Dime Q&A: Lenny Cooke & The Filmmakers Behind His Eponymous Documentary

The name Lenny Cooke has become part myth, part bogeyman and part warning to anyone that thinks talent, and talent alone, gets you to the Association. But the trials and tribulations Cooke experienced in the ensuing 14 years after he was ranked the No. 1 high school basketball player in the country, don’t feature a single regret.

When Dime caught up with Leonard — as he now calls himself — inside the offices of the marketing firm that’s handling the publicity for his new documentary, we were surprised to see how comfortable he appeared. He was more composed than a lot of people might be if they’d been chewed up and spit out of the high school basketball hype machine as blithely as Leonard was. Throughout the course of our extended conversation with Leonard and the filmmakers behind the Lenny Cooke documentary, we couldn’t get over how well Cooke continues to handle what would have crushed many of us long ago.

While it’s true there are thousands of stories just like Lenny Cooke’s out there, his is unique because of the level he was playing at before he spun off the face of the basketball planet. During the documentary, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this fall, Cooke is spotted playing against LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Jarrett Jack and other familiar faces while still in high school at the turn of the millennium.

Except none of those big names appear to be enjoying the ancillary benefits that come along with high school basketball fame as much as Lenny does. The Lenny Cooke documentary is split into two chapters, with the first featuring footage shot by Producer Adam Shopkorn as he looked to document the rise of a precocious high school talent, and what the sudden fame and fortune of jumping from high school to the NBA looked like up close.

Instead, Shopkorn was on the front lines for just as engrossing a story: Lenny Cooke’s fall from prominence. After declaring for the NBA draft out of high school in 2002, no one selected the 6-6 wing. Cooke floated around on the periphery of the Association with Summer League teams and NBDL and D-League stops, but he was out of the game completely before the first decade of the new millennium was up.

That’s where the second half of the film picks up. It documents Lenny’s 30th birthday celebration in Virginia with family, a tearful trip back to Brooklyn to see friends who Lenny calls out for forgetting about him when times got tough, and a trip to Madison Square Garden where former peers Amar’e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Joakim Noah — who executive produced the documentary and was a gangly, 5-9 teammate of Cooke’s early in Lenny’s AAU career — marvel at how different Lenny looks from his playing days (he’s put on a bit of weight since that time, and his face looks bloated, though he appears a lot healthier when we speak with him).

That fall from grace would leave scars on many, but when we were ushered into a small room just off the entranceway of a West side office building to speak with Lenny, Shopkorn and award-winning Safdie bothers Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie, he was in better shape than he was at the end of the documentary, and appeared pleasant, if a little tired of all the media.

The filmmakers themselves helped elucidate what we saw in the gripping two chapters of Lenny’s life on film. But they were careful to differentiate his story from the countless others that preceded his rise and fall. Lenny really was an NBA talent, and it’s what makes his demeanor at present so fascinating. His is an existence without regret where he’s still — for the most part — just living in the present.

In 2001, Lenny was going into his senior year of high school in Old Tappen, New Jersey. He had moved from Brooklyn’s Bushwick projects to live with Debbie Bortner, the older mother of an AAU teammate who would serve as his legal guardian before he later moved out. While there, Shopkorn shot his earliest footage in the doc, including a trip back to Cooke’s old apartment in Brooklyn.

After a number of appearances at summer camps with future NBA stars, Lenny does battle against Baltimore’s Carmelo Anthony. He actually outplays the future NBA All-Star, but in one poignant scene in Vegas, it’s clear ‘Melo’s focused on basketball and Lenny just wants to know what they’re doing after the game.

That same summer, Lenny reaches a penultimate moment when he faces off against then-junior LeBron James in the championship game at the ABCD Adidas camp. James would hit the game-winning three-pointer and out-duel Lenny, scoring 24 points to Lenny’s nine. Never before had Lenny been beaten on a basketball court, and many look at that game as a watershed moment Lenny’s life, derailing a trajectory that seemed to preordain NBA greatness.

Check out our Q&A with the former high school star…

Lenny’s fall — while foreshadowed in the opening chapter — isn’t complete even after James beats him so publicly at ABCD. Cooke still has another year of high school to complete before he decides whether to declare for the NBA draft or go to college. Except, Lenny was 19 at this point after moving around so much and struggling academically. A complicated New Jersey state law prohibited him from playing during his senior year, and he didn’t end up playing a minute of organized basketball for the year and a half before the 2002 draft.

