The name Lenny Cooke has become part myth, part bogeyman and part warning to anyone that thinks talent, and talent alone, gets you to the Association. But the trials and tribulations Cooke experienced in the ensuing 14 years after he was ranked the No. 1 high school basketball player in the country, don’t feature a single regret.
When Dime caught up with Leonard — as he now calls himself — inside the offices of the marketing firm that’s handling the publicity for his new documentary, we were surprised to see how comfortable he appeared. He was more composed than a lot of people might be if they’d been chewed up and spit out of the high school basketball hype machine as blithely as Leonard was. Throughout the course of our extended conversation with Leonard and the filmmakers behind the Lenny Cooke documentary, we couldn’t get over how well Cooke continues to handle what would have crushed many of us long ago.
While it’s true there are thousands of stories just like Lenny Cooke’s out there, his is unique because of the level he was playing at before he spun off the face of the basketball planet. During the documentary, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this fall, Cooke is spotted playing against LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Jarrett Jack and other familiar faces while still in high school at the turn of the millennium.
Except none of those big names appear to be enjoying the ancillary benefits that come along with high school basketball fame as much as Lenny does. The Lenny Cooke documentary is split into two chapters, with the first featuring footage shot by Producer Adam Shopkorn as he looked to document the rise of a precocious high school talent, and what the sudden fame and fortune of jumping from high school to the NBA looked like up close.
Instead, Shopkorn was on the front lines for just as engrossing a story: Lenny Cooke’s fall from prominence. After declaring for the NBA draft out of high school in 2002, no one selected the 6-6 wing. Cooke floated around on the periphery of the Association with Summer League teams and NBDL and D-League stops, but he was out of the game completely before the first decade of the new millennium was up.
That’s where the second half of the film picks up. It documents Lenny’s 30th birthday celebration in Virginia with family, a tearful trip back to Brooklyn to see friends who Lenny calls out for forgetting about him when times got tough, and a trip to Madison Square Garden where former peers Amar’e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Joakim Noah — who executive produced the documentary and was a gangly, 5-9 teammate of Cooke’s early in Lenny’s AAU career — marvel at how different Lenny looks from his playing days (he’s put on a bit of weight since that time, and his face looks bloated, though he appears a lot healthier when we speak with him).
That fall from grace would leave scars on many, but when we were ushered into a small room just off the entranceway of a West side office building to speak with Lenny, Shopkorn and award-winning Safdie bothers Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie, he was in better shape than he was at the end of the documentary, and appeared pleasant, if a little tired of all the media.
The filmmakers themselves helped elucidate what we saw in the gripping two chapters of Lenny’s life on film. But they were careful to differentiate his story from the countless others that preceded his rise and fall. Lenny really was an NBA talent, and it’s what makes his demeanor at present so fascinating. His is an existence without regret where he’s still — for the most part — just living in the present.
In 2001, Lenny was going into his senior year of high school in Old Tappen, New Jersey. He had moved from Brooklyn’s Bushwick projects to live with Debbie Bortner, the older mother of an AAU teammate who would serve as his legal guardian before he later moved out. While there, Shopkorn shot his earliest footage in the doc, including a trip back to Cooke’s old apartment in Brooklyn.
After a number of appearances at summer camps with future NBA stars, Lenny does battle against Baltimore’s Carmelo Anthony. He actually outplays the future NBA All-Star, but in one poignant scene in Vegas, it’s clear ‘Melo’s focused on basketball and Lenny just wants to know what they’re doing after the game.
That same summer, Lenny reaches a penultimate moment when he faces off against then-junior LeBron James in the championship game at the ABCD Adidas camp. James would hit the game-winning three-pointer and out-duel Lenny, scoring 24 points to Lenny’s nine. Never before had Lenny been beaten on a basketball court, and many look at that game as a watershed moment Lenny’s life, derailing a trajectory that seemed to preordain NBA greatness.