Rise & Fall of Lenny Cooke

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Rise & Fall of Lenny Cooke

Postby rlee » Thu Jul 07, 2011 5:14 am

The Rise and Fall of Prep Phenom Lenny Cooke

Think it’s hard being LeBron James right now? Try being Lenny Cooke, 29, one of the most-hyped high school basketball players in history. However, Cooke never played a minute of college or NBA basketball. We look at what went wrong and where he is now.

In fairness, Lenny Cooke probably never could have lived up to the hype surrounding him from his days growing up in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, NY.

He started out at Franklin K. Lane High School in his home borough, where his legend was born. He was named Freshman of the Year but eventually flunked out of school and moved on to LaSalle Academy in Manhattan.

There, he furthered his star turn leading LaSalle into the city playoffs. He averaged 25.0 points and 10.0 rebounds in his junior year and was hailed as the next great New York City star.

Then came the summer of 2001.

Cooke was already the MVP of the famed ABCD Camp in 2000. He was widely believed to be the best high school player in the Class of 2002 ahead of the likes of guys named Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire. After all, Cooke was a 6-foot-6 man-child like James who also wore No. 23.

That’s when the Cooke and the future King finally came face-to-face at the 2001 ABCD Camp, where Cooke was the star attraction and James was a rising junior that Cooke said he’d never heard of.

“It was like an Old West duel,” recruiting guru Tom Konchalski told the New York Daily News. “It was a young gunslinger coming into town, trying to make his reputation.”

Unfortunately for Cooke, he was dominated by James, who scored 25 points, including a running 3-pointer at the buzzer that gave his team an 85-83 victory. Cooke finished with nine points and was hounded by James on defense.

That game catapulted James into the stratosphere and was the start of Cooke’s descent.

He eventually moved to a suburban New Jersey town when his parents left for Virginia. He transferred to Northern Valley Regional High in Demarest, NJ, and then Northern Valley Regional High School in Old Tappan. Cooke averaged 31.5 points in the first eight games of his senior season but inadvertently used up all of his high school eligibility.

In a bizarre move, Cooke then moved to Flint, MI, to attend Mott Adult School and prepare for the draft despite still being wildly recruited by colleges. St. John’s fans dreamed of him becoming the latest New York City phenom to land in Queens following in the foot steps of Felipe Lopez, Ron Artest and Omar Cook. Then-North Carolina coach Matt Doherty talked to Cooke about joining the Tar Heels’ heralded 2002 freshman class that included Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Sean May.

Cooke still felt he was talented enough to jump straight to the NBA and declared for the 2002 NBA draft. Injuring his right big toe during a pre-draft camp, Cooke went unselected while Stoudemire was selected ninth overall and Anthony was picked third overall in the 2003 draft.

The slick Brooklyn kid that packed gym bleachers and outdoor parks alike took terrible advice and would pay for it.

According to multiple sources, Cooke had agents, street runners and general neighborhood hustlers in his head, which he could barely fit through the door by the time of his entrance into the draft.

“Lenny Cooke has all the talent in the world,” Queens basketball consultant Rob Johnson told the Daily News. “But his head wasn’t screwed on right, and NBA people knew that.”

As a result, Cooke’s pro career never got off the ground.

He started out playing for the USBL’s Brooklyn franchise and plied his trade in minor-league outposts that at one time seemed too small for his large talent. Cooke averaged 28.8 points in 15 USBL games. He then moved all the way across the world to play in the Philippines.

Then Cooke was in a horrific car wreck in 2003 that required a pin to be inserted to his leg.

When he returned to the court with China’s Shanghai Sharks, Cooke averaged just 16.7 PPG. He then bounced around the CBA and ABA before tearing his Achilles tendon on New Year’s Eve 2006. Still just 24, the injury forced Cooke to sit out for a prolonged period and put on weight; he never played pro basketball again.

So what is Cooke up to now?

Currently, the 29-year old – a father of three – is trying to help kids avoid the mistakes he made. He recently spoke to a group of 100 in Atlantic City, where he was born, and told them that his biggest mistake was spurning college scholarship offers.

“If I could do it over again, I would have gone to college,” Cooke told the Press of Atlantic City. “My advice to all the kids now would be to go to college for at least a year. In the real world, they will need something to fall back on.

“I had one kid say to me, ‘If I go to college, I’m going there just to play ball and get to the NBA. So I might as well just make the jump now.’ I told him, ‘You don’t know what you will experience in college.’”

Too bad there was no one around to tell Cooke that advice nearly a decade ago.
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Re: Rise & Fall of Lenny Cooke

Postby rlee » Thu Aug 11, 2011 12:01 am

Cooke's story of lost potential sad, but not tragic

By Jeff Goodman

When Lenny Cooke gingerly stepped onto the scale, the numbers read a startling '308.' This from a once-chiseled, 220-pound physical specimen who had been considered the No. 1 player in the country a decade or so ago, one of those few can't-miss prospects.

But Cooke has missed.

And he's at peace with it.

The father of three is no longer bothered when he hears the whispers about how LeBron virtually ended his career with that game-winning 3-point dagger at ABCD Camp in Teaneck, N.J.

Now he just wants to help his 11-year-old son and other kids avoid the issues that plagued him coming out of New York tabbed as the 'next big thing.'

Few recall that Cooke came directly off the court in a head-to-head battle with Carmelo Anthony prior to his matchup with LeBron.

