We will start with a spoiler alert for the Netflix series “Last Chance U.: Basketball,” starring the Huskies of East Los Angeles College during the 2019-20 season. But it’s not really a spoiler since it’s public record: The Huskies didn’t win a state community college championship last spring, but neither did anyone else.
“I tell everybody, there’s (normally) a hundred schools and there’s only one team that doesn’t lose in the playoffs,” ELAC coach John Mosley said in a phone conversation this week. “And I’ll tell them this: We didn’t.”
The extenuating circumstances by now should be obvious. The California Community College Elite Eight would have taken place one year ago this week, but that was the week all of sports (and most of society, period) went into COVID-19 lockdown, and the state tournament was scrubbed before it began.
East L.A., which was 29-1 with a 25-game winning streak after advancing through the Southern California regional round, was ready to travel to West Hills College in Lemoore to take on Santa Rosa in the quarterfinals.
“We’re prepped, we’re ready to go, we’re heading up … man, you know,” Mosley said. “I mean, everything you can imagine, all the emotions you can imagine from seeing it and literally tasting it, is all there. We had all that … and you know, again, we didn’t lose.”
He laughed at that last sentence. What else can you do?
The Netflix cameras captured all of it, and in the process they helped continue the transition of the “Last Chance U.” series. It began in 2016 and for its first four seasons followed two National Junior College Athletic Association football powers: East Mississippi for two seasons and Independence (Kan.) for the next two. The stories of the individual athletes should have been front and center, but they were overshadowed by the antics of two abrasive (and in some ways borderline abusive) coaches, East Mississippi’s Buddy Stephens and Independence’s Jason Brown.
Lately the producers have taken a different tack, going from small towns in flyover country to more urban environments in the California Community College Athletic Association. The most recent football series spotlighted Oakland’s Laney College and veteran coach John Beam during the 2019 season, and now they’ve opted for a slice of an even bigger city.
And if it wasn’t already obvious, “Last Chance U.” has made it clear that the NJCAA programs and those in California are worlds apart.
“Being in Los Angeles it’s hard for us to keep our thumbs on the student-athletes day in and day out,” said ELAC athletic director and football coach Bobby Godinez. “After they leave campus they go home. They go to where they’re from. And you don’t know what they might be getting into, what they’re doing, and there’s always that level of concern for the element that they might run into.
“And so I think that nuance will show just a different part of community college. When you have a (NJCAA) college that has dorms and is in a small town, it’s basically 24-hour supervision. Not to say there’s not problems, which obviously we saw … you can have successes and failures in a small town. Well, in a big town like Los Angeles you’re going to have the same. It’s just different elements that’ll be involved.”
For instance, during the Laney football season, one of the players profiled was couch-surfing or sleeping in his car as the season progressed. He had a job, in addition to football and school, but was homeless.
It is a reminder that community college athletes – most of whom are there because of academics, or attitude, or because they are truly in need of that last chance – have some truly incredible back stories, largely because they either haven’t had things handed to them or have had them taken away.
Mosley, an ELAC alumnus who has been the school’s head basketball coach since 2013 (with a 189-50 record, eight playoff appearances and one trip to the CCCAA championship game), said that at first he was a little dubious about opening his program up to the cameras when the producers called.
“I knew about the show but hadn’t really watched it,” he said. “I went back and watched it and didn’t think that it was something that would fit my personality, and I didn’t really think I’d be that entertaining. Would anyone want to watch me or our basketball program?
“I just kind of thought about it and asked a few friends. My pastor and another good friend, they said, ‘Man, you have nothing to hide. And people need to see your story and hear your story and how you impact some of these kids’ lives.’ And so I decided to do it.”
From what we’ve been able to preview, Mosley does come across as compassionate but firm, and the gist of his challenge as a coach is probably distilled into one line to his team at halftime of a game his team should be winning handily but isn’t: “I got a reason to coach y’all now.” In other words, now maybe they’d start to pay attention.
The other concern would be that players might act out for the cameras, but the early indications seem to be that they’re acting, well, normally. As for Mosley, he said that as a man of faith he acts like someone’s always watching anyway, and “that holds me accountable.
“I’m gonna say what I say and do what I do,” he continued. “I’m gonna be honest. And I think the kids did the same. And what was interesting is you can still see it – you got all of the emotions of the kids, and I think all the kids had an opportunity to be in front of the camera. So it (wasn’t) where a kid was chasing the camera because everybody was in front of a camera every time. After a couple of times we saw the camera it became normal.
“They wanted to perform well. They wanted to look well, so I don’t think it affected us at all.”
The follow-up to this story is still to be determined. Nine of the 10 sophomores on last year’s roster moved on to the next level, Mosley said, and of those Malik Muhammed (Central Michigan) and Joe Hampton (Long Beach State) are receiving consistent minutes on the Division I level.
As for the ELAC program? Only a handful of community college programs are playing this spring, and Mosley’s isn’t one of them. Under those circumstances, maybe “Last Chance U.: Basketball” comes at the perfect time.
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter
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