There was something unseemly about all those parents last fall angrily demanding that high school sports be brought back, especially since health officials were warning that COVID rates were in danger of going way up. The experts, sadly, were right, but the parents had a point: “Our kids are driving us nuts, and we like going to their games.” OK, most parents didn’t quite put it that way, but if they had I’d have understood.
We all have our reasons for wanting to see sports come back, but it’s unlikely you’re going to see anyone make a better case made than Coach John Mosley of the East Los Angeles College Huskies men’s basketball team. “My prayer is that all these guys get the opportunity to have what I have,” says Mosley — namely, a ticket out of the hood.
Unlike typical sports documentaries, Netflix’s Last Chance U franchise is built on the stories of young men living on the edge of society — coming from bad schools, tough neighborhoods and/or broken families — for whom sports is, as Mosley puts it, “the only door out.” Last Chance U spent five seasons documenting football programs at junior colleges. Along the way it established itself as one of those Netflix brands with a cultural imprint larger than a lot of cable channels (sorry, Epix). Now the focus shifts to basketball, and the first Black coach to be featured on a TV franchise dominated by Black student-athletes.
I had a lot of mixed feelings about Last Chance U after the chaotic third and fourth seasons, which were filmed at a junior college in Kansas. There was too much focus on the school’s immature, profane head football coach, whose tantrums made great TV but surely caused most players in the room to briefly rethink their life choices.
But in John Mosley, Last Chance U may have found its ideal coach. A product of South Central, Mosley starred at ELAC, then coached around California before being named head coach at his alma mater. His job is a simple mercenary proposition: recruit other schools’ castoffs and give them a chance to develop their skills and earn a scholarship to a four-year college. (Another recent Netflix docuseries along these same lines is We Are: The Brooklyn Saints, about a pee-wee football team.)
ELAC was a doormat in California juco hoops until Mosley did his Welcome Back, Kotter routine, and now the team routinely puts up 20-win seasons and regularly competes in the California state juco tourney. Yet Mosley is far from a coaching legend, unlike Laney College’s John Beam from Last Chance U’s fifth season. His Huskies have always come up short in the playoffs. Mosley has “made it” in the ways that really count — stability, family, faith, and a meaningful life — yet still has plenty to prove to the world and to himself. So he stays hungry and intense, as you can see in the opening seconds of the Netflix trailer:
Mosley doesn’t curse. He’s a man of God and other than a rare H-bomb, he keeps it clean. (The series is rated TV-MA because everyone else curses.) And despite how it appears in the clip, Mosley gives very controlled, theatrical performances designed to motivate his team to dig deeper. In another scene, he harangues them: “All I’m tryin’ to do all I want is for you to get what you came here to get,” then plays the family card: “I missed my son’s game tonight! You mad at me for askin’ extra, and my son, I freakin’ missed his game!”
If you want to coach juco basketball, you have to be a skilled motivator, recruiter, playmaker, and counselor rolled up in one. ELAC may be the country’s second-largest community college, but Mosley is a one-man band. And if it’s Tuesday, he’s leading the spin class too. (At least he has tenure; for his first four years coaching the Huskies, Mosley was a part-time employee.)
During the 2019-20 season, when Netflix’s cameras followed him around, this scrappy coach was blessed with a bumper crop of talent, each with their own Last Chance U-ready narrative. There’s Malik Muhammad, a sleepy-eyed giant who does amazing things on the court when he feels like it. There’s KJ Allen, one of LA’s top ballers whose grades scared off college recruiters. And there’s Joe Hampton, a former Division I player who is at ELAC because he blew out his ACL and his LCL. Hampton is haunted by a demon, one that whispers in people’s ears, even if they don’t play sports, “There went your big chance, kid.”
But the player most viewers will gravitate to is Mosley’s playmaker, DeShaun Highler, whose intensity matches his coach’s and who is seen managing the bench during games. We learn the two have an even closer bond off the court — when Highler’s mother lay dying of cancer, she told Mosley, “He’s yours now,” a command that the coach seems to take literally.
The eight-episode journey of Last Chance U concludes with the last basketball game that Mosley or any of his players would compete in prior to the lockdown of March 2020. As the coronavirus spreads and hoop dreams fade, it’s clear what's bothering the coach. He can’t be with his players anymore. Can’t be watching over them, protecting them, helping them. Watching Mosley clearly anguish over his loss, I found myself wishing, for the very first time in a year, for the true return of sports.
Last Chance U: Basketball drops on Netflix March 10th.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.