Netflix gives us a new season of heartbreak and inspiration in its JUCO basketball documentary series
It’s been almost two years since the East Los Angeles College (ELAC) basketball team, which Netflix features on its docuseries Last Chance U, suited up. Their 2020 season came to an abrupt halt when Covid reared its ugly head. LCU deep dives into the junior college (JUCO) universe, a world’s away from the bright lights and big bucks of March Madness. While the JUCO players are immensely talented, they’re also often broken in one form or another. Many of the players have dealt with poverty and homelessness at some point. LCU, which adeptly chronicles their stories with compassion, is heartbreaking, heartwarming and everything in between. Plus, this season’s soundtrack is particularly awesome. LCU, which spares no expense, is just flat-out well done.
Each LCU season revolves around the featured team’s coach. This current season is no different. As far as a human being, ELAC coach John Mosley raises the bar. Basketball is secondary. First and foremost, Mosley is a caregiver. He wants to put the broken back together, help them land college scholarships (hopefully Division 1) and lead productive lives. Basketball is merely a tool. Don’t get the wrong impression. Mosley, who’s often pissed, yells a lot. And it can be exhausting for all. But if you want a breakthrough, chances are it’s not going to come quietly. All of that said, Mosley desperately wants a state championship. But again, that ties into the well-being of his players. Winning games garners exposure to college recruiters and ultimately the happily ever after.
This season, that seems like a pre-ordained certainty. Mosley has a loaded team, at least on paper. Bryan Penn-Johnson is a seven-footer who departed LSU after failing a math class. Johnson’s size is a gift but also a burden of immense expectations–and he’s having difficulty dealing. Shemar Morrow, who people anointed Baby LeBron as a youngster, is also dealing with the downside of expectations. He’s spent most of his youth away from his mother, chasing hoop dreams. When there’s adversity, he flees. Demetrius Calip is a slender, outspoken guard from NBA stock. His father won a national championship with Michigan and played in the NBA. DC–a kid with an Instagram-ready face and Reggie Miller’s frame and swagger–believes he’s destined for the same path. However, DC is alone in his belief.
Before ELAC plays even its first game, its season descends into turmoil. Doctors diagnose its fiercest player, point guard Damani Whitlock, with a heart condition. And on the court, the team is not living up to its hype. They’re selfish and soft, not rebounding and diving nearly enough for loose balls. Suddenly, not to mention unexpectedly, ELAC is the underdog.
While the action on the hardwood is intimate and raw, the grumblers on the bench are just as compelling. Baby LeBron and DC are frequent commentators. Riding the pine is yet another disappointment.
Amidst the adversity, Mosley turns up the volume. It’s a necessity. If the team doesn’t prosper, the players don’t get their happily ever after–or just after…. And just as LCU seems to be leaning towards redundancy, it throws a curve. There’s one ELAC player, a physical defensive force, who requires different treatment. He has a condition, which I’ll let the show reveal, that requires a unique temperament. Mosley was unaware of the player’s condition until a college assistant informed him.
Once again, Mosley consults his wise assistants, Ken Hunter and Rob Robinson. Hunter, who is wheelchair-bound, is a more mellow communicator than Mosley. His disability is a constant reminder to the players that things could be far worse. Robinson also has a compelling story. Instead of chasing a D 1 coaching career, he coached high school and raised a family. Now that his kids are grown, as his charming wife explains, he’s going for it.
No spoilers here, but LCU comes to a dramatic, unexpected conclusion. As is par for the course with LCU, the viewers are amongst the winners.