And that's fine with Cooke.

"LeBron had a better game than me," the 28-year-old Cooke said. "That's when his career exploded."

Most weren't aware that Cooke, growing up in New York, did have a support system that included his parents, but they weren't basketball-savvy, so he was basically left to fend for himself while all the leaches tried to swoop in and prey on his naiveté.

"Every decision I made, I had to make on my own," Cooke said.

Cooke, playing in a summer league game in 2003, says he wouldn't have signed with an agent at 18 if he could it all over. By his count, Cooke has played in four different leagues -- the USBL, ABA, CBA and the NBDL -- as well as four countries (China, Denmark, Philippines and Brazil) since he declared and went undrafted back in 2002.
"I'm not done playing," said Cooke, who currently resides with his fiancé and three children -- ages 11, 9 and 1 -- in Virginia.

At one time, there was Lenny, Amar'e and Carmelo.

In that order.

"I was playing off pure talent," Cooke said. "Nobody worked with me. I got my name from pure talent."

"It wasn't that I didn't work," he added. "I just wasn't focused like the rest of those guys."

But that's not easy in New York, either. It's an environment that has eaten up more than its share of supposed 'can't-miss' kids -- guys like Lloyd Daniels, Felipe Lopez and Sebastian Telfair.

But Cooke's physique, production and potential was plenty to put him among the stars of the future in the Class of 2002. Cooke struggled academically and bounced around a few high schools, which ultimately made him ineligible for the prestigious McDonald's All-American Game.

The hope was to try and get his academics in order and play at St. John's. Then Mike Jarvis was fired.

That's when Cooke made the mistake of signing with an agent, a move that paid off in the form of brand-new Mercedes at the age of 18, but also removed college basketball from the equation.

"I don't have any regrets, but I would have gone to college if I could have done it over again," Cooke admitted.

Every NBA franchise passed on Cooke, some on multiple occasions, in June of 2002. I went to see him play in Brooklyn in the USBL and he had displayed the same dominance and swagger he did on the AAU circuit. Then came a stop in the CBA and the NBDL before he went out west to play for the Long Beach Jam of the ABA.

He averaged 16.2 points and 7.4 rebounds in five games and said he was informed a 10-day NBA call-up was coming shortly after the New Year.

Then came the car crash in December of 2004.

"I still don't remember anything," Cooke said of the accident that put him in a coma for seven days. "I came out and they wanted to amputate my leg."

Cooke wasn't driving. His teammate, Nick Sheppard, lost control of the wheel and his passenger wasn't wearing a seat belt. Cooke broke his left shin and femur and still has a metal rod from his hip down to his ankle as a result of the wreck.

"The doctors told me I was never going to walk again," Cooke said. "That I would never play basketball again."

Cooke spent the next year-plus in a wheelchair, fallen out of love with the game that had put him on the map just a few years earlier.

His weight ballooned, but eventually he fought his way back and made his return to the court. However, then came a pair of torn Achilles -- one with the CBA and one in the Philippines.

Cooke now resides in Virginia, spending time with his family, speaking to kids -- including his 11-year-old son, Anahijae -- on the lessons he learned and also awaiting the release of a documentary that has been following his life since he burst onto the scene more than a decade ago.

"I want people to know that I've matured," Cooke said. "If you've got talent, I tell kids to use it to get a free education.

"Anything can happen," he added. "Just like it did for me. You need something to fall back on."

Cooke is hoping to start a non-profit foundation to help kids learn from his mistakes. He still stays in touch with Amar'e and Carmelo, saying he just took a different path from their days a decade or so ago when they'd go at it on the court.

"It is what it is," Cooke said. "I had my fun. My time. My limelight."

"I'd love to be in the NBA, but I'm not complaining," he added. "I'm not on the street selling drugs. Everything's worked out. I've got my family, I'm trying to get back in shape and hopefully I can get back on the court."

"But if not," Cooke continued. "I'm OK with it."
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Re: Rise & Fall of Lenny Cooke

Postby JAB1234 » Tue Aug 16, 2011 10:15 am

When people say that the NBA should get rid of the one and done, I think of Lenny Cooke.
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Re: Rise & Fall of Lenny Cooke

Postby meej » Thu Aug 18, 2011 1:33 am

I do not see college as the right place for a player who "inadvertently used up all of his high school eligibility".
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Re: Rise & Fall of Lenny Cooke

Postby Mike Goodman » Thu Aug 18, 2011 1:43 am

A player isn't required to attend college in the year he must wait to go into the NBA. There are other places where he may play, and get paid for doing so.
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Re: Rise & Fall of Lenny Cooke

Postby Robert Bradley » Thu Aug 18, 2011 2:02 pm

hard to blame the NBA for his problems, it sounds like you have to look at the lack of guidance he got at home.

no set of draft eligibility rules are going to help a kid out when poor decisions are being made when he's still in high school.
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Re: Rise & Fall of Lenny Cooke

Postby rlee » Wed Jun 06, 2012 2:03 pm

Star-to-Be Who Never Was
New York Times
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/04/sport ... wanted=all

STONY CREEK, Va. — On an otherwise lazy Sunday, dinner took hours to prepare, filling the small one-story house on a remote and wooded street with the aromatic smell of chicken, ribs and all the trimmings. The extended family would soon be arriving, in full, hungry force.

Standing tall but cramped in the narrow kitchen at 6 feet 6 inches and not much less than 300 pounds, Lenny Cooke suddenly looked up from his culinary masterpiece.

