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 There's always hope.

Over this difficult year and a half, having been confined to the four walls of my bedrooms, I have found myself searching for new interests. I’m a big football fan, but I’ve always been drawn towards the traditional American sports, such as basketball. The huge stadiums, tapestries of colour and noise drew me in to such a great extent. There is an innate excitement to the way sport is "done" in America, that is fascinating to audiences on the outside. For lack of experiencing the real thing, a quick trawl through Netflix led me to Last Chance U: Basketball, the spin-off series to the highly successful show about American College Football. Premiering in March this year, it follows the young players at East Los Angeles Community College (ELAC), the second largest community college in the country, hopeful of gaining scholarships to Division I and II university teams. 

“Everybody’s playing to get out. This is nobody’s ending point”. Four minutes in, the mood of the series is set. The young men are at a point in their lives, and their personal development as athletes, where the possibility of greatness is within touching distance, yet the chances of making it into the NBA, the pinnacle of international basketball, are incredibly slim. 

What this series so movingly encapsulates is the role that sports can play in improving people’s lives, especially young men – many of them African American – who have  had to face personal trauma already on their journey, none more so than ELAC’s captain and point guard, Deshaun Highler. In the first episode, he admits to having been called “mean”, “unapproachable” and “angry”. When asked whether he believes these are true, he rejects them and simply says, “I think I’m going through the hardest part of my life”. Having been separated from much of his family from a young age, including his dad, Highler’s role model growing up was his mum. In the third episode, simply entitled "Jenny", we learn that just as Highler was beginning to grapple with his own identity as the son of a Black father and a White mother, his mum died of cancer. To experience such a traumatic event early on in life, and in this case so early on in what could be a highly successful basketball career, there is no telling the damage that could do mentally. In many ways, it is the raw emotion of Highler’s personal story, and how he uses this pain to be the captain the team needs, that makes us so invested in this story and their success as a group. 

"What this series so movingly encapsulates is the role that sports can play in improving people’s lives, especially young men..."

Another one of the series’ main protagonists is forward Joe Hampton, described by Coach Mosely as one of the best he’s ever had in the programme at ELAC. Becoming a rising star early in his career at Oak Hill in Virginia, was “all fun and games” until he tore his ACL in high school, missing out on playing his senior year at what was arguably the best team in the country at the time. “It really cut deep”, admits Hampton, who painfully opens the series talking about the many regrets he already has in life, and wishing he’d already be in a position to financially support his family. 

Not only do we, as an audience, see high stakes and tense moments where every move counts, but the series also brilliantly reveals to us how the personal lives of these young men drive this interplay of complex emotions in-game. The trauma of family loss, drug misuse, keeping in shape and the overall weight of expectation placed on their shoulders at such a young age serves as the backdrop to what is a deeply moving documentary that traverses the boundaries of sport and its relation to our lives.

Now, I’ve never been a sporty person myself, but that's not to say that sport doesn’t impact me personally. Inevitably, ELAC’s season was curtailed by the pandemic, just when they were on the cusp of winning the state championship. In these moments, we see the vulnerability of the coaches and the players, a team rocked by the realisation that all their hard work over a long season might amount to nothing. This gave me a deeper appreciation of how the pandemic has impacted people all over the world in different ways, and actually made me appreciate the relatively easy time I had during the periods of lockdown. Whilst I mainly sat in my pyjamas playing PlayStation, these young athlete’s futures were on the line. This excellent series put things into perspective, and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.


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