Tribeca: Failed Basketball Phenom Lenny Cooke Returns to the Spotlight

Lenny Cooke - H 2013
Josh Heller

A legend for both his talent -- he was ranked higher than LeBron James -- and then major failure, Cooke feels he was blackballed by the NBA. And he only blames himself.

Lenny Cooke doesn’t consider himself a tragic figure, and he’s not living in the past.

At just 30 years old, he’s got a loving fiancee, three children, ambitions to open a restaurant and a burgeoning motivational-speaking career. Yes, he has gone from phenom -- primed for fame, fortune and glory -- to flameout, a slide from the precipice of NBA superstardom to the crater of cautionary tale, but Cooke, just shy of 11 years removed from the most disappointing night of his life, is almost impossibly zen.

"I didn’t lose anything, I didn’t gain anything," he says, shrugging and saying earnestly what might sound like bitter sound bites from most other people. "I enjoyed it while it lasted, and I’m right back to square one where I started."

The documentary Lenny Cooke, from filmmakers Josh and Ben Safdie, is premiering Thursday night at the Tribeca Film Festival. His is one of those "What happened to that guy?" stories, one of those elusive tip-of-the-tongue trivia answers for devout basketball fans and a poster boy for the young players of today who might follow in his footsteps.

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Cooke was the No. 1 high school basketball player in the nation in 2001, a freak of nature who went from first playing organized hoops in his freshman year of high school in Brooklyn to the target of salivating talent scouts, marketing companies and unsavory hangers-on. But as the attention grew his focus waned, and he fell behind the likes of young LeBron James (who beat him in a now-legendary summer league game) and Carmelo Anthony in amateur talent rankings, a victim of circumstance, naivety and laziness.

Having jumped from school to school and exhausting his basketball eligibility, Cooke ended up at a private school in Flint, Mich., at the invitation of a shifty, conning adviser; following his hometown St. John's University's firing of coach Mike Jarvis, for whom he had planned to play, the 19-year-old Cooke decided to declare for the 2002 NBA Draft.

At the end of that late June night, 58 players had been drafted; Cooke was not among them. He is not bitter, not after all that has happened in his life since, but he's well aware of the politics involved in the game.

"I felt, in certain cases, I was blackballed by certain people," he admits, trying to explain why his name didn't come off the board despite his talent and still-significant stature. "But I know some of the people and critics that didn’t want me to succeed because of the things and the way that I acted toward them in camps and stuff like that. I basically feel that’s what hurt my career."

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Now tipping scales he could have lifted and dunked during his athletic prime, when he was a lanky 6-foot-6 with long limbs that worked miracles, Cooke is sitting in a Chelsea hotel alongside the Safdies and Adam Shopkorn, the filmmaker who began following him at the turn of the 21st century, when he was on top of the world. He’s calmly recounting the years that followed his draft night devastation; he played poorly in the Continental Basketball Association and the NBA’s Developmental League but was resurgent the next spring in the low-level U.S. Basketball League. In July 2003, he signed with the Celtics’ summer league team to compete among promising draftees and undrafted players and was dominant throughout that season.

The most anticipated game that summer was to pit Cooke against James, the recent No. 1 pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers, in what would be a rematch of the camp game that propelled LeBron to the top of scouts' lists. The hype was major, with 40,000 spectators expected to watch and outlets like ESPN and the New York Daily News running stories ahead of the matchup.

Cooke sat on the bench for every single second of the game.

"That's one of the reasons I feel like I got blackballed," he explains. "That comes from people that are high in the business. Any time I played in the summer league, every other game, and then it’s everybody in the gym that wants to see me play against this guy again, and then you don’t play me at all? Somebody said something."

Josh Safdie posits that there were high-level conspiracies at play, with NBA teams not signing Cooke because his independence, individuality and, well, difficult demeanor posed a risk; executives, Safdie charges, like players they can control. In this case, he mentions Jim O’Brien, then the Celtics’ GM, as the culprit for Cooke’s benching.

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The former player nods in agreement, but he’s quick to change the topic. He doesn’t hold grudges or blame anyone else for his failure to become the star that seemed his destiny.

"I don’t feel that they were lucky," he says of his onetime peers -- James, Anthony and many others -- who made it to the NBA, "because I don’t believe in luck. I just feel like they had the right guidance and they knew what they wanted to do. I didn’t take it serious. Basically, the right people were around them."

It's hard to imagine anyone choosing a career by the time they enter kindergarten and then actually following through with the plan to achieve that ambition, but Cooke says that setting goals from a young age was ultimately what separated the future stars and the flameouts.

"These kids were playing basketball when they were 5-, 6-years-old. I didn’t start until I was 16. They already knew; they had a goal and they achieved it. I didn’t have a goal for it, until late. I don’t believe it was luck for those guys. They worked hard and it paid off for them, and I’m proud of all the guys that I played with. They worked for what they got and they deserve it."

Cooke’s story is baffling in a way, because he fell victim to none of the typical vices and mistakes that so often lead to never-was status. He says he didn’t do drugs, commit crimes or associate with infamous felons. He is no Len Bias, Maurice Clarett or Sam Bowie. So what happened?

After his gifts on the court were discovered, Cooke went to live in suburban New Jersey with a legal guardian so that he could better concentrate on basketball. Yet temptation followed him, tracking him from the Brooklyn streets of Bushwick to the greener escape of Old Tappan. Money, clothing and other luxury items were flashed before him, instant fixes of opulence he had never experienced. The younger, flippant self that he describes is captured in Shopkorn's archival footage, an incredible record that turns an urban legend into a graspable, real-world tale.

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"That’s just the way it is for a kid who is coming out of the inner city," he reasons. "They gonna jump on the first thing they see, nine times out of 10. Especially if they grew up not having much other than a roof over their head and food. So if somebody comes at you with $200 or $300 and some new shoes, who’s not gonna take it at 15?"

"All the [reality show] shit they show now on VH1, I would have had episodes, seasons of that shit," he says, laughing -- but also dead serious. "Because LeBron and them were in school, in bed, getting ready for school at nine o'clock. I was hanging out in clubs, doing things a 16-year old wasn’t supposed to be doing."

After the Boston summer league debacle, Cooke bounced around some more, with stints back in the minor leagues and then overseas. He crashed his car in 2004, winding up in a coma for a week and with a metal rod in his leg for life. Some of his greatest success came playing in the Philippines, for a team called the Purefoods Tender Juicy Hotdogs -- teams take their names from parent corporations there -- and he last played professionally in 2007. A torn ACL finally did him in.

There are still remnants of his old life that pop up now and again. A lifelong Bulls fan, he’ll tune in when Chicago plays on national TV, especially now that his good friend Joakim Noah, with whom he played AAU ball back in the day, is an All-Star for that team. Noah just joined the film as a producer; two years younger than Cooke, he was often in awe of him on the court.

Now a cook living in Virginia, he may not have stardom, but Cooke says his priorities are finally in order.

"I was an asshole [back then], you know what I mean?" he admits, chuckling to himself. "Now, I’m more mature, I’m more family oriented."

Along with his restaurant ambitions -- and his fiancee’s planned hair salon -- Cooke is a motivational speaker, telling his story to talented young basketball players to make sure they stay on the straight and narrow.

His message: "Keep your circles small, keep good people around you, stay humble, get your education ... I don’t sugarcoat it, because it doesn’t make sense to sugarcoat it when I know for a fact. I basically just keep it real with them and let them know. Use me as an example."

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