“I went from being a superstar basketball player to being a cook,” he said wistfully, unmindful of the play on his name.

But cooking is only a pastime, not a profession, and Cooke, who will turn 30 next month, has yet to discover what or who he is supposed to be since it became obvious years ago that he would not fulfill his once presumed destiny and become an N.B.A. star.

A decade ago, many were predicting that Cooke, a New York City prodigy, would become a basketball shoe pitchman and would flaunt his wares and skills at All-Star weekends like the recent aerial show in Orlando, Fla. There was a time, however fleeting, when he was more heralded, or perhaps merely hyped, than any other high school player in America.

“No matter who it was against, where we were at, once I got rolling, I just felt I couldn’t be stopped,” he said.

Scant as it was, evidence of that other life was on display in a corner of the living room of the house Cooke shares with his girlfriend, Anita Solomon, and their young daughter, Nyvaeh. The handful of trophies was only a sampling, he said, of the many he had stored away at his mother’s house in Emporia, a nearby town close to Virginia’s border with North Carolina.

But on the wall of Cooke’s celebrity corner was his photographic treasure, proof that he had once walked among the most gifted and talented, and still could.

There was one shot of much younger Lenny, his thinner face partly hidden under a low-slung cap, posing with Magic Johnson. And there was contemporary Lenny, bloated in the years after injuries ended a career already marginalized, in the separate company of Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire at a Knicks game last season.

“When I see them, I get the most respect,” he said. “They knew how good I was.”

Cooke was a flashy 6-6 guard who struggled with academics and flirted with college before signing with an agent and entering the 2002 N.B.A. draft — only to go undrafted, never advancing beyond the summer-league teams of the Boston Celtics and the Seattle SuperSonics.

What went wrong? How did he miss by so much?

Stretched on the couch, glancing at a big-screen television, he shrugged and said, “You had a devil on one shoulder and an angel on another.”

After arriving with a phalanx of relatives, Cooke’s mother, Alfreda Hendrix, explained that her son had heeded the wrong calling and had mistaken what was given to him as something he had earned.

“He was a teenage kid, and every day, he had money in his pocket — and I don’t mean $200 or $300,” she said. “It was whatever he wanted, like the world was his, so he took advantage of it. I guess he didn’t figure that things were going to fall down because people kept telling him it was only going to get better and better. He made a lot of mistakes, but as far as his attitude, he’s changed now. He has matured a lot.”

Yet there remains a restless side to Cooke, a meandering and moody soul, the father of three (a son lives in Brooklyn and another daughter in Maryland) who will wander off for weeks at a time to Atlantic City, where he was born, or back to Brooklyn, where he lived during his early high school years.

This is where the story, still at its crossroads, becomes more complicated. Nobody seems to know what Cooke is looking for — closure from basketball and the key to his future, or the perpetuation of a legend that was never quite written.

Eclipsed Early On

The first time Adam Shopkorn read about Lenny Cooke, he could not shake the feeling that Cooke’s story had a big-screen, sequel-like quality, “Hoop Dreams” for the 21st century. Given the widespread raves for his all-around game, Cooke — unlike the popular 1994 documentary that followed two young Chicago players — seemed far more likely to end with a pot of N.B.A. gold.

Shopkorn, in his early 20s, quit his job with a Manhattan filmmaker and hauled his equipment up to Old Tappan, N.J., where Cooke, an African-American, was starring for the local public school while living with a wealthy white family. In that regard, the cinematic appeal was more “The Blind Side” than “Hoop Dreams.”

Four years earlier, Cooke had befriended a teammate, Brian Raimondi, on an Amateur Athletic Union team called the Panthers. Raimondi’s mother, Debbie Bortner, helped manage the squad. Cooke had only recently begun playing organized ball but was already more than 6 feet tall and quickly became the talk of the circuit.

The Panthers happened to have one future N.B.A. multimillionaire on their roster, but Joakim Noah, now of the Chicago Bulls, was only 5-9 on the way to 6-11 and completely in awe of Cooke.

“I was a 13-year-old French kid from Paris, and all of a sudden, I met Lenny and was watching him play in all of these tournaments,” said Noah, the son of the French tennis star Yannick Noah, whose mother had moved him to Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. “He was really my hero because the way he could dominate a game was unbelievable to me.”

Cooke began high school at Franklin K. Lane in Brooklyn and transferred to La Salle Academy in Manhattan to play with Raimondi. By junior year, with Cooke struggling academically, they hatched a plan to become teammates in Old Tappan.

While Raimondi nursed a broken wrist, Cooke was dominating the suburban competition when Shopkorn arrived to make his documentary pitch.

“I wasn’t there just to get a quick story, but as someone who wanted to be there for the whole process — let’s call it a two-year process,” Shopkorn said. “It took a little time, but Lenny understood what I wanted to do. He began to trust me.”

Shopkorn turned his video camera on Cooke at Bortner’s home, where Cooke and Raimondi had adjoining rooms; at Cooke’s games for Old Tappan, where he averaged 31 points but fell short of a state championship; on Cooke’s visits to his old Bushwick neighborhood — the frequency of which concerned Bortner — even after his family had left Brooklyn for Virginia.

Most significantly, and symbolically, Shopkorn was in perfect position to record a moment that would become the most unforgettable, and haunting, of Cooke’s basketball life.