Time off the basketball court just meant Cooke was no longer on the minds of NBA scouts. By the time he declared for the 2002 draft, the likelihood of a lottery selection had disappeared. He’d also fallen into the hands of some duplicitous managers, who gave him a huge upfront payment of $350,000 by dangling NBA offers that weren’t really on the table after Lenny’s sabbatical from high school ball.

It was too late at that point, since Lenny had already accepted money and hired an agent. He had to play professionally even after not being unselected in 2002 Shopkorn kept tabs on Lenny through a 2004 car accident that further knocked him off his NBA course, but the film idea was dropped once it was clear Lenny’s shot to make the NBA was now gone.

Adam’s dream of making a movie showing Lenny’s leap from high school to the pros was never to be. The NBA prohibited the HS jump in the 2005 CBA, requiring players to have at least a year of college under their belt or wait until after their 19th birthday to enter the draft. It didn’t matter because by then Lenny was on the minor league circuit.

He spent some time playing professionally in the Philippines before chapter 2 of the Lenny Cooke documentary picked up following the publication of Harvey Araton’s New York Times profile. The piece spurred Shopkorn to find the Safdie brothers in order to visit with Lenny in the present and bring the project full circle. What was once going to be an intimate look at the transition from high school to the NBA, became instead a cautionary tale starring the same lead.

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Dime: Was there anything you saw in the rough cut of the movie you thought should have made the final cut, but was scrapped for whatever reason?
Lenny Cooke: No, not really. I just noticed that there were some parts when we separated some years that should have been in it. Like my car accident, and things of that nature, but everything was perfect.

Dime: The car accident — you were in a coma, and it knocked you out for a while — so why didn’t you include the car crash in the narrative?
Josh Safdie: Well, we didn’t have any of that documented. That kind of happened a little bit later, and it didn’t fit into the movie because we didn’t have any footage or any articles, and it was another part of his life. It’s definitely a part of the story, but not a part of the film.
Adam Shopkorn: We tried like hell to get footage. Josh was wondering, from a filmmakers perspective, like responsibility and stuff. Lenny was in that accident in 2004 and when I originally set out to make this film, it was about Lenny making the leap to the NBA. By 2004, we kind of thought he was far enough removed from the league — if the car accident had happened a few months before the draft —.
JS: I just don’t know if the car accident was the reason Lenny didn’t make it to the [NBA].
Benny Safdie: If we had put it in there, it might have made the story much simpler — ‘oh, he didn’t make it because of the injury.’

Dime: What about the pre-draft camp in Chicago when [Lenny] was injured?
JS: Basically, when we make movies, we try really hard to find the source, the primary source. We don’t want to start basically doing a collage, which is how a lot of documentaries are condescending and just basically pulling all this information. We wanted to take life — that you, as a viewer — can take from. But yeah,
LC: I broke my toe. I broke it playing.
BS: But if that stuff was [included in the film], people wouldn’t be talking about everything else they’re talking about. The story is much more open, and you can do so much more. If someone can have that one thing to latch onto, it prevents you from figuring out what actually happened, and all these people pulling at Lenny in different directions; giving him shoes; that stuff is part of the story. If that accident or breaking the toe had been included — people want to wrap stuff up very neatly. They want to walk with that knowing the reason, and we want them wondering why.
AS: I wasn’t there. The way these guys make films. If they’re not [at the event], like Josh said, I don’t know. We tried to cull the footage, we tried to look at articles; we tried to talk to the guy that was in the car with him. But it wasn’t an interview forum. It was later, about that night and what happened.
JS: It’s not that type of a movie.

Dime: The reason I asked you about watching the doc is because it was an intimate look at your trajectory, but was there a moment where you just realized, ‘I think I might have missed this opening [for the NBA]’?
LC: After the draft, I was just like I’ll play wherever. Yeah, of course, I would have loved to have been in the NBA. But as long as I was playing, I was good.

Dime: So that didn’t bother you at all that the window had closed so quickly.
LC: It takes a lot for me to get upset, so it didn’t bother me. I mean, of course I would have loved to have got drafted, picked up as a free agent, or something like that. But at the time, as long as I was playing, making my money, and I was traveling, I was fine.

