As any sports fan—and all the art made about them—can tell you, masterful displays of physical prowess, where the mind and body sync in competition, lend themselves well to the creation of a good story. Athletic feats, and the structures that enable them, can amaze observers. And in trying to relate this amazement to others, sometimes those observers end up making something beautiful. Netflix’s Last Chance U is one such beautiful thing.
Last Chance U is a documentary series about junior college athletic programs that benefit from being the last, best chance for players who might be talented enough to make it to the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s top division of sports (played by four-year institutions), but either didn’t have the grades coming out of high school or didn’t have their heads on straight when they were at four-year schools—that could mean academic trouble, legal trouble, or not getting along with their coaching staff.
Over the course of its run, the show has focused on a number of different locales, and later, different sports. Through the first four seasons, Last Chance covered the football programs at East Mississippi Community College (in Scooba, Mississippi) and Independence Community College (in Independence, Kansas). The last season of Last Chance U’s football installments, set at Laney College (Oakland, California), came out in July of 2020. Then earlier this year, the first season of spinoff Last Chance U: Basketball, set at East Los Angeles College (Los Angeles, California), made its debut.
When I watched the first season of the docuseries, I was struck by how artfully the cinematography chronicled practices, as well as the natural way multiple narratives unfolded through the convergence of on- and off-field tensions: athletes struggling with their play and their families; disagreements among players; the ability of coaches to scheme a playcalling system and motivate players; the problems players had motivating themselves to maintain a decent grade-point average. It was this last part that was the most jarring and the most familiar. These young men weren’t dumb, and a few of them were very academically capable, but those who failed to show book smarts revealed an obvious tension at the heart of all scholastic and collegiate athletics, a sort of conundrum that repeats itself ad infinitum: the kids play sports to get into college, but through their time in school (before college) they have mostly been trained to play sports. Not to research or to study, not to think critically about the world, not even—in the most cynical capitalistic appraisal of requirements—how to be a good employee or entrepreneur.
The athletes play sports with the hope of getting to a four-year degree-granting university because that will open doors for them. They don’t all assume they’re going to the NFL, even if a disproportionate number do assume that (and some even make it, like East Mississippi/Texas Tech University alum and Jacksonville Jaguar linebacker Dakota Allen). There is a well-founded assumption that they will have access to more resources for academic support, but they also have to get there. And the show is about how difficult “getting there” is.
Through two seasons at EMCC in Mississippi and two seasons at ICC in Kansas, a captivating piece of infotainment developed, first about the football programs at the respective junior colleges, but more interestingly about the worlds they inhabited. College sports are captivating because of the strangeness of young people risking their bodies for a chance to go to school and maybe become a professional athlete. It’s especially strange with the NCAA and its member schools generating billions of dollars in revenue from the talents of these students. But at the junior college level, things are less prosperous and less centralized. Still, at perpetual National Junior College Athletic Association championship contender EMCC and up-and-coming ICC (both undefeated teams at the time of this writing), the resources allocated to the football programs stood in contrast to the economic realities of their surrounding communities. The kids in Mississippi were outspoken about trying to get out of Scooba, while the community leader alums in Independence were outspoken about how the town’s population has shrunk and its economy has shriveled.
In Oakland and Los Angeles, the players live a different reality. Relative to rural Mississippi and small-town Kansas, urban California is in perpetual boomtimes. Yet this makes the gap between the haves and have-nots even more present. We never saw anyone sleep in their car in Scooba or Independence. We didn’t see guys working outside jobs. The players had dormitories and scholarships; not so in California, a state so populous that they have their own 108-school California Community College Athletic Association.
During Laney’s season, the gentrification of Oakland was a central theme regarding surrounding social circumstances, as the team had a relatively underwhelming season due to injuries at the quarterback position. The Laney Eagles are led by California coaching legend John Beam (also the athletic director), the only person to be recognized as state coach of the year for both high school and junior college levels, who has produced over 100 Division 1 athletes and 20 NFL players. One of those former NFL players is defensive assistant coach Derrick Gardner, whose prospering side career in real estate serves as a partial introduction to (or reminder of) the ubiquitous background theme of urban development.