It was the summer of 2001, weeks before 9/11, and Cooke returned to the popular ABCD Camp for the nation’s most prominent high school players at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Teaneck, N.J., campus as the defending most valuable player, the presumed chosen one.

“He was coming from being the No. 1 player in the country, and we all looked at Lenny like that,” said Anthony, who was born in Brooklyn but relocated to Baltimore. “It was his size, how strong he was, how he could pass the ball and play the point, kind of like Magic, I guess. He was really explosive.”

Anthony’s team was defeated by Cooke’s group. Cooke dazzled the packed gym and set up a showdown between him and a lesser-known player who was generating interest and who was one grade behind Cooke. His name was LeBron James, out of Akron, Ohio, a comparative basketball backwater.

During the camp, a person in the James entourage noticed Shopkorn’s shadowing Cooke and wanted to know why. When Shopkorn told him, the James ally said: “You should come up to Akron and shoot LeBron. He’s the real deal.”

Shopkorn declined the offer, electing to go with the known commodity, or at least the commodity he knew.

“Lenny was local, so you had all the media outlets there, all the newspapers, all the scouts and coaches,” Shopkorn said. “There was this buildup to the game, and it kind of took on a life of its own.”

Sitting in the stands with Debbie Bortner that day, Joakim Noah says he remembers Cooke’s climactic moment — crossing over James on the dribble several times before draining a midrange jumper. The gym erupted, but it was only the first half of a game that would go down to the last possession, a much leaner James with the ball and his team trailing by 2.

James had already outscored Cooke, 21-9, but he saved his best for last. Guarded by Cooke, he dribbled out of the backcourt, to his right. Just as he approached the 3-point line, with a step on Cooke, James went airborne, kicked his feet back and floated the ball toward the rim. He hit nothing but net — game over — while Cooke’s jaw dropped.

“How’d he make that?” he said to a friend afterward, mixing in profanity. “Oh my God.”

Sonny Vaccaro, the former sneaker company executive who founded the camp, was stunned to learn that Shopkorn had footage of what he considered to be a historic shot. He called it the “one physical moment that symbolized the beginning of LeBron and the downfall of Lenny Cooke.”

“He beat Lenny on his own turf,” Vaccaro said. “I mean, you can say it was one shot, one game, but in a way, Lenny never recovered.”

James would land on the cover of Sports Illustrated and star in a nationally televised high school game on ESPN. With his scholastic eligibility exhausted, Cooke was limited during his senior year to all-star classics and pickup games.

He would never again be considered the next brand name. Anthony, who left New Jersey the day before the Cooke-James showdown, said, “After that, we just didn’t hear very much about him.”

With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, Cooke can plainly see now that the angel on his shoulder was Debbie Bortner.

“I look back and wished I would have listened to what she and other people were telling me about school,” he said. “It’s up to you to make your own decisions about who you’re going to surround yourself with because your image is more important than anything else.”

Whether Cooke would have repaired his academic record enough to play at St. John’s — the university he said had interest in attending — is impossible to know. But it all became moot when in the early spring of 2002, he suddenly packed up the neatly stacked row of jerseys and sneakers in Bortner’s home.

Moving On

He went to Flint, Mich., to live with a new benefactor, a former college player and recruiter named Terence Greene, seemingly to pursue a high school equivalency diploma.

Cooke had grown tired of hearing that he was Lenny of Old Tappan, not Lenny from Brooklyn. His family chafed over the news media’s focus on Bortner, who nonetheless pleaded with him to stay.

“We never had an argument; it was never angry,” Bortner said. “Lenny hugged me when he left. We both were in tears. I knew he was making a mistake, but it was more like when you have to let your own child go to find out for himself what the world is like. Unfortunately, people misinterpreted it as Lenny being disloyal, and that he wasn’t a good person.”

Vaccaro said the perception only worsened when Cooke arrived in Chicago soon after to play in an all-star game, the Roundball Classic, firmly in the clutches of people pushing him in the direction of the draft.

“There was already a mystery about him when he left Debbie, people starting to wonder about his character,” Vaccaro said. “That’s not to say he was a bad guy — because he wasn’t. Just one of those kids who listens to the last person who tells him something. And there were people all around him — agents, runners — glorifying him, giving him things. He took everything.”

Vaccaro recalled a conversation with Cooke — a lecture, really — in which he warned him about making a good impression in Chicago, not doing anything to fuel the already burning speculation.

“I told him, ‘Every N.B.A. scout is here, and they’re watching you,’ ” Vaccaro said. “I said, ‘If you’re going to do something stupid, don’t do it this week, or do it in your room.’ And what happens? It’s 1 o’clock in the morning, people are hanging around in the lobby of the Hyatt, and here comes Lenny with his entourage, all the partiers, all the jewelry. I said: ‘What the hell are you doing? We talked about this.’ ”

Cooke by that time was driving a new Mercedes and with Bortner had distanced himself from his personal documentarian — though not before Shopkorn recorded his choreographed declaration for the N.B.A. draft at Junior’s restaurant in downtown Brooklyn. Tears rolled down Cooke’s cheeks as he held his young son, Anahijae, and told reporters that he was ready to run with the world’s best.

June 26, 2002. Cooke waited anxiously at a Manhattan hotel, expecting his name to be called in the lower part of the first round or early in the second. Yao Ming was the first pick that night, going to Houston. Stoudemire, one of Cooke’s main rivals in his grade, went ninth to Phoenix, also out of high school. The night dragged on. Players Cooke had never heard of — some from countries he had never heard of — were selected, 58 in all.

