Most articles published with my name attached, I end up hating them. The reason being because once it’s out, I’m always left with the helpless feeling a sentence was omitted that would’ve brought the piece to another level. Call it writer’s remorse or something of that nature. That said, arguably my favorite piece to be published this year was chronicling the landmark, but largely unknown 2001 meeting between Lenny Cooke and LeBron James at adidas’ ABCD camp.
Apparently someone else appreciated the article, too.
Last week, I traveled to New York City for a press screening of the Lenny Cooke documentary that’s been receiving rave reviews from Tribecta to The Sports Fan Journal and everywhere in between. The Crew’s very own Preezy attended as well. In regards to the actual film, perhaps the finest word to describe Lenny’s maturation process is “ironic.”
Ironic because of the foresight to film nearly every aspect of Cooke’s life and sit on the footage for over a decade.
Ironic because the same God-given talents that made him a larger-than-life figure to scouts, coaches and even fellow blue chippers like Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Ray Felton and Amar’e Stoudemire – all his age – are the result of many demons Cooke continues to battle as a 30-year-old man, fiancé and father.
Ironic because cautionary tales in Lenny’s ilk never become less sobering.
Footage of the aforementioned game against LeBron is shown and presents itself as the climactic moment of the film. It was the final stage both high school titans would seen as equals on hardwood. Cooke’s pedigree labeled him the camp’s marquee attraction, evident in the who’s who of names in attendance (including a young Joakim Noah, who also serves as executive producer of the film). His early baskets did much to energize the crowd, but as the game matriculated along “Nappy Afro” – the nickname for LeBron Lenny and friends referred to him as (they also openly gushed and praised his game) – began to take over with a wide array of buckets from inside and outside, in transition and in the half court set.
From the moment LeBron nailed a three pointer at the buzzer giving his team the win – and Bron the personal 24-9 scoring edge – it was if Cooke’s life began to spiral out of control almost immediately. From not playing his senior year in high school, to being seduced by agents harboring no interest in his personal well-being, to not getting drafted in 2002 and slowly phasing himself out of game through various leagues, it was clear Cooke had peaked in high school. At one point, Lenny plays in a league with less than 200 people in a gym; one of whom sang the national anthem then returned to his seats in the bleachers.
While the championship game versus LeBron was climatic, the most emotional scene comes with present-day footage of Lenny’s 30th birthday party.
It wasn’t in a nightclub. It wasn’t around his NBA peers. The setting was a garage in Stony Brook, Virginia, with family, friends and Mario’s “Let Me Love You” (and later New York with childhood friends). Bouncing from joy to tears, Cooke ultimately and reluctantly embraces what he once had and what will never be again are synonymous – a truth his fiancé fought back tears admitting she fears he may never come to grips with.
Having followed the game of basketball and come to develop an obsession for its history, the story of Lenny Cooke is anything but foreign. In terms of high school prodigies who never panned out, his name ranks near the top, if not the most infamous in the game’s history. Adding footage to the equation, however, presents a distinct element of emotion only seen experienced through witnessing Lenny’s most daunting fears manifest themselves into what would become the rest of his life.
Lenny awakes every morning forced to live with the fact he remains culpable for his own situation, much like the tragic story of local superstar athletes from our own adolescence. As the film does, Cooke is currently touring explaining his story to young athletes across the country. His words hold credibility and the experiences and high-profile names he can call upon resonate differently from the tutelage of a coach or parent.
Because honestly, if the story of Lenny Cooke is able to save one life from falling prey to the demons which haunted him, that’s worth more than a game-winner or All-Star Game MVP could ever hope to. Sometimes watching a person lose it all is enough for the next man to gain the same.
Lenny Cooke’s documentary hits theaters in New York City December 6.