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Last Chance U: Basketball. T.V. at its best

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“Rules without relationships equals rebellion.”

– John Mosley, Coach, men’s basketball, East Los Angeles Community College (ELAC).

This sports reality television show, “Last Chance U: Basketball,” airing on Netflix, is quite simply some of the most compelling television I’ve ever seen.

Now in its sixth year, the show focuses each season on a single community college (or junior college: JUCO in the parlance), in a poor or depressed area. The first five seasons LCU documented the football teams at East Mississippi Community College (seasons 1 and 2), Independence Community College in Kansas (seasons 3 and 4), and in season 5, Laney College, in my hometown of Oakland.

The format never varies. Over 10 or 12 episodes, we are introduced to the team players, the head coach, other team officials, and many of their respective family members and wives or girlfriends. The “stars” of each episode turn out to be, invariably, the coach, and three or four players whom the creative directors have determined to be the most interesting to follow. At the outset of each season, the dramatic hook is spelled out: the team has an opportunity to win a championship of some sort. But will it? The obstacles are considerable. The teams have almost no budget. The players wrestle with their demons. Most are Black. Most believe that succeeding in JUCO football is their ticket out of poverty. Next step, in theory, is a Division One football team at a four-year university. From there—who knows?—the NFL, and glory. Finally, the crescendo of each season is the final game itself. How will the team fare? All this is filmed with the consummate Hollywood production values of a top studio movie. It’s a super-compelling premise that keeps viewers returning week after week to find out what happens.

In season 6, airing now, the directors changed their focus from JUCO football to basketball, highlighting the team at East Los Angeles Community College (ELAC). They presumably felt that they were running out of steam with football; basketball is a much more interesting sport to follow on T.V. than football. In the latter, players’ faces are covered by helmets, so you can’t get closeups of their personal reactions, of joy, frustration, anger, bafflement. Basketball also occurs on a smaller field, indoors, than football; the action is much more intimate and human-centered.

But it’s the players and coaches that we’re attracted to. They go through so much to achieve their goals. For the players, a successful season may be their final opportunity to make it in life—hence the series’ name, Last Chance U. So much is at stake. We see players cry, break down in the lockerroom, kick walls in frustration, and jump ecstatically in victory. And always there is coach: egging them on, trying to get them to focus on winning instead of their anger and lack of faith. At times, the coaches are more like preachers to their kids: we see how much the coaches care, how much they want their kids to succeed, how frustrated they get when they perceive the potential talent in the players, who so often sabotage themselves without even knowing it.

Season 6 is easily my favorite so far (and I loved the Laney College season because it all happened so close to where I live). Coach John Mosley is one of the most real, powerful characters I’ve ever seen on T.V. A devout Christian, he’s a part-time preacher on the side, and he’s frequently leading his players in prayer. And just as frequently, they’re not buying it. But they go along with him, out of respect and fear and—who knows?—maybe there’s something to it. As for Mosley, he’s chosen to have a lousy-paying job (the show makes clear that, if he wanted, he could easily get a Division One gig) because he loves these kids and couldn’t imagine himself anyplace else. His quote, which I ran at the top of this piece, testifies to his earnest belief that he has to let his players know how much he loves them, if he has any expectation of them listening to him. And they have to learn to love each other. If they don’t, then these hot-headed, often emotionally-unstable young men are going to rebel, which would ruin any chances of a championship victory.

The men of the ELAC basketball team, The Huskies

I don’t know if ELAC ends up winning the state title, because that show hasn’t yet aired. But by episode two, you feel like you know these kids (at least, many of them). Some players whom I might have wanted to know more about were not selected by the directors for starring roles. That’s a little frustrating, but I understand their decision to focus on at most six or seven people (players, coach, assistant coach and family members) each season. What is so endlessly satisfying for me, in LCU, is how a television show manages to make me care so much that I find myself weeping. Check out Last Chance U: Basketball, streaming now on Netflix.

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