“I waited, I waited, I waited,” he said. “Like on Christmas Day, you think you’re getting this toy, and then Christmas comes, it’s not under the tree. It breaks you down emotionally. I broke down, realized I got bad advice. But you wonder, why not? Why didn’t my name get called?”

No longer a commodity, no longer surrounded by those seeking to cash in on an prospective fortune, Cooke was soon looking for new representation and a place to play. He tried the new N.B.A. developmental vehicle, known as the D-League, but carried a star’s sense of entitlement. Or maybe it was a case of not enough desire. In one of Shopkorn’s many recorded scenes, Cooke responded to a request for a 6:30 a.m. training session at a camp with incredulity, wondering why the start time couldn’t be changed to 8.

He didn’t last long in the D-League and landed in the old United States Basketball League the next spring. He scored 47 points one night for the Brooklyn Kings, with the original Brooklyn King — the Knicks legend named Bernard — watching from courtside, intrigued by what he saw while pointing out the schoolyard tendencies that haunted Cooke’s game.

But Cooke averaged about 30 points a game in the U.S.B.L., and that earned him a shot with the Boston Celtics’ summer-league team. He had a couple of decent games and relished the challenge of matching up against Cleveland and James, the top pick of the 2003 draft. But Cooke did not play a minute. James, already hailed as the King, took a moment to console him.

Cooke played a season in the Philippines, then drifted to China for a spell. By December 2004, his now-transient life took him to Southern California, where he headed out for dinner on a rainy night after a game with a teammate from the Long Beach Jam of the American Basketball Association. Cooke was not wearing a seat belt when his teammate Nick Sheppard crashed his car into a light post.

Cooke awoke from a coma, spent months in a wheelchair, fortunate that his shattered left leg did not have to be amputated, as doctors first feared. Limping, still dreaming, he returned to the Philippines, then tore his Achilles’. Back in the old Continental Basketball Association with the Rockford Lightning, the coach, Chris Daleo, saw that Cooke had never properly rehabilitated his leg. He was overweight.

“I put him with our trainer and thought if we could get him back in shape, he still might play somewhere,” Daleo said. “Lenny was a likable guy, somebody you wanted around. You just wished you could turn back the clock for him. Even when he was out of shape, dragging his leg, you could see he had the tools. LeBron is what you had, only rawer.”

But after the team moved to Minot, N.D., Cooke blew out his other Achilles’. Bad luck compounding imprudent decisions, his career was over, a half-dozen years after his showdown with James. The question echoed: was Cooke ever really that good or merely the beneficiary of the New York buzz?

“You can’t put him in the group of New York guys that were overhyped,” Vaccaro said. “What it came down to was a complete mistrust in who and what he was. Teams were afraid.”

Vaccaro insisted that Cooke’s shattered hoop dreams were far more authentic than those of William Gates and Arthur Agee, chronicled by the director of “Hoop Dreams,” Steve James.

“Lenny was on the pedestal because he was one of those elite guys,” Vaccaro said. “He was damn good. I just think he blew it all.”

Future in Question

Amar’e Stoudemire did not recognize the smiling man advancing toward him, dressed in oversize clothing to camouflage his ample girth. Recognition only came when the man could lean close and say, “It’s me, Lenny Cooke.”

Stoudemire did a double take before embracing Cooke.

“It had been a few years, and he had picked up a hundred pounds or so,” Stoudemire said, recalling the moment. “It was a little shocking.”

The courtside scene that took place after a Bulls-Knicks game at Madison Square Garden last April repeated itself with Anthony, who would say: “Just to see him now, not doing anything, as far as basketball goes, and so much bigger, it just seemed sad. You wondered why.”

Trying to answer that question was Shopkorn, who accompanied Cooke to the game to record his reunion with Stoudemire, Anthony and his long-ago fervent admirer Joakim Noah. With Shopkorn was Josh Safdie, a New York-based independent filmmaker brought on board by Shopkorn — along with Safdie’s brother, Benny — after Shopkorn reconnected with Cooke and resumed his long-dormant project.

Friends would occasionally ask Shopkorn, who had become an independent art adviser and curator, whatever happened to the documentary “with the basketball player.” Some would remember the name, Lenny. Others would mistakenly say LeBron. They only knew it was someone who was supposed to be famous.

On the afternoon that Cooke was preparing dinner for his family, Shopkorn and Josh Safdie made the now-familiar drive trip from Manhattan to Stony Creek, a town of around 200. It was late December, the sounds of televised football providing a daylong soundtrack. Cooke was clearly delighted and energized by the camera as he played with his daughter, prepared the dinner and shared his career perspective with a reporter.

“At first it was difficult,” he said of the years after he stopped playing. “I saw guys I grew up playing with, guys I was better than. I couldn’t watch anything LeBron would do — know what I’m saying? I thought I should have been where he is.”

Cooke never did get to play against James again, or to know him. But he insisted that he never resented his runaway success and dismissed criticism of James’s playoff failures.

“I mean, look at where he is, how much money he makes and where he came from,” he said. Cooke grew quiet, then shook his head. “From where I’m sitting, right here, I wish the only thing they could say about me was that I have no championship ring.”

Cooke’s weight ballooned because he was inactive, deflated and took full advantage of the culinary skills he had honed when he was in the Philippines and China, and would call his mother for tips on home cooking. When he would Google himself online, the only easy-to-locate video of him in action was of his first game at Old Tappan.