At ELAC, the athletes drove from all other Southern California—from Los Angeles proper to the Inland Empire—to play for John Mosley, a pious man (sometimes too pious, though always humble and never self-righteous) and ELAC alum who has built the program up over ten years after a long-middling history. He wrestles with motivating his players to work as a team, while also cleaning the gym floors and teaching a spin class. His efforts, and those of his team, were more than successful during their featured season. They lost one game by two points in mid-November, and then went undefeated for three months. While on the bus to play Santa Rosa College at West Hills Lemoore College in the quarterfinals of the CCCAA Championship tournament, the documentary film crew recorded them being told that the tournament was cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, which brought all regular life to a halt in the U.S. and around the world in 2020.
The unique personalities and life experiences of the players are what make Last Chance U—and the associated miniseries about Texas college cheerleading, Cheer—worth watching. Seeing the players triumph through hard work and determination over adversity on the field, as well as academic challenges and genuine personal tragedies, is truly inspiring.
Moreover, the production choices show how directors Greg Whiteley, Adam Ridley, and Luke Lorentzen have a good eye for capturing the drama and the comedy of real life. The docuseries values the specificity of the places it is capturing, from overhead shots of I-105 and the Bay Bridge, to the tiny apartment two players rent near an overpass, to murals of Mac Dre in Oakland and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles (one episode focuses on the players at ELAC’s response to the NBA legend’s passing). One nod I especially appreciated in the last two seasons—having been born in the Bay Area and growing up primarily in Southern California—were the musical choices. Luniz, Mac Dre, and Too $hort were among prominent voices narrating highlights in the Laney season. There’s a moment when Vince Staples’s song “Big Fish” comes on in Last Chance U: Basketball over highlights as the team is on a run mid-season that got it added immediately to my workout playlist.
More still can be said about the incredible people who make up the student-athlete rosters between the two California schools. At Laney there was do-everything player Dior Walker-Scott, wide receiver RJ Stern (grandson of fantasy author Marion Zimmer Bradley), doting father and offensive lineman Nu’u Taugavau, and Oregon State legacy cornerback Rejzohn Wright, among others. At ELAC, to my untrained eyes, nearly all the players looked like they had NBA talent, though perhaps Joe Hampton stood out above others. Still, Deshaun Highler (a young man living on his own with his girlfriend after the passing of his parents), Malik Muhammad, KJ Allen, and LJ Zeigler each showed the talent and skill that made them such an impressive team together. And they’re insightful and lovable dudes—one episode shows them going to a weekend retreat in the mountains set up by Coach Mosley where they play an improv game, imitate the coach, and analyze and rank their favorite rappers.
The show also doesn’t shy away from showing the support structures the players have through the management staffs and, more importantly, their personal relationships. There are a lot of reliable friends, girlfriends, and moms, to say nothing of the English teachers and coaches’ wives and daughters. Women are verifiably and consistently the backbone of these stories, even if the scope of the documentary doesn’t provide them the same screen time.
For all its excellent polish, Last Chance U is a series that succeeds because it retains authenticity, thanks to the unfiltered access the coaches and players grant the documentary team. This allows viewers to get an intimate portrait of those featured, and to understand their environments and their journeys. Last Chance U uses sports as a catalyst to inform its audience about people and, really, this country.
Last Chance U is worth watching from start to finish, but even if you start with the two seasons in California, you’ll be treating yourself to fun and informative entertainment. While the football series is over, Last Chance U: Basketball is returning to ELAC in 2022.
All seasons of Last Chance U are currently streaming on Netflix.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer and Paste intern. He loves videogames, film, history, pop culture, sports, and human rights, and can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.
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