“Lenny Cooke” is a documentary about the quick rise, and dramatic downward spiral, of an early 2000’s high school basketball standout from Brooklyn with aspirations of being a first round selection in the 2002 NBA Draft. A poor work ethic, raw and inexperienced game, media and scout-driven over-hype, and a series of shaky off-the-court decisions led to Cooke going undrafted. The documentary captures Cooke’s rise, the seeds of his downfall and where he’s at in life today. “Lenny Cooke” is recommended viewing for young players with NBA dreams, parents who may not know the inner-working of the grassroots basketball machine, or anyone with a general interest in basketball or the education of America’s youth.
A few years ago, we got a call from one of the producers working on “Lenny Cooke” inquiring on Student Sports’ intellectual property with regards to the documentary’s subject.
Cooke was a 6-foot-6 Brooklyn native who spent some time at Franklin K. Lane (Brooklyn, N.Y.) and La Salle Academy (New York, N.Y) before matriculating to Northern Valley Regional (Old Tappan, N.J.). It’s there where he earned a local reputation and entered the 2000 ABCD Camp as an unheralded wing prospect.
That camp changed Cooke’s life when he was named co-Underclass MVP along with Charlie Rodriguez of Clovis West (Fresno, Calif.). Exactly one year later, at the same camp, at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J, it seemed as if Cooke’s life changed again — particularly after a camp game against a 16-year junior-to-be named LeBron James of St. Vincent-St. Mary (Akron, Ohio).
After the 2001 ABCD Camp in which he was named co-Underclass MVP, James went on to become a Student Sports Magazine cover subject twice, including the basketball preview issue in November 2001.
We explained to the caller that we did have some photos of Cooke, but he was never a Student Sports Magazine cover subject. Even years later, Cooke’s and James’ paths seemed to intersect. If you know the story of “King James” from his days at St. Vincent-St. Mary and the 2001 ABCD Camp like we do, it hard not to think about what happened to Cooke, who went undrafted in 2002 and never played in the NBA.
The roughly ten-year period from the 2001 ABCD Camp to Cooke’s 30th birthday celebration was captured on film by Adam Shopkorn and made into a documentary by brothers Joshua and Benny Safdie and Executive Producer Joakim Noah, the latter a former travel ball teammate and NBA All-Star with the Chicago Bulls. “Lenny Cooke” was shown at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival and is currently being screened across the country.
Student Sports recently had a chance to check out “Lenny Cooke” (thanks to Adam Kersh and Caitlin Hughes of Brigade) and break down the main issues the film deals with. We also want to shed light on some details that the film doesn’t verbally state.
What is clearly evident from the film is Cooke lacked the work ethic to last as a NBA player. Perhaps if he was drafted, the motivation would have been there, but Cooke didn’t work hard enough to overcome his raw skill level. He made excuses for being punctual, didn’t always follow through, and had some lazy on-court habits. In summary, Cooke didn’t carry himself as a pro even though some thought he had the raw talent to play in the league. That process starts young and either Lenny didn’t know it, nobody taught him or he didn’t want to listen because of the forces telling him he was going to make it to the NBA.
Cooke was a gifted wing passer, but he was a streaky shooter, his handle was not tight (meaning he had a unnecessarily high crossover and dribbled through his legs much too often) and had more of a classic playground game. At times in the film, Cooke can been seen with his head down going through his legs four or five times in a row without moving anywhere, or getting by his man. It’s a tell tale sign of a player with little experience and not a lot of proper coaching in his background.
Evaluations vs. Hype
In the early 2000s, internet scouting reports and national interest in high school basketball was beginning to take off. Before that, 1-800 recruiting hotlines, magazines, and recruiting newsletters was the way most information on the nation’s top prospects was disseminated. This national interest peaked when high school players dominated the top of the 2001 NBA Draft. Based on a few good games or even a good move, it was easy for novice scouts or journalists looking for a good story (as opposed to studying the craft of evaluating high school prospects) to over-hype players of this era. Cooke is not the only player who fell into this pitfall, especially with the NBA Draft looking like a more realistic option for high school players than it actually was.
