time in jail and are seeking a second chance to straighten out their lives. In the case of power forward Joe Hampton, both things are true. The first of the eight episodes begins with footage from a game where Joe is repeatedly called for traveling and gets so frustrated with the referees that he asks to be taken out of the game, storms off the court, and heaves a stool once he gets in the locker room. It’s the sort of outburst we’ll see from him on more than one occasion during the season; Joe’s struggle to prevent his emotions from jeopardizing the team, and his own future, is a major story line in Last Chance U: Basketball.

The amount of intimate access that the Last Chance filmmakers have is extraordinary, and they use it to their full advantage. They’re not just in the mix for crucial games or practices, they’re in the players’ homes, in classrooms as the assistant coaches help them with schoolwork, and on the sofa of head coach John Mosley as he’s watching game video while barely keeping his eyes open. This show tells us that the grind isn’t just in the attempts to drive to the basket or set screens to block opponents out. It’s also in the moments between game days, and in the actual and proverbial time-outs. That means that when team captain Deshaun Highler runs into the bathroom during a literal time-out in a high-stakes game, the Last Chance U crew is there to film him vomiting before getting back into the game.

Highler is another major figure in the season, both because he’s the team’s figurehead and a young man trying to find some equilibrium after a difficult several months. A year prior, his mother, who raised him on her own and whom Deshaun describes as his best friend, died of cancer, leaving Deshaun to mourn and to figure out how to function as an adult without his mother’s guidance.

Marshaling all these young men toward something akin to greatness is Coach Mosley, who may as well be named Coach Tough Love. A part-time minister who receives a $15,000 stipend for a coaching job that is all-consuming, he is deeply invested in the futures of his players and also not averse to screaming his lungs out when they’re not meeting his expectations.

“Somebody pouts, and it’s over!” he shouts, over and over, when the team isn’t taking a pre-playoff practice seriously enough. Winning the state tournament is important to Mosley, not only because he knows college recruiters will be looking at his boys more closely if they emerge victorious, but because he’s come within a whisper of winning it more than once and wants to finally seal the deal. For everyone involved with the Huskies, a championship title looms in the distance like a potentially attainable holy grail. And holy is truly the right word: As a man of deep Christian faith, Mosley’s locker room talk often involves references to God and Jesus. Some of his players are open about the fact that they don’t share his beliefs, but when he leads a prayer, everyone bows their heads anyway. If an amen might bring a win, what can it hurt?

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.”) 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.

In the face of a frustrating and scary situation, the guys on the ELAC Huskies prove to be pretty resilient. What Last Chance U implies in every episode is underlined even more by its finale, which proves what the season has been telegraphing all along: that basketball can teach a person a lot, and how to sink a bucket is probably the least important thing on that list.

Last Chance U: Basketball Is Riveting and Heartbreaking