Lebron James. Carmelo Anthony. Amare Stoudemire. These are some of the biggest names in the NBA right now. They are superstars known world wide. But just like everyone else, they were once in high school. And when they were, they were some of the highest ranked players of their classes. But there was one player who was higher than them at one point. One player who was supposed to be better then all of them, and was supposed to me the next Michael Jordan. That player, and the title of the great documentary about him that I saw at Tribeca Film Festival, was Lenny Cooke.
Never heard of him? At this point, there are few that have. Cooke is argubably the most famous, or infamous, high school basketball bust. From New Jersey, Cooke was poised to be the next great super star, but a series of wrong decisions turned the brightest of careers into one of the biggest busts in not only NBA history, but all of sports.
The documentary is incredibly well done. Most of the footage was shot in 2002, when Cooke was a senior in high school. There is rare and amazing footage of Cooke going 1-on-1 with James and Anthony, amongst others, when they are in high school. Upon looking at the footage, you can easily see the natural abilities that Cooke possessed. However, you can also see some of the laziness and lack of drive that led him to his eventual future.
Cooke’s journey gets derailed when he falls for the big talk of an agent. Forced to leave New Jersey when he turned 19 due to a rule in the state’s system, Cooke had two choices. He could play at a prep school in a different state, or he could take a year off to work out and prep for the draft. Unfortunately for him, he chose the latter. Cooke took $350,000 from an agent, and decided to not play organized basketball for 18 months. He simply chose to hit the weight room, and as a result, went undrafted in 2002 after declaring early.
From there, Lenny Cooke skips ahead a few years, with the transition being a montage of clips of Cooke jumping from various basketball leagues, from the USA to Philippines. After that, we see Cooke in the present day. Cooke has…let himself go a bit, and is barely recognizable compared to his former, athletic younger self.
I have to give the filmmakers, Ben and Josh Safdie, a ton of credit for acting on his feet. The original plan for the movie was to document Cooke’s journey from the high school to the NBA. Instead, it turned into a film about what happens when everything falls apart under you. Cooke’s playing days are now behind him, and he is left to live in the past. He had it all when he was a kid. Now, he has nothing, and it was tragic to see how far he fell. The film ends on a tragic and heart breakingly powerful moment, of Cooke watching Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony leading their teams in the playoffs on the biggest state in the world, while he lies on the couch, wondering what could have been.
Lenny Cooke was a fantastic movie. You don’t even have to be a sports fan to appreciate the great storytelling in it. At the core, Lenny Cooke is a human story, telling us what happens when you take life for granted.
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