The matter of the fact was, Cooke was a relatively inexperienced player among those being considered for the title of the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2002. Also, as the documentary pointed out, Cook didn’t play organized ball for a period of 18 months leading up to the 2002 NBA Draft. Even if he was indeed good enough to play in the NBA and lived at home with his parents, his inactivity would have raised a ton of red flags. What tape did NBA brass have to go off besides the 2002 Roundball Classic or some games during his “junior” season at Northern Valley Regional?
The film accurately portrays Cooke as the most hyped player in the country in 2001, but he was never the consensus No. 1 prospect in the class. Furthermore, most basketball recruiting lists and magazines at the time didn’t separate high school players from post-graduates and technically, Cooke was not even part of the 2002 class. He was ineligible to play his “senior” year. Clark Francis of The Hoop Scoop led the way in the recruiting industry by breaking up these players, beginning with the Class of 2001. Francis has Cooke as his No. 1 ranked post-graduate in 2002, which leads us to our next issue.
How Old Is He?
When James and Cooke had their famous matchup in July 2001, one main factor is continuously overlooked. That duel now has a life of its own, but what the film didn’t mention, and what some don’t realize, was the age difference between the two players. With “holdbacks” being so prevalent nowadays, the age factor would have been prominently mentioned if Cooke and James were from the class of 2012 and 2013 (as opposed to 2002 and 2003) and if shoe-sponsored elite camps were still being held in the same fashion.
On that fateful day, Cooke had been 19 years old for a couple of months. James was 16 and a half years old. Yes, James did outscore Cooke, 24-9, and James did hit the winning shot, but even if Cooke would have played James to a standstill or out played him, the age gap still made James the better long-term prospect. James’ game was already more fluid and he looked more composed despite being two and a half years younger. As any credible scout would take note of, that’s an eon in terms of basketball development.
Lack of Education
One thing that is quickly noticeable in the film is Cooke is quite intelligent and savvy. In the summer of 2001, he talks about what if he makes it to the NBA, not when. He talks in that tone, even to a female companion he met and hung out with that summer in Las Vegas. When he’s sitting at the home of Debbie Bortner (his wealthy guardian) watching the 2001 NBA Draft, he mentions to his friends how getting drafted high “is a lot of money for a high schooler” and doesn’t seem ready to potentially tackle that responsibility himself one year later. Later in the film when he’s older, Cooke makes this point more clear when he states he didn’t really love basketball and didn’t necessarily want that responsibility, it was just something that was pushed on him because of his size and ability.
It’s easy to confuse lack of intelligence with lack of education. It is clear Cooke didn’t have the best habits, but the public school educational system in New York didn’t help, either. America’s educational system has failed other kids and it’s clearly evident with Cooke because when basketball didn’t work out, he was lost emotionally and physically.
Cook gives evidence of this when he states, “Debbie has taught me how to spend my money and invest it.” At the time, Cooke really didn’t have any means of income (other than what Bortner gave him) and couldn’t have known how to invest in something worth while without having yet entered the workforce to save money he’d earned. Later in the film, he drives home the issue of education when he states, “I wish I would have gone to St. John’s for a year to get my education.” Obviously, Cook couldn’t have worked towards a college degree and prepare for a career after pro basketball within a year. It wouldn’t have hurt him, but he wouldn’t have been college educated.
Agents and Amateurism
Cooke admits his main downfall was leaving the home of Bortner and taking $350,000 from an agent or the runner of an agent. At the time, Bortner knew he was making a mistake and perhaps Cooke knew it as well. But as most uneducated young people in this country would do in Cooke’s situation, he took the money. Now it could be argued Bortner also gave him a false sense of comfort and doing the right thing, but not finishing up at Northern Valley Regional, or transferring to a school that allowed post-graduate players, was a mistake Cooke couldn’t afford.
“Cooke is a classic example of having someone in life that gives you a chance to succeed,” Francis told Student Sports. “He was living with a multi-millionaire and she went away for three weeks and he was basically stolen when she came back.
“When you got the right guidance, you have a chance to go in the direction you need. When the street element becomes the guiding force (for a kid like Lenny), you’re screwed.”
For more on “Lenny Cooke” or its future screening locations and dates, please visit lennycookemovie.com.