The Rise and Fall of Lenny Cooke

In 2001 Lenny Cooke was the top ranked high school basketball player in America.  He was the reigning MVP of the ABCD All-America camp and the ‘experts’ had him pegged alongside names such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudamire.

The world at that time was Lenny Cooke’s oyster and what seemed like an open door to the NBA was right in front of him.  Multi-million dollar playing contracts, endorsement deals, you name it – all the glory, fame and riches a young boy from the boroughs of Brooklyn could ever dream of.

The NBA money was so close that Lenny Cooke could taste it.  He could smell it!  He could do everything but touch it.

And he never would.

The Lenny Cooke story, told recently in a gripping documentary co-directed by New York filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie, is a sad tale of too much too soon and shattered dreams.

It’s the story of one of the most naturally-talented high school basketball players in living memory and his spectacular fall from grace.  And it’s the story of a guy who made all the wrong moves along a supposed path to glory that ended up leading nowhere.

As a high-school baller, Lenny Cooke was on top of the world.  He had a pro body; 6’6”, athletic, fast and strong.  Teammates, scouts and college coaches alike all marvelled at the ease in which he tore his opponents apart; running the floor, handling the ball, sticking jumpers, attacking the rim, throwing dimes, blocking shots and grabbing boards.  Lenny Cooke could do it all.

The level of dominance that Cooke displayed on the high school hardwood was absurd, as was the level of hoopla and hype that surrounded him.   Lenny’s first game with Old Tappan in New Jersey – a school he moved to in order to improve his grades – was so anticipated it was a packed house 3 hours prior to tip off.  The first play was a lob off the opening tip that Cooke viciously threw down with two hands, sending the crowd into a frenzy.  This clip of the game shows Cooke raining threes from the perimeter, blocking shots like he’s swatting away flies and generally just man-handling the little kids playing against him.  He was a force to be reckoned with and the recruiting letters from all of the top Division 1 colleges across the nation were streaming thorugh the front door.

What Lenny Cooke couldn’t – or wouldn’t – do, unfortunately, was study.  From all reports, it was like he was allergic to the classroom.  Cooke’s grades and behaviour were so poor during his teenage years that he attended five high schools in five years and was twice held back from moving on to the next grade. He went to high school for so long that he could not play hoops his final year.  His eligibility had expired.

But in 2001 grades didn’t matter to Lenny Cooke.  Prep-to-Pro star Kobe Bryant had just won his second NBA Championship at the ripe old age of 22 and three of the top four selections in the NBA Draft that year had been high school ballers (Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry).  The path had been paved and Cooke’s reputation as one of the top few players in the country was well established.

That reputation had been bolstered over the previous couple of years by his play on the AAU circuit, where he had paired with future NBA All-Star Joakim Noah as well as former NBL MVP and current Adelaide 36ers point guard Gary Ervin.  Noah was young, had not yet fully grown, and had recently moved across from France but he was very quickly sure of one thing: Lenny Cooke’s super talent.

“I was a young French kid from Paris, and all of a sudden, I met Lenny and was watching him play in all of these tournaments,” said Noah recently while promoting the documentary, for which he served as Executive Producer. “He was really my hero because the way he could dominate a game was unbelievable to me.”

It was at this stage, with the NBA in sight, that the leeches and the hangers-on began circling around Lenny Cooke like sharks, telling him to skip college and turn pro.

“Everything came so fast,” Cooke told Slam Magazine in April 2007. “Basically, it was just people that were trying to be around me for the simple fact that I was Lenny Cooke. As I got older and wiser, I realized people will tell you anything to keep a smile on your face.”

Cooke’s mother, Alfreda Hendrix, believes that her son was given way too much too soon.  “He was a teenage kid and every day he had money in his pocket — and I don’t mean $200 or $300,” she told the New York Times last year. “It was whatever he wanted, like the world was his, so he took advantage of it. I guess he didn’t figure that things were going to fall down because people kept telling him it was only going to get better and better. He made a lot of mistakes.”

By the time the 2001 ABCD Camp rolled around, Cooke had lost his edge.

Nonetheless, the names on everybody’s lips heading into the camp were Lenny Cooke, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James and all was in readiness for the showdowns between them.

Carmelo Anthony has admitted to, at that time, being in awe of Cooke and what he was able to do on the court.  “He was coming from being the No. 1 player in the country, and we all looked at Lenny like that,” Anthony told the New York Times in 2012. “It was his size, how strong he was, how he could pass the ball and play the point, kind of like Magic, I guess. He was really explosive.”

Lenny thought Melo was ‘aight’.

On the final day of the camp Cooke got the better of his matchup with Anthony; a result that set-up a tantalising battle between himself, the number 1 player from the class of ’02, and LeBron James, the number 1 player from the class of ’03.

“It was the hype of the year,” Cooke told Slam Magazine in ‘07. “Everybody that was somebody was in that gym that day. Every time he made a move and scored, the crowd went crazy and every time I made a move and scored, the crowd went crazy.”

And whilst Cooke did have his moments in that game, including one ridiculous move that saw him cross LeBron over nine times (yep, nine crossovers!) before rising to knock down a jump shot, LeBron was the better player overall on the day.  In fact James capped it off in the final seconds by hitting the game-winning shot over, yep you guessed it, Lenny Cooke.

Not surprisingly, there is something about that shot that has stuck firmly in the minds of all who saw it that day.  Sonny Vaccaro, the former sneaker company executive who founded the ABCD camp, called it the “one physical moment that symbolized the beginning of LeBron James and the downfall of Lenny Cooke.”

“He beat Lenny on his own turf,” Vaccaro told the New York Times last year. “I mean, you can say it was one shot, one game, but in a way, Lenny never recovered.”

With his confidence dented and with no hope of salvaging the grades required to go to college, Cooke declared himself eligible for the 2002 NBA Draft.

He wasn’t selected.

“I waited, I waited, I waited,” Cooke said in a 2012 interview. “Like on Christmas Day, you think you’re getting this toy, and then Christmas comes, it’s not under the tree. It breaks you down emotionally. I broke down, realized I got bad advice. But you wonder, why not? Why didn’t my name get called?”

The NBA scouts said he was skilled but unpolished; too raw, arrogant and immature.

Over the next few years Cooke played in the now-defunct USBL and had workouts with the Seattle Supersonics and the Boston Celtics but he wasn’t able to crack an NBA roster for anything longer than a preseason game or two.

A stint in the Philippines followed (where he averaged 38 points and 27 rebounds per game) along with a season in China in 2004.  A subsequent return to the Philippines at less than top fitness resulted in a ruptured Achilles tendon and a stint in the American CBA the following year saw him rupture the other one.

After that Cooke was, well, cooked.  A once shining basketball star had faded into the night sky.

Now, over a decade on from the disappointment of the 2002 Draft, Cooke hopes that his story will help teach today’s young-bloods about the pitfalls of early success.  He’s proud of the documentary and the possible positive effects it could have on guys like Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker – a kind of don’t do what I did reality-check.

“The kids now days, they just need to work hard, get their education and just stay focused and stay humble, man, and it will pay off in the long run,” Lenny said during an interview with at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

After his humbling fall from grace, Lenny Cooke is now focused on spreading his cautionary tale of too-much-too-soon.

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One Response

  1. John Felix Koziol at |

    I would love to write for a basketball periodical like you do. I have a degree in mass communications with an emphasis in print journalism, have been told by a journalism professor that she liked my writing ability better than anyone else in the class and even interred at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Can you at least please tell me how you garnered your writing position with Downtown Ball? Thanks. MUCH appreciated!!!

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