Up Next

College Basketball

‘Last Chance U’ turns to hoops and its first Black head coach

The docuseries follows a new sport and produces the same juco drama

As a coach and professor in charge of guiding college students, John Mosley understands the benefits of being Instagram- and social media-famous. Yet, when the men’s basketball coach of East Los Angeles College (ELAC) was first approached about his team being the focus of the initial season of Last Chance U: Basketball, he wanted nothing to do with the spotlight.

“A lot of my friends said, ‘Do you want a camera following you around while you’re competing and in your practices?’ ” Mosley said. “I just never was the one that wanted to be in the spotlight.

“Plus, the previous coaches [in Last Chance U] had a lot of personality and were phenomenal.”

Those previous coaches, particularly Buddy Stephens (Last Chance U, seasons one and two) and Jason Brown (seasons three and four), were wildly entertaining. Mosley, the first Black head coach to be featured in the Emmy Award-winning sports documentary, will bring a different vibe to the series, which begins streaming Wednesday on Netflix. (No spoilers here.)

East Los Angeles College head coach John Mosley (left) and team captain Deshaun Highler (right) in episode five, Colby Ranch, of Last Chance U.

Netflix

A major difference in the overall feel of the series has to do with the fact that basketball stars, in general, emerge as bigger personalities than athletes in other sports. The game presents differently, with the anguish and joy of each player on constant display.

“Basketball players don’t wear helmets,” said Greg Whiteley, creator of the Last Chance U franchise. “When the drama and emotion of their personal lives bleed onto the court, it’s discernible on their faces.”

That connection to the players — the series covers all 15 players on the roster, and closely follows four players, during the 2019-20 season — is tough to accomplish in football, where teams are usually made up of more than 50 individuals.

Some fans weren’t ready to give up on Last Chance U football after five seasons. But Whiteley is confident fans of the football seasons won’t be disappointed.

“First, people think they want more football, but what people really want are great stories about kids trying to escape the gravitational pull of their circumstances,” said Whiteley, who was given the green light to shift sports when Netflix officials learned of his desire to produce a basketball project. “We didn’t choose basketball over football. We simply chose ELAC as the next place we wanted to go and tell their stories.”

Some of those stories include:

  • Joe Hampton, a star at DeMatha Catholic High School and Oak Hill Academy who landed at ELAC after previous commitments to Penn State and Long Beach State. The season opens with the talented power forward whose path to his second junior college is marred by his self-destructive behavior.
  • KJ Allen, the 2018 CIF Los Angeles City Section Player of the Year who wound up at ELAC because of poor grades.
  • DeShaun Highler, a juco bounce-back from the University of Texas-El Paso whose embrace of teammates, officials and coaches is countered by his off-the-court challenges.

Even with the collection of talent at ELAC, Whiteley said Mosley was the reason the series came to the school.

“He’s as intense as any coach we’ve ever filmed and, strangely, never swears,” Whiteley said. “We’ve never seen someone work so tirelessly to keep every player engaged and focused on the goal of moving on to the next level. Winning truly came second to this pursuit.”

That’s largely due to the spirituality of Mosley, an ELAC alum who came back to the school nine years ago after working as an assistant at California State University, Bakersfield.

Like any coach, juggling the personalities of 15 players who all think they should be playing Division I basketball is challenging for Mosley. The series shows Mosley often pushed to the brink.

Mosley has a unique way of handling some of the distractions. What’s never lost in those methods is his love and concern for kids as they pursue a state championship together. And beyond.

“There’s some diamonds in those kids, man,” Mosley said. “With some of them, we got to chip away at that front that’s being put up. The kid that’s rolling his eyes, the kid that’s pouting. There’s something that keeps them from responding to adversity, and we just write them off without figuring out what’s going on.

“Usually the one acting up the most has the most beautiful diamond,” Mosley added. “We just got to get to it.”

To get to those diamonds, Mosley has to somehow convey to his players the opportunity that’s in front of them.

“The kids I coached at the [four-year] level, there’s a little pressure off them because there are more resources,” Mosley said. “At this level, they haven’t seen hope yet. So they act out because they’re nervous and they’re worried about their future.”

With this group at ELAC, Mosley must gain the trust of the players to get them to their destination.

“This job can be tiring, it can be exhausting and sometimes I ask myself is it worth it,” Mosley said. “My passion is to help them with anything they’re going through. I pour all my energy and emotions in the job, because I will never give up on a kid.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.