‘Lenny Cooke’ proves long odds of NBA stardom apply to everyone, even the most gifted
There will never be another Hoop Dreams just as there will never be another Michael Jordan. Over the last two decades, the 1994 documentary that traced the development of William Gates and Arthur Agee through Chicago’s high school ranks has become the standard by which to judge all basketball movies, and nothing has come close.
That acknowledgment made, it might be helpful to think of Lenny Cooke — a documentary that traces the rise and fall of its title character, a New York City prodigy who was the No. 1 ranked high school hooper in the country in 2001 — as a less exhaustive, less sweeping Hoop Dreams that finds success in its own right because the basketball stakes are so much higher.
Hoop Dreams thoroughly evaluated America’s decaying inner cities and broken public school systems, raising unanswerable political and social questions. Although Cooke is a product of the inner city, Lenny Cooke paints a picture in which he isn’t defined by the poverty that surrounded him. On the contrary, his all-world talent promises a road to riches, even though he’s only a teenager, as long as he’s able to take the right steps.
As opposed to Hoop Dreams, which spent hours cataloging the journeys of its protagonists from boys to men, the viewer in Cooke meets Lenny as an upperclassmen, a phenomenally-gifted, mostly finished product who is counting down the days until he must decide whether to commit to a blue-chip college program or declare for the draft straight out of high school. (At the time, the one-and-done rule had yet to be implemented.)
Instead of fighting for roster spots and state titles, Cooke battles with the likes of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony at prestigious summer camps as they jockey for spots in the national rankings. Gates, and especially Agee, were underdogs; Cooke tells a reporter in the film, without exaggeration or boasting, that he is the target that everyone in the country is trying to take down.
Instead of cashing in his skills for a scholarship to a highly regarded private high school, as Gates did, Cooke immerses himself in all the trappings of the good life: a ditzy blonde groupie on his lap as he parties in Las Vegas, a chartered plane to and from a summer tournament, and a $350,000 payment from an agent that sets his preps-to-pro course. Instead of the spiderweb of family dynamics that Gates and Agee confronted, the viewer sees Cooke as a fatherless manchild who makes his own career decisions, for better and worse.
Instead of watching his basketball dreams fade at the NCAA level, like Gates and Agee, Cooke’s expectations collapse when his name isn’t called at all during the 2002 draft. He’s forced to settle for a career that takes him all over the world, including stops in the Philippines, Kuwait and Brazil, and through numerous American minor leagues. Even Cooke’s “settling” is out of reach for so many aspiring players.
Probably the most striking thing about Lenny Cooke — the man and the movie — is that there’s no apparent bitterness about how things have turned out. James and Anthony have each earned more than $100 million in NBA salary; Cooke is shown celebrating his 30th birthday in a small, packed Virginia home, drinking a can of Colt 45 and serenading his fiancee by singing along to an R&B song before he passes out on the couch.
There are tears in this movie, and Cooke’s fiancee says Cooke is still learning not to live in the past, but the only major emotional outburst comes when Cooke yells at his childhood friends from New York for never taking the initiative of visiting him in Virginia. It’s amazing to see him explode at his friends for their level of investment in their relationship, especially when he speaks in such a matter-of-fact tone about his missed basketball opportunities. He seeks validation from those closest to him, not from the hundreds of millions of people who could have known “Lenny” just as easily as “Bron” or “Melo.”
Cooke attended a screening of the movie in Portland on Wednesday night. He spoke fondly of his time playing in the Philippines, and he said that he enjoyed running into the stands during games to celebrate with the fans. He also revealed that he nearly died — and then nearly lost his leg — in a car accident a few years ago, a topic that wasn’t covered in the film. That injury ended his playing career, he said, or he thinks he would still be in the Philippines plying his trade. Again, there was no bitterness at this random, horrific turn of events, and he expressed only uncertainty, not contempt, when asked why 29 teams passed on him (twice each) during the 2002 draft.
Producer Adam Shopkorn accompanied Cooke at the screening, and he described devoting years of his life to following Cooke and his friends at the peak of Cooke’s high school fame. That access and dedication produced some truly incredible visuals: Cooke shows an ESPN reporter around his old neighborhood and dreams of building a movie theater like Magic Johnson; Cooke watches Kwame Brown get drafted out of high school as the No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft; Cooke barely pays attention as he gets chewed out by a coach for showing up late to a camp; Cooke rides an overnight bus with his infant on his lap; Cooke executes a series of crossovers before burying a jumper over James at the 2001 ABCD camp; James hits a game-winner to beat Cooke’s team and take Cooke’s No.1 ranking; Cooke declares for the draft with his child on his lap, fully expecting that he will be selected.
It should be noted that logistical constraints limited this film. Shopkorn told the audience in Portland that he shelved the project after Cooke went undrafted, and he admitted that his access to Cooke was frayed during a crucial time period, when Cooke was forced to take a year away from the game because he was too old at 19 to be eligible to play high school ball in New Jersey. Much of his pre-draft preparation, and his initial commitment to play at St. John’s, simply wasn’t captured. Likewise, there isn’t much time spent on Cooke’s short-lived attempts to make it in the NBA via summer league or his professional career overseas.
Shopkorn made up for those gaps by completing the circle with some very memorable footage of the post-basketball Cooke, who is seen settling into family life; visiting with Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Joakim Noah after a game between the Knicks and Bulls; and draining jumpers with his friends in Virginia even though he is now carrying an extra 50+ pounds of weight. The film’s most unforgettable scene — a speech delivered by the 30-year-old Cooke to his hard-headed teenage self — underscores exactly how far he’s traveled over the last 12 years. This is a man fully humbled but not broken, a man who understands what he had at his fingertips but who doesn’t obsess over the lost touch of wealth, even though he’s unemployed.
Lenny Cooke opens with a statement of the odds facing young men who want to play professional basketball: today, there are just 450 roster spots for 313+ million Americans and 7 billion people worldwide. Cooke and a group of campers are reminded that they are facing a one in a million proposition, and it’s clear through much of the early film that Cooke believes firmly that he is the “one.” He sees James as his peer, he laughs about beating Anthony, and he operates on his own schedule and in his own manner thanks to faith in his own talent, a lack of quality guidance, and a naiveté about what’s to come.
The careful, personal portrayal of Cooke’s failure to make the NBA forces the viewer to think about the millions of others who have fallen short, while simultaneously inspiring a new appreciation for James, who is shown with a crazy beehive haircut, and Anthony, who is as baby-faced as can be. Those two not only made it, but they fulfilled their superstar potential; the juxtaposition between their current status as global icons and Cooke’s “I started with nothing and now I’m back to having nothing” existence hits hard.
If Hoop Dreams was the film that perfectly explained all of the forces and circumstances that help set these long odds, Lenny Cooke is the movie that reminds us that those odds apply to absolutely everybody, even the most talented and gifted. Meanwhile, Lenny Cooke is the man who makes it clear that there’s no inherent shame in falling short of life as the chosen one.