Bushwick native featured in documentary of lost promise

Brooklyn Daily
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A new documentary chronicling the rise and fall of a Bushwick basketball phenom offers a cautionary tale about squandered potential.

The 93-minute documentary “Lenny Cooke” — named after its subject — tells story of how Cooke went from the top-ranked high-school prospect destined for the NBA, to an also-ran bouncing around the semi-pro leagues. It recently screened at Lincoln Center and was just released in selected theaters nationwide.

In 2001, Cooke was a man among boys, ranked by scouts ahead of the Miami Heat’s LeBron James and the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, and he looked primed to make a splash in the NBA — at a time when talented high school players often declared for the draft after graduation.

But just two years later, Cooke found himself playing ball not for an NBA team, but for the Shanghai Dongfang Sharks.

The documentary directed by brothers Josh and Benjamin Safdie goes back in time and takes you through the life of a guy who had it all at an early age — the fame, free basketball gear, limos, and celebrity connections — only to lose it all.

“The biggest thing is we wanted to tell his story chronologically and from his perspective,” Benjamin Safdie said.

After his sophomore year of high school, Cooke’s family moved from Brooklyn to Virginia. He didn’t want to leave the area, so he moved to Old Tappan, NJ. He played basketball at Northern Valley High School and averaged 25 points, 10 rebounds, two steals, and two blocks per game in his junior year.

Cooke went head to head with a then-unknown James, a rising junior at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s high school of Akron, Ohio, at the 2001 Adidas ABCD camp. The camp featured plenty of future NBA talent, but Cook was the main attraction.

Then James hit a shot over Cooke at the buzzer to propel his team to a win, and it was he whose name became a household word, as Cooke’s sweet life turned sour.

Soon after that, the 19-year-old senior was ruled ineligible to play because New Jersey state rules allowed students to play varsity sports only until age 18.

Cooke didn’t play basketball his senior of high school and didn’t have the grades to accept a Division-I scholarship. After graduating, he declared for the 2002 NBA Draft, but was not selected in either the first or second round.

In retrospect, Cooke, now 31, believes that his reputation for partying and hanging out at all hours of the night was the reason why league executives didn’t take a chance on him out of high school.

“At the time, I was young and immature,” Cooke said. “I guess that’s one of the reasons I went undrafted.”

In 2005 the NBA stopped allowing high school players to declare for the draft, and Cooke agrees with the ruling.

“The kids right now physically are not ready at this point in time in basketball,” Cooke said. “They need to be mentally tough.”

The film ends with Cooke talking to a 17-year-old version of itself. The dialogue juxtaposes the elder Cooke with the know-it-all teenager, sharing life lessons and telling him how he should take advantage of his opportunities.

The Chicago Bulls’ Joakim Noah, who attended Poly Prep, was the executive producer of the movie. He was hesitant at first to get involved but was glad he did. Noah felt telling Cooke’s story would help others avoid making the same mistakes.

“Lenny’s life story is an example about how poor decision making at a young age can affect your future,” Noah said. “It is easy to tell stories about your success, but extremely courageous to do the same with your failures.”

Updated 5:27 pm, July 9, 2018
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