Most online references to Cooke identify him as the inverse of James, which he has come to accept as his legacy with a mix of resignation and resolve.

“As long as every time I go on the Internet and somebody is talking about Lenny and LeBron, I guess my name’s still being mentioned with this guy — you know what I’m saying?” Cooke said. “Give my kids something to read, some way to know without me telling them that I was there with LeBron, a guy with a $100 million contract. It used to bother me when they said, ‘Lenny Cooke was supposed to be something and he isn’t.’ Not anymore. I’m living my life.”

Cooke could yet attach a more lasting meaning to his aborted basketball life, said Noah, who has expressed conditional interest about participating in Shopkorn’s film.

“I mean, there’s so many kids out there getting — I’m not going to say raped by the system — but really getting taken advantage of,” he said. “That’s the question people don’t ask enough when they talk about Lenny Cooke. I mean, this isn’t the story of a kid shooting hoops in his backyard in the Midwest. There was so much thrown at him when he was so young.”

Father Figure Missing

Noah recalled traveling with his father on the tennis tour as a young boy and rooting for him to lose in the first round so they could spend time together.

“Debbie tried to do that for Lenny, but he never really had that male figure,” Noah said. “Those are the things Lenny needs to talk about, but if it’s going to be for the benefit of kids he’s also got to have a positive message at the end.”

That is easier said than done when Cooke is still at a crossroads. Last summer, when Cooke was spending time in Atlantic City, and jogging up and down the court in a recreational league, a friend arranged for him to speak to children at a Boys and Girls Club. He arrived by limousine and — as he occasionally still does — spoke of returning to his former playing weight of 200-plus pounds and making a comeback.

Cooke worked for a food distributorship after returning to Virginia but is currently unemployed. Solomon, his girlfriend, commutes about an hour to a hair salon in Richmond and hopes to open her own closer to home.

Daleo, his former coach in Rockford and in Minot, said he had been contacted several times in recent years by people interested in doing one project or another on Cooke.

“To be honest, I wish some of these people would just give Lenny a job,” he said.

A decade ago, Shopkorn was willing to stake his future on Cooke. Now Cooke lobbies Shopkorn to stay longer when the time comes to leave after a day of shooting video. Cooke said he was excited by the chance to spread his message — stay in school and steer clear of the industry flesh peddlers — far and wide. But the attention is intoxicating.

“I do know that by coming back and putting cameras in his face and providing him with all this attention, it’s inevitable that there’s going to be a return to the feeling that he’s the star again, like he was in 2001,” Shopkorn said.

But he believes this is one cautionary tale of the tapes that should be told. All that is lacking is the happier ending that Noah, Bortner and the others still in Lenny Cooke’s corner are hoping for.

Or more to the point: a promising new beginning.
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Re: Rise & Fall of Lenny Cooke

Postby Matthew Maurer » Mon Jun 18, 2012 2:18 pm

The one and done concept is a joke a guy like Lenny Cooke wasn't going to college even if he had too...
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Matthew Maurer
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Re: Rise & Fall of Lenny Cooke

Postby rlee » Sun Apr 21, 2013 6:04 am

Tribeca Review: 'Lenny Cooke' Is The 'Death Of A Salesman' Of Sports Documentaries
by Gabe Toro
http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/ ... s-20130420

Early on in failed-prodigy documentary "Lenny Cooke," the titular basketball star, then in high school, is caught off-guard in one of the film's many revealing passages. He is discussing the 2001 NBA Draft, which made history with three high schoolers taken in the top four selections. Before the draft, Cooke is casually asked who will be selected first overall. He offhandedly mentions three distinct possibilities: Seton Hall freshman Eddie Griffin, high school center Eddy Curry and the eventual number one pick, Kwame Brown.

What helps make this documentary fascinating is context. Griffin, the seventh pick, played only six years in the league and was later killed in a car crash. Curry became a punchline around the league as he gained weight and largely fell apart after earning an exorbitant contract from the New York Knicks. And Brown, selected by Michael Jordan himself, never came close to living up to the promise of being the first high schooler taken number one in the draft, a millstone who floated from team to team and is only barely still in the NBA. Cooke was long considered a cautionary tale for young athletes, but the line between "professional" and "flameout" (never mind "star") is simply that thin.

In the early 2000's, Cooke was ranked the number one high school player in the nation in a crop that included LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. What happened remains difficult to document even now, but to casual sports fans, he simply fell off the map -- one day a media superstar, the next a non-entity. "Lenny Cooke" isn't a documentary, it's an autopsy, detailing exactly why Cooke vanished off the map and why he struggled to get back into the game, a focus that goes micro where other sports docs go macro.

With very few talking heads and no narration, "Lenny Cooke" heavily relies on footage of the prep camps Cooke attended with the best high school players in the world. The highlights are there, of course: Cooke was a unique athlete, very similar to LeBron James with an abnormally-advanced upper-body strength and a unique physicality that allowed him to pry himself free of defenders for an easy two. But the footage also captures Cooke during training sessions lagging in practice, inventing excuses for not waking up earlier, and firing daggers through his eyes towards coaches begging for more effort. None of this a crime, naturally, but at that level, you only need to slack off once to drop in the ranks. A compelling on-court battle with James during a game features the two of them toe-to-toe until Cooke botches a late defensive assignment, leading to James hitting the game winner. Out of context, it's preposterous, but when a scout later claims the game dropped Cooke from number one to number three nationwide, it reveals the microscope in which he lives underneath.

