‘Last Chance U’ Director on When They Decided to Ditch Football – and the Big Risk With Basketball

Plus: How does Greg Whiteley think his final “Last Chance U” football team stacks up against the previous ones?

Last Updated: July 28, 2020 @ 7:32 AM

“Last Chance U” is taking its last crack at junior college (JUCO) football this summer, when director Greg Whiteley and his team chronicle the 2019 season of the Laney College Eagles. The popular Netflix docuseries will shift to basketball next year, something Whiteley, the show’s top producer, said was “not really my decision to make.”

“Netflix, of course, who writes the checks — it’s ultimately their decision,” he told TheWrap ahead of the Season 5 premiere.

But, like football or basketball, it was a team effort.

“After Year 4, when we were looking for a new place to go, a lot of us just started thinking maybe there’s other places, even other sports, other subjects that we can try,” he said, referring to the gap between filming a second season at Independence Community College in Kansas and this one in Oakland, Calif. “Because of the success of the show, many of us have had other opportunities to explore some other stuff, and I think that combined with being really satisfied with the stories that we’ve told in Seasons 1-4, we felt like this might be a good time to say goodbye.”

Before they bid farewell to the pigskin, Whiteley and his crew would spend lunch debating which is the best football team they’ve covered with “Last Chance U.” And while going through the documentary series’ painstaking editing process, they’ve even created some fantasy all-star teams from the five seasons — not that he’ll share the details from those conversations.

“I have opinions, some of those opinions have shifted over time, but I will never disclose it publicly,” Whiteley said. “There’s too good an argument — I think it’s too close.”

OK, but how does the Laney team stack up? Surely the creators can discuss the squad chronicled on the very season of “Last Chance U” they’re currently plugging?

Like any California junior college program, Laney is “almost starting with one hand tied behind their back,” Whiteley said. “According to the rules of the JUCO federation, you can’t offer housing [to student athletes]. You can’t offer food. So, just that alone limits the kinds of players they can go after nationally.”

Reading between the lines, that doesn’t mean Laney ranks as high as East Mississippi Community College and Independence in their eyes. That passes our eye test, too, despite the fact that the Laney Eagles were coming off of a state championship season.

We don’t think we’re spoiling anything — a simple Google search will let you in on that letdown.

Like the docuseries itself, we then moved on in our conversation to hoops — a sport that has advantages and disadvantages when compared with football.

“Well, so the fact that you go to a football program that sometimes has upwards of 60, 70 kids that you could choose from, that’s an advantage, that’s not a disadvantage,” Whiteley said. “So the disadvantage in basketball is you better hope the 12 or 13 players that are on the roster, that you can find four or five that are interesting. Because I think you need about four or five kids in whatever show you’re doing in order to justify six, seven, eight episodes. I just think it helps to have that number. That’s the number we’ve settled on each year, regardless of the sport or the activity.”

“But I will say in basketball…it’s really great to be able to film a closeup of a player’s face while they are in action doing the thing that they love,” he continued. “There is just so much emotion that is going to– there’s only so much emotion that’s going to come through a face mask in the field of play, but on a basketball court, it’s almost as though you can read every thought in that player’s mind and it’s very cinematic for that reason.”

“Last Chance U” Season 5 is now available for streaming in its entirety on Netflix. Next year, “Last Chance U: Basketball” will document the East Los Angeles Community College basketball team during their 2019-2020 season.