This Documentary Answers The Question: What Happened to Lenny Cooke?

Remember Lenny Cooke?

For those who don’t, that’s understandable because like many young high school prospects in basketball, some choose to only remember those who made it big. For the rest of us, he was almost an urban legend. It’s probably because with actual urban legends, at least you could cobble together truth, vague rumors and some embellishments for the tale to be told.

The long-awaited film titled “Lenny Cooke” from directors/brothers Josh and Benny Safdie fills in the blanks as viewers have the chance to finally learn about the 12 years since the Brooklyn-born prep phenom was humbled out of the NBA radar and into obscurity.

The story on Cooke is fairly known among ardent hoop heads that came of age in the early 2000s. In 2001 and 2002, he was a heavily hyped prospect out of high school whose stock was only exceeded by LeBron James in 2003. Rated above Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire as a junior, Cooke was expected to cement the foothold high school players were making at the time as they made the leap to the NBA.

Of course, documentaries like this aren’t made for people who meet expectations.

During the recent New York City screening, it was hard not to note the silence in the studio as we watched a 17-year-old Cooke attempt to coast into becoming the number one pick.

In an era of fantastic sports documentaries, this one stands out because it captures the raw and unflinching nature of the game and the business only through the eyes of the subject. There’s the uncensored dialogue as 18-year-old Cooke watches the 2001 Draft with a few of his friends. In this scene, you’re almost reminded of your youth as a bunch of teenagers colorfully argue who were the best players in the league at that time — Kobe, T-Mac or A.I. — with no cares about how many "ninjas" are dropped in front of the cameras.

You watch these kids (Cooke in particular) dream big as Kwame Brown shakes David Stern’s hand as the number one pick. This image was juxtaposed with the larger debate on the readiness of high school players that raged at the time, even from the famous crew from TNT’s "Inside the NBA."

Fast-forward a bit, and you also watch a kid become Icarus in a matter of two games. Cooke faced off against Anthony and James in two high-profile adidas ABCD camp games in 2001. While we watched him trade baskets with Anthony — we see Cooke brag about how he outplayed the smack-talking future star — it was the showdown with James that had onlookers and the directors fixated. Feeling high about his performance, Cooke tries to tantalize the crowd, but it was LeBron — he who apparently didn’t have a killer instinct until two years ago — who outplayed Cooke and added a buzzer-beating, game-winning 3-pointer.

In depicting the battle on film, you could figure that the game wasn’t the only thing LeBron ended.

By bouncing between four different high schools between New York City, New Jersey and Michigan, Cooke actually aged out of high school eligibility in New Jersey (one cannot play high school sports after turning 19). With this rule, Cooke meets an opportunistic agent who offers him money in hopes that he would be drafted as an early entry candidate.

That never happened.

The power of this film lies in what we see not long after the 2002 Draft. From Rucker Park to the NBDL to the USBL to the Philippines to even an all-but-forgotten stint with the Boston Celtics’ summer league team, we see Cooke’s basketball career end in a literal blur as the film spends less than 10 minutes chronicling it all. Even if you’ve seen it coming thanks to his loafing and arrogance as a youngster, it’s heartbreaking to watch the once-lithe shooting guard prodigy become a 300-pound what-if.

The "what if" becomes the theme of the second half of the story as Cooke struggles to reconcile his long-withered potential with his present. He doesn’t just struggle at home, revisiting his past with a family that begged for the meal ticket, but back in New York where he attends a Bulls/Knicks game and briefly reconnects with Anthony, Stoudemire and the NYC-born Joakim Noah (who also executive produced the project). He visits some of those old teammates in Brooklyn, and in the same raw manner of their teenage debates eons ago, Cooke rages about the lack of support from them.

When it comes to those who banked their lives on his talent, he said, “They made Lenny Cooke. My name is Leonard. Nobody ever called me Leonard Cooke.”

In a gripping end scene that’s best appreciated by watching, thanks to the wonderment of technology, the then-30-year-old Leonard has a chance to talk to the 19-year-old Lenny.

You cannot help but think of not only the most revered basketball documentary of all time, Hoop Dreams, but a brilliant take on the grassroots game such as “Play Their Hearts Out” from Sports Illustrated’s George Dohrmann, where Demetrius Walker didn’t become "the next Tyson Chandler" as coach Joe Keller demanded him to be.

Through Cooke, we are reminded a bit of every prospect we grew up with who didn’t make it as we hoped he or she would. We look at the pull of family, the questioned motives of benefactors who lived near elite prep programs, friends that rode the coattails and the predatory nature of agents lurking around the amateur ranks.

Yet, we also remember that growing up means taking responsibility for one’s actions. Highlighted at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, basketball fans will be grateful that Cooke can tell his story because, at long last, he learned how to do just that.

"Lenny Cooke" will arrive in New York theaters on Friday, December 6.

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