Cooke's aversion to academics is mostly offscreen, but he actively eschews the classroom, eventually dropping basketball so that he can finally complete high school at nineteen. By then, the bloom is off the rose, and Cooke, long removed from competitive games, announces his candidacy for the draft not in a boardroom, and not in front of flashing cameras, but at a middling diner restaurant. He goes undrafted, a year after those top high school picks failed to perform anywhere close to expectation. One of them, Tyson Chandler, was the second pick of 2001, and it took him a good five or six years to develop into the All-Star he is today with the Knicks. The argument implicit in Cooke going unpicked is that had he been selected in the draft, he would have arrived with an NBA team, in the first real situation where he would have found support that Chandler eventually discovered; Cooke's parents had since moved away in his youth, and in his teenage years he lives with a local basketball booster with school ties in order to work on his game, but no one is really seen as a mentor to the star.

The narrative doesn't develop real weight until the modern day segments hit like a hammer. After becoming a professional basketball vagabond, never once reaching the NBA, Cooke now resides in Virginia. His home is modest and his gut is generous, turning 30 as he raises three children with his fiancee. As Cooke drunkenly lounges on his couch long after his birthday festivities have ended, his wife wears an un-glamorous bathrobe as she re-heats leftovers for him before alerting him that she's going to sleep alone, assuring him that the next day will no longer be a celebration. Contrasted with earlier footage of Cooke in Las Vegas, attending a basketball camp but riding in backseats with pretty girls in his lap (one obliviously asks if he's a basketball player), it's a sobering reminder of how far he's gone.

Late in the picture, Cooke returns to New York City to reunite with Carmelo Anthony and a fellow former prep star, Joakim Noah (currently an All-Star, also one of the film's producers). Cooke is now simply a fan cheering on his favorite players: it's telling that Anthony has affectionate words for him, but indoors he refuses to remove his sunglasses, as if emphasizing I'm a star, you are not. Visiting an old friend later, the footage is raw and upsetting: Cooke has been forgotten by his friends who won't even visit him, cementing the notion that they were simply riding his assured future stardom. When one associate gives him the truth, it's hard to watch: even he's been given a hard time by people around him for Cooke's failure, as if Cooke's failure has made him an albatross to his loved ones.

"Lenny Cooke" ends with a bit of digital trickery that reveals the power of special effects in bringing real humanity to filmmaking. Footage of an older Cooke is spliced in seamlessly next to early camp footage of Cooke as a prep star. In this moment, the older Cooke appears to be giving a speech on where he failed and what mistakes others can avoid as well. But there's something a little too personal about Cooke's confessions, as well as the self-defeating notion that his advice probably won't even matter. Not unlike the confessional in the middle of the surprisingly affecting "JCVD," Cooke is mostly lecturing himself on where it all went wrong. Sadly, but honestly, Cooke's acknowledgement is that he never learned how to avoid taking these shortcuts, but that age and perspective has granted him only one real attribute: "I'm humble." [A-]
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Re: Rise & Fall of Lenny Cooke

Postby rlee » Thu May 02, 2013 1:11 am

by Rafe Bartholomew

When we call the New York Times the “paper of record,” we’re usually referring to its coverage of elections and international affairs, or ambitious Pulitzer bait like the “How Race Is Lived in America” series. In recent years, however, the Times "Sports" section has also marked its territory as a go-to publication for reporting on shattered hoop dreams, especially “Where is he now?” stories about gifted amateur players whose NBA futures have gone kaput thanks to bad luck and catastrophic decision-making. The photographs that accompanied these articles — Victor Page in his eye patch, Jonathan Hargett in prison blues — felt like they tapped into the vein of basketball heartbreak, and no image affected me quite like the one that ran with Harvey Araton’s 2012 profile of Lenny Cooke.

Unlike Page, Cooke hadn’t been shot, and unlike Hargett, he wasn’t incarcerated, so in very plain terms, things could have worked out worse for Cooke. But the sight of Cooke, 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds, sitting with his elbows on his knees and rolls of flesh spilling out of his black tank top, shook me in a way the others didn’t. His plaintive gaze was searching for something — maybe his past, maybe his future — and coming up empty. It wasn’t just that Cooke, who went from being the no. 1–ranked high school player in the country to being passed over in both rounds of the 2002 NBA draft, had lost the muscle tone in a physique that had once allowed him to dominate high school competition as a man among boys. Also missing from Cooke was that New York– and Brooklyn-bred look of stubborn, unrelenting confidence, that sense that the world was his to take, that he didn’t even know how to feel fear. Instead, his expression looked heavy and forlorn, like he was one setback away from losing all hope.

I first caught wind of Cooke’s fate in early 2006, in a metro Manila neighborhood called Barangay Pag-Asa, or “hope,” of all places. I was living in the Philippines and researching an article about how American import players were treated in the local professional league. Sitting in the kitchen of the Philippine Basketball Association’s head stat-keeper, I leafed through his binders of box scores and recorded the imports while his mother boiled fish for dinner. I jotted down names like Ace Custis, Rodrick Rhodes, and Shea Seals until I reached a stat sheet from a 2003 game and stopped dead in my tracks.

“Lenny Cooke played here?” I asked.