Dime: You seem really at ease with what’s happened. That quote about you saying, ‘nothing lost and nothing gained, I’m right back where I started,’ is hard for people that don’t know you to understand.
LC: I have no regrets, no regrets at all.
Dime: OK, but can you explain why you’re comfortable about the whole thing? Most people would be angry and upset about the whole thing. Most .
LC: I didn’t expect it to go that far anyway. I didn’t know that, potentially, I would play in the NBA, or go overseas or— I didn’t didn’t expect that. Someone asked me to try out for an AAU team, and that was it. From there, I was playing every day and in tournaments and I just blew up. But — like I said — I’m right back where I started. I didn’t lose and I didn’t gain. In the middle, I just enjoyed myself. It don’t bother me. A lot of people say, ‘you should be in the NBA,’ I’m just saying that people in general, why are you so concerned about what I did in my career?

Dime: We’re just trying to come from the perspective of someone who doesn’t understand all the things pushing and pulling at you. Like, if someone had offered [us] $350,000 at that age, [we] would have taken the money like you and bounced.
BS: Even still, it’s hard for people to understand. Lenny’s perspective is a completely unique perspective to have on something like this. There are people who would get down and beat themselves up about it. But it just shows where Lenny’s come and who he is as a person.
JS: Everybody likes to look at things as potential. Look at every part of life, in the world really: the stock market, every four-year-old who can dribble three basketballs at the same time. Everything is based on potential. There’s no such thing as face value anymore. Everything is potential, potential, potential. We’ve moved on from reality at this point. What’s awesome about Lenny, is that he knew — obviously the ego gets inflated by people saying. ‘you’re the next this or you’re the next that’ as supposed to just saying, ‘you’re Lenny Cooke’ or ‘you’re Leonard Cooke.’ We’re all a product of chatter around us, and he doesn’t let that get him down. Which I think is interesting and which makes the movie interesting. Because you’re watching this and you’re like, ‘this guy doesn’t have any regrets.’ He’s sad about things, you know, and had he known — he’s such a present guy — if he just went to practice or spent a minute or two worrying about that, he’d be in the NBA right now with a $90 million contract. I think he’s appreciative of the journey, which a lot of people don’t have. A LOT of people don’t have.
BS: It’s a very unique, American perspective to say, ‘lost potential.’ But yeah, like you were saying, you can’t get past that.
AS: That, and ‘you didn’t live up to your potential,’ is a saying today.

Hear more about Lenny’s lack of regrets despite his fall from grace…

Dime: What would you tell someone in your position today?
LC: Just stay humble, work hard and watch the movie — you’ll learn a lot.

Dime: Have you talked to anyone or mentored kids like they show at the end of the doc?
LC: Yeah, we’ve been going around where the movie shows, and doing more motivational speaking and stuff.
AS: He’s gonna start doing more of that. The films about to be pushed out far and wide, so I think there will be some demand.

Dime: Do you look forward to talking to someone in your position?
LC: Yeah, that’s my goal. If I speak to a million kids and I can just touch just one, I’m fine. If one kid can say, ‘I was successful because Lenny guided me in this direction, and I made those choices because of the one’s he made,’ I’m fine with that.

Dime: Do you get mad at people who don’t understand all the things surrounding you, telling you they would have worked hard if given the same opportunity [with talent to spare]; except, they don’t know what you were going through?
LC: Like I said, I don’t have regrets about anything. What’s here today can be gone tomorrow. That’s what I live by. As far as being mad or anything. It takes a lot to get me mad. I don’t get mad easily. I don’t let too much bother me anyway. Even the media. People say, ‘or they’re saying this about you on the Internet’ 13 years later, what did I do so great, or what did I do wrong. It’s 13 years later, so why do people care where I am now?
Dime: I think a lot of people are shook by how at peace you are with the whole thing

Dime: There’s a scene in the movie where a stranger comes up to you at the airport and is telling you to go straight to the league. How often was that happening to you?
LC: Every day. Not a day went by where someone wasn’t like, ‘well are you gonna go pro or go to college, watchu gonna do?’ I didn’t even know what I was going to do.

Dime: Was there anyone that told you to go to school instead of the NBA?
LC: I can’t name one person that didn’t want me to go pro. Everybody was in my head telling me I was going to be this or gonna be that.
AS: Rick Pitino didn’t want you to go pro. Mike Jarvis [then-coach at Seton Hall] didn’t want you to go pro. [Laughter as every realizes, of course college coaches wanted him to go to college]…Why don’t you tell him what your closet looks like, what your closet looks like with the jerseys and the recruiting letters.
LC: I still have my college letters to this day. Unopened, I never looked at my college letters. I’ve still go them today. I’m gonna let my son see what this recruiting class is about. I didn’t care about that. I just stacked them up by school.

