“Last Chance U: Basketball” scores in profiling the lives of college athletes

Last Chance U: Basketball Last Chance U: Basketball (Netflix)

Though the episodes can get samey, Last Chance U: Basketball works well enough to charm even basketball novices.

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If you’re like me, you may be surprised to find that one of Netflix’s most enduring original franchises is Last Chance U, a documentary series chronicling football players as they juggle sports and academics. Though the show ended after a four-season run last year, Netflix isn’t one to let a recognizable brand name rest. Last Chance U has returned in the form of Last Chance U: Basketball, which shifts the focus from the Friday night lights of football to the indoor basketball fields of East Los Angeles Community College.

This is the place where dreams can either come true, or crash and burn. As one educator puts it, the East Los Angeles Community College is a great place for people from all walks of California life to try and get a degree to improve their stature. However, it’s not a place where basketball is a high priority, hence why it’s always getting its budget cut. That doesn’t stop Coach Mosley from giving his everything to each of the students on his team. Getting onto a professional basketball team is the only hope some of these students have for a future and Mosley won’t let that opportunity go without a fight.

This season of Last Chance U: Basketball chronicles the last two months before the East Los Angeles Community College basketball teams play in the pivotal playoff games. This adds a ticking clock to each of the individual episodes, which tends to focus on a single character or event per episode. The episode Colby Ranch, for example, is largely centered on a bonding trip to a cabin while the episode Hooper puts the spotlight on troubled but talented player Joe Hampton.

Last Chance U: Basketball is one of many Netflix shows that just aren’t conducive to binge-watching. In a weekly release format, charms of individual episodes could be better appreciated. But watching all eight hour-long episodes in rapid succession, the familiar hallmarks of each installment become readily apparent. This is especially true of Coach Mosley’s passionate outbursts to his players. These are meant to be unnerving representations of how devoted he is to his players. But by the sixth episode, these eruptions are a familiar song you can hum along to rather than anything emotionally impactful.

Pace the episodes of Last Chance U: Basketball out, though, and one can better appreciate how the program still regularly scores on an emotional level. No matter how intense the on-court action gets, directors Greg Whitely, Adam Leibowitz, and Daniel George McDonald never forget the humanity of the players they’re chronicling. Heck, the most emotionally raw moments of the whole program are more harrowing than any nail-biter of a basketball game. 

No matter how intense the on-court action gets, directors Greg Whitely, Adam Leibowitz, and Daniel George McDonald never forget the humanity of the players they’re chronicling.

Joe Hampton recounting his experiences of hitting rock bottom and getting sent to prison, for instance, reverberates with cutting honesty. Meanwhile, the end of episode four sees Coach Mosley on the verge of tears telling his players how he missed his son’s game to help athletes who are acting ungrateful towards him. It’s a scene that vividly communicates how much Mosley is sacrificing for these players. The way Last Chance U: Basketball stops to bask in these moments of vulnerability makes the whole enterprise click.

Real-world events also inform somber moments of the program, particularly the demise of Kobe Bryant. The finite nature of life is apparent to all these students, but it’s especially noticeable when one of their heroes randomly perishes. Plus, like any piece of media made in the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic eventually rears its head here in the home stretch of the season. When this health crisis does emerge, it impacts the players in a way that’s absolutely gutting.

While much of Last Chance U: Basketball is defined by hardships, it’s not solely defined by tragedy. The best episode of the show is Colby Ranch, which primarily looks at these football players hanging out in an internet-free cabin in the woods. Mosley notes that the exercise is meant to get the teammates to understand each other beyond basketball and it serves the same function for the audience. The excursion also delivers moments of memorable comedy, particularly during a game of charades and a player’s reaction to discovering a tombstone near the cabin.

Beyond delivering enjoyable gags, this diversion from the basketball court informs the best part of Last Chance U: Basketball: the on-screen friendships. People like Joe Hampton can sometimes feel all alone, but it’s apparent to the viewer that neither the players nor the coaches are truly alone in what they’re going through. The coaches understand the struggles their players have been through while the players understand that their coaches are human just like themselves. 

There’s a shared connection between the people in this East Los Angeles basketball team that underlines even their most fraught moments. Even Mosley is aware of this, as seen by his “Thank God they like each other” comment in the season finale. Yes, indeed they like each other, and, like a basketball player always keeping their eyes on the ball, Last Chance U: Basketball never loses focus of that critical detail.

Last Chance U: Basketball premieres on Netflix March 10th.

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