At the time, not a soul realized a Lenny Cooke vs. LeBron James matchup in the 2001 ABCD title game would ultimately alter the course of basketball for the next decade. And beyond.
The summer of 2001 was trademarked by sheer dominance. Coming off the heels of their second consecutive championship and a postseason run forever remembered by dictator-like dominance, Kobe Bryant’s stock was through the roof. He was the high school kid who made the jump to the NBA only to find a few speed bumps of bad press but a seeming neverending surplus of success, more than fellow high schoolers-turned-All Stars Kevin Garnett or Tracy McGrady.
He was 21 with two championships under his belt and during LA’s 15-1 playoff run, he put up 29 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two steals a night on the biggest stages possible. This included going going toe-to-toe with Allen Iverson and a 48-point, 16-rebound closeout game in Sacramento. So, yes, having Kobe serve as the keynote speaker at the 2001 ABCD camp – the same camp where he took home 1995 MVP honors – was as close to a no brainer as there was at the time.
The four-day extravaganza in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, was littered with a who’s-who of future NBA talent, including LeBron James and current scoring champion Carmelo Anthony who was entering his senior year at Oak Hill Academy. In the stands sat future national champion and present-day heart of the Chicago Bulls, Joakim Noah. At 13-years-old, Noah told the New York Times last year his eye was only focused on one player, then-prodigy Lenny Cooke.
“He was really my hero because the way he could dominate a game was unbelievable to me,” said Noah.
For good reason, too. Standing at 6’6, Lenny was the star of the camp and he was the top tier “can’t miss” prospect. It was Cooke who was blessed with an outside touch, to compliment an inside buffet of moves capable enough to wear defenders down throughout the course of a game. Plus, he entered the 2001 camp as the reigning MVP; an honor which came with openly embraced despite its fair share of consequences.
Following Kobe’s words of wisdom – both useful and prophetic – the games tipped off. Throughout the camp, Cooke continued to impress both pro scouts and colleges coaches in attendance while his challenge to play Bryant one-on-one became the stuff of legend around ABCD.
Cooke’s squad defeated Carmelo’s en route to the championship game to face LeBron’s squad and – as the story has painted since – the most important basketball moment in Lenny’s life. Melo admitted looking back Cooke was was the player everyone in the camp admired. He played like the number one prospect in the country and a guy destined for inevitable superstardom. The praise became so gaudy that Melo even referred to him as “kind of like Magic.”
Anthony left the day before the championship game.
Throughout the camp, members of LeBron’s entourage planted bugs to nearly anyone willing to listen that it was James who was the true star of ABCD. Some entertained the thought, some – like Louisville’s Rick Pitino believed the hype from the moment he dropped his first no-look dime – and some showed a tad-bit more restraint. After all, high school talent came a dime-a-dozen, and claims of the next great transcendent talent emerge on an annual basis.
Cooke’s undeniable moment of glory came when he rocked LeBron several times on a crossover and then nailed the jumper. The gym erupted – including an uber-ecstatic Joakim – but LeBron owned the game. James ran the floor better, passed better, rebounded better, played on-court general better, anticipated the passing lanes better and ran out to a 21-9 scoring advantage over Lenny. In an eerie representation of LeBron’s first several years in the NBA, however, his team still trailed by two in the closing seconds.
Expecting LeBron to attack the basket, Cooke was caught off guard when James elevated from the three-point line hitting nothing but the bottom of the net. James walked off the court with a newfound aura of invincibility and suddenly the narrative of the entire camp shifted into his favor. LeBron’s camp looked like geniuses. Cooke, so befuddled by the moment, could only utter the quote, “How’d he make that? Oh my God.” Give or take a curse word here and there, of course.*
Both Carmelo and ABCD founder Sonny Vaccaro agreed through one way or another, Lenny was never the same after LeBron arrived on his turf and outplayed him so handidly. “After that, we just didn’t hear very much about him,” said Anthony. The next fall and spring resulted in a tale of two explicitly different high school careers; one destined for pop culture legend and the other for self-inflicted destruction.
Still believing the hype those pumped in his ear, Cooke flashed jewelry, drove expensive cars and declared for the 2002 NBA draft largely because his academic career had dropped off the face of the Earth. Lenny never played his senior year in high school aside from all-star games. In one of the more sobering and embarrassing moments of any draft prospect, Cooke announced his plans to go pro at Brooklyn’s famous restaurant, Junior’s.
Only on June 26, 2002, he was never selected.
His sense of what has been dubbed “entitlement” and an overall loss of enthusiasm for the game was evident as he drove himself to the D-League, European ball and eventually out the game as a whole.
LeBron, on the other hand, wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated his junior year taking Cooke’s place as the premiere high school basketball miracle-monster in America. In an exhibition of all-around athleticism, he caught 61 passes for 1,245 yards and 16 touchdowns as a wide receiver, earning All-State honors. While Cooke was effectively driving his career into the ground, James ascended his into the heavens with high school games moonlighting as ESPN circus events drawing higher ratings than some pro games.
The thirst for his impending leap to the NBA reached levels of unprecedented anticipation, not witnessed before or after since. And over the course of the next decade, LeBron morphed himself into an irreplaceable figure in basketball’s hierarchy. Fifty years from now, nevertheless, when historians attempt to trace the moment when LeBron hoisted himself into the national consciousness, it was one moment in New Jersey at the Adidas ABCD Basketball Camp in 2001 where the game took on another facelift changing its course forever.
Six weeks before Aaliyah’s passing and eight before 9/11, LeBron James became a star.
Lenny Cooke never received his opportunity to play against LeBron, Carmelo, Kobe or even Joakim in the league. His story became arguably the notorious cautionary tale why the NBA and NCAA implemented the mandatory one-year college rule after the 2004 draft. Following years of being unable to watch LeBron, Cooke has since come to grips with the fact this was the way the story was supposed to pan out.
“As long as every time I go on the Internet and somebody is talking about Lenny and LeBron, I guess my name’s still being mentioned with this guy — you know what I’m saying? Give my kids something to read, some way to know without me telling them that I was there with LeBron, a guy with a $100 million contract. It used to bother me when they said, ‘Lenny Cooke was supposed to be something and he isn’t.’ Not anymore. I’m living my life.”
Perhaps the story of LeBron, but more so Lenny represents the intoxicating risk that is being so talented at a game that can feed one’s family for decades if handled correctly. LeBron James remains so celebrated because so many Lenny Cookes exist in the world. That supremely gifted genetic freak from high school who appears destined for fame and fortune is a common tale in nearly every town in America. So is said athlete discovering basketball can mutate dreams into reality, but even quicker it can leave a young man in a state of confusion and depression difficult to ever emerge from.
A bad decision at an impressionable age can turn destiny into fate, and potential into despair.
Cooke’s life isn’t terribly bad, though. The subject of his own self-titled documentary – directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, executively produced by Joakim Noah and scored by Boi-1da – has resulted in three sold out viewings at the Tribeca Film Festival. Each earned a standing ovation. Conceivably now, the story of the kid who dominated high school basketball headlines 12 years ago will rightfully have his memoir told in his own words from the meteoric highs, to the depressing lows and everything in between.
And if we’re lucky, maybe the shot that changed the course of basketball history will finally surface.
Learn more about Lenny’s life and more about his upcoming documentary at the Tribeca site.
* All quotes credited to Harvey Araton.
* – In retrospect, it makes sense Joakim and LeBron have always had a not-so-friendly bond throughout the years.