Dime: There were a couple scenes with you and LeBron and ‘Melo in the film. At the time, do you remember thinking, ‘they seem way more into this than I am.’
LC: I mean, I knew that at the jump. They worked hard every day. They knew that they wanted this. I would have loved to be there with them. They took it seriously. When they were at the ABCD camp, when they were in bed, I was leaving to go out at the club. I just knew I had to show up the next morning and perform. That’s it. Those guys knew what they wanted out of this, and they achieved their goals. I would have loved to be [in the NBA], but I didn’t take it serious. I knew I was the best, so what did I care?

Dime: Did you know that was going to be the problem?
LC: No.

Dime: A lot of people talk about that shot LeBron James hit to win that championship game at the ABCD camp as a turning point—
LC: If he hadn’t hit that shot, and I won the game, would I get $90 million from Nike? Who knows?
JS: Hindsight is 20/20, I think because it was a hustle for Lenny — and he’s the first to admit that — if you’re being padded and people are telling you, you’re the best of the best, that can actually take you pretty far. And then if you’re knocked down before —
Dime: —The first chink in the armor.
JS: Exactly. I don’t think that if he misses that shot Lenny’s whole story changes, but he was out-played in that game.
AS: It was a story. Look at who he ran into.
JS: Possibly one of the greatest of all-time.
BS: Everybody, you saw him play ‘Melo. He was ‘the guy.’
LC: Whenever I see somebody I played with, they show me the respect just as much as I show them. It’s not like, ‘oh, he wasn’t good, that’s why he didn’t make it.’ When they came to play against me, they had to go, or they were gonna get their ass bust.

Dime: So after you went undrafted, you floated around and played in Summer League games. We talk to D-League players and guys on the cusp a lot. Talk about how much luck is involved, in terms of a roster spot opening up, players on guaranteed deals getting run over other guys…Like, you were with Boston’s summer league team for a while…
LC: That’s the year they re-signed Walter McCarty. He was a free agent, and after summer league is the year he decided he was going to come back. That was the last spot
AS: That was the explanation they gave you. They called you up, and explained that Walter—
LC: They told me he possibly, he may potentially come back, but if he don’t, you can show your talent and you might get that spot. It was between me and two other people they brought in for that spot. It just wasn’t going to be my spot up-front, but —

AS: You played well. Yeah, I was following that.
BS: We included clips of that [Lenny in Summer League] in the film.
DimeYeah, the clips in the film show him tearing it up.
JS: At that time, they weren’t broadcasting summer league games. So the guy literally posted Lenny Cooke summer league on YouTube and we got a hold of him.
AS: He’s from Argentina.

Dime: Yeah, a lot of people forget that even in 2001, the Internet was around, but there was no YouTube…
LC: Yeah, if they had been doing Reality Television back then [they were, but not like now], I woulda been killing it.
AS: It’s not in the film, but at the pool — MTV Cribs was a huge show at the time — and Lenny would look at the camera and be like, ‘Welcome to my house. We’re on Cribs. That’s my boy —’
JS: You have to remember this was at the height of the bling bling era. That song came out in 2000 and was a No. 1 hit. And that was the beginning of this whole change in the landscape of pop culture and hip hop culture for sure. And you’re saying you have money before you even have it.
AS: Have you seen him in the Fabolous video? He’s in the Fabolous video.
JS: It’s quick, but it’s there.

Dime: That scene in the film where you’re watching the 2001 draft with your boys eating McDonalds. Did it dawn on you then, ‘whoa, I could be in the NBA next year’? Were you seeing the dollar signs when you were playing after that?
LC:I already saw [the dollar signs] when I was playing because I wasn’t going to play if they didn’t pay me. It wasn’t the dollar signs I was looking for later in life, but if they didn’t pay me, I wasn’t going to play [at that time].

Dime: Bring us through a night in 2001, when you were at the height of your fame, any crazy stories?
LC: I remember one night when Planet Hollywood was opening. I was 17. I went in there with 10 people and spent $10,000 and just enjoyed myself. My friends enjoyed themselves. It was boozing and booty. That’s it, you do your thing. This was every night. Every night. It was crazy. I had fun, while it lasted. That’s why I say I have no regrets about it. My friend’s enjoyed themselves; my family enjoyed themselves.

The Lenny Cooke documentary opens on December 6 in New York City.

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