“Yes, he was the import of Purefoods,” the stat-keeper said. “Great scorer until he had an injury to his Achilles tendon.”

At the time, that seemed to be the missing piece of the Lenny Cooke story. He had been one of the most hyped players in the history of overhyped New York basketball phenoms. Then he became the biggest cautionary tale in NBA draft history, a case study in how shady agent deals and attitude issues can derail a promising career before it ever begins. Next, he was a fringe pro, hanging tough in NBA summer league stints and succeeding as an import in the international game, until a 2004 car crash and subsequent injuries forced him out of competitive basketball.

The end.

Or so I thought. Lenny Cooke, a documentary that premiered this month at the Tribeca Film Festival, takes stock of the latest, least eventful period of Cooke’s career and turns it into one of the most raw and unguarded portraits of a modern athlete I’ve ever seen. The beauty and tragedy of New York basketball — “The City Game,” as Pete Axthelm dubbed it in his 1970 nonfiction classic — has been extolled in so many books, from Axthelm’s to Rick Telander’s Heaven Is a Playground to Darcy Frey’s The Last Shot, but it has yet to be presented on film (well, unless you count Above the Rim). Lenny Cooke feels like it could be New York’s Hoop Dreams.

The filmmakers followed Cooke at two very different points in his life, and the documentary is presented in two chapters — before and after his fall from the top. The first half of the movie covers 2001 and 2002 and follows Cooke through AAU tournaments, summer showcase camps like ABCD and Five Star, and his senior year of high school. The story dead-ends after Cooke goes undrafted, with a few scenes from games he played in the USBL, the CBA, and in the Philippines used to fill the temporal gap until Lenny Cooke picks up again in 2012, when Cooke is 300 pounds; jobless; living in Emporia, Virginia; and about to turn 30. (Two disclosures: I helped the filmmakers obtain footage from Cooke’s PBA career, and this documentary premiered in a series of sports documentaries at Tribeca that was sponsored by ESPN.)

The film captures scenes from Cooke’s teenage and adult years that are more honest and unpolished than anything today’s sports fans are accustomed to seeing from high-profile athletes. When he was still in high school, some of Cooke’s actions make him look like an amalgam of everything that was wrong with the AAU basketball circuit in the early 2000s. At Five Star camp, he fakes his way through push-ups, arrives late for morning drills, and then tells his coach that a punishment of running suicides at 6:30 the next morning will not work for him — 8 a.m. is better. Cooke describes taking money and shoes to play for various teams in different tournaments. At an AAU event in Las Vegas, Cooke appears to be more interested in chasing tail than proving himself on the court. Because when Slam and the Times and all the recruiting services say you’re the best player in the United States, what’s there to prove?

These scenes, disheartening as they may be, don’t come as a great surprise in the film. The audience knows that Cooke’s comeuppance is looming. And because uncoachable prima donnas, sleazy agents, and illicit gifts have become such a regular part of the narrative of big-time high school basketball, the footage of Cooke’s mistakes feels less shocking than the images in Lenny Cooke of the star kid living life as a normal teenager. Early in the film, we see Cooke and his boys lounging around a living room, watching the 2001 NBA draft and devouring McDonald’s Extra Value Meals while arguing over who was the best player in the NBA: Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, or Allen Iverson. Inside the theater, it felt like half the audience was thinking, Damn, I had the same exact debate that night! The brief instances that allow us to feel something in common with Cooke make it even more gut-wrenching to watch him wade deeper and deeper into career quicksand.

There’s a scene at the heart of Lenny Cooke that stands out not for its emotional impact or cinematic beauty, but as a basketball artifact of great value. Lenny Cooke contains extended and largely unseen footage from the 2001 Adidas ABCD summer camp, where Cooke went head-to-head with LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. It’s easy to imagine basketball obsessives watching and rewatching those scenes, searching for seeds of greatness in LeBron’s passes and Carmelo’s face-up game. In LeBron’s case, the search won’t be difficult. In the camp’s climactic showdown, LeBron outscored Cooke 24-9, sunk a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer, and displayed a floor game so mature that aside from 40 pounds of muscle and a full head of hair, I almost felt like I was watching the same LeBron who will be playing in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in the near future. In comparison, Cooke looked very much the amateur, a kid who was still fixated on crossing his man over 15 times before attempting off-balance jumpers. That game was the first time anyone beat Cooke in a significant matchup, and the loss ended up symbolizing the end of his career. After ABCD, Cooke dropped from first to third in the national rankings, and a year later he had tumbled all the way out of the draft.

Later in the film, once the cameras have reunited with Cooke in 2012, he admits begrudgingly that his son is now a LeBron James fan. It’s rare and moving to see an elite athlete, even one who never reached his potential, display his vulnerabilities. Cooke ends up spending his 30th birthday like many of us do — anonymously, except for a few friends and family members. There is a basketball-shaped cake; some drunken serenades; and tears welling in his eyes at some point after midnight. That’s normal for a lot of us, but Lenny Cooke was never supposed to be normal; he was supposed to be great.

Near the end of the film, Cooke, at home in Virginia, sums up his career. “I sit back and think about all the shit I've been through and I've done,” he says. “And at the end of the day, I'm right back where I started. So I didn't lose nothing and I didn't gain nothing.” It’s honest, and when you think about how far Cooke’s talent could have taken him, it’s devastating, but by the end of the film I felt like I had become a bigger fan of Lenny Cooke than I’ll ever be of Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James.
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