Entertainment

12.05.13

The LeBron James Who Wasn’t: The Story of Lenny Cooke

Lenny Cooke was supposed to be an NBA superstar. Then LeBron James hit a game-winning shot that ended the high school phenom’s career.

When Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins declare for the 2014 NBA draft, they probably won’t announce their decision at a sparsely attended press conference held at Junior’s Restaurant in downtown Brooklyn. That Lenny Cooke, the onetime number one ranked high-school basketball player in the country, announced his intention to play in the NBA in such a manner was one of many signs that, at the young age of 19, Lenny Cooke was already washed up. “I never thought it would end,” Lenny tells me of his stardom. “Then it did.”

The scene is one of many poignant moments in Josh and Ben Safdie’s documentary Lenny Cooke. A title card at the beginning of the film indicates that Cooke, despite his huge high-school hype, never played a single minute in the NBA. It’s hard to watch footage of a younger, confident Lenny Cooke—he boasts, but we know where his story ends. In one scene, Cooke is asked by a reporter which NBA team he wants to play for. “Any of the lottery picks,” he says.

In the twelve years since Lenny Cooke declared for the 2002 draft, he’s put on a bit of weight while the landscape of college and professional basketball has changed. Under the latest collective bargaining agreement, eligibility for the NBA draft now requires a player to be both 19 years old and one year removed from high school graduation. The NBA-ready Jabari Parkers and Andrew Wiggins’ of the world now must spend a year playing in the NCAA.

Though current Detroit Piston Brandon Jennings famously signed a one-year, $1.65 million contract with Lottomatica Roma of the Italian professional league in lieu of playing college ball, very few prospective NBA players exercise their free market rights before heading to the league. Had Lenny Cooke been just three years older, he would have been forced to accept the scholarship to St. John’s University and wait at least one year for the draft. Maybe this would have made all the difference. Maybe not. Cooke’s stock, the documentary shows, was in precipitous decline well before the draft.

“Physically, I was ready,” Lenny tells me. “But mentally I was not.” Indeed, Lenny was hoping to be, at best, a second round pick, and these players are very often relegated to the development league. It is not unheard of a second round pick to end up, as Cooke did, in Panamanian professional basketball.

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The beginning of Lenny Cooke’s decline is often said to have happened on one specific day in the summer of 2001. Cooke, then still ranked number one in the nation, faced off at the popular ABCD Camp showcase against a rising star from Akron, Ohio, named LeBron James. Adam Shopkorn, the documentarian who followed high-school era Cooke for two years, shoots some remarkable footage of LeBron before he was LeBron, a 140-pound virtuoso on the court. Cooke, to his credit, hangs with LeBron for the entire game while the teams jockey for the lead. In the final moments, however, LeBron hits a game-winning three-pointer, and Cooke can only stare dumbfounded. He just witnessed what will soon be the best basketball player on the planet.

Sonny Vaccaro, the former Nike executive who ran the camp, said in an interview with The New York Times that the shot was the “one physical moment that symbolized the beginning of LeBron and the downfall of Lenny Cooke…you can say it was one shot, one game, but in a way, Lenny never recovered.” Cooke himself believes this myth of his downfall. Years later, a summer league game against the Cleveland Cavaliers takes on outsized import to Cooke when he realizes the possibility for another chance at LeBron. Lenny never gets in the game.  

The Safdies’ documentary never endorses the narrative that this single shot in a single exhibition game unraveled Cooke’s career. The strength of the film is that it makes clear that becoming an NBA player is such a lottery in itself that failure to do is never because of one single thing. It’s hard to say exactly why Cooke never makes it.

Cooke’s stock, the documentary shows, was in precipitous decline well before the draft.

He got banged up, but was only seriously injured long after he had missed his chance. He partied too much and had bad grades, but no more than most college kids. Likewise, his immaturity and poor work ethic—if that can be said about a guy who plays several basketball games a day—were noticed, but not notable. Indeed, it’s hard to say exactly how much Cooke even did fail. Though he missed out on the symbolic honor of being drafted to the NBA, he was luckier than most—Cooke played on (and was cut by) the practice squads of both the Seattle Supersonics and the Boston Celtics. Still, watching the movie today, Lenny says that “knowing what I know now, I would have done everything differently.”

As mismanaged as Cooke may have been, his story isn’t an indictment of the business practices of the NBA and NCAA, who have lately come under so much scrutiny for the treatment of college players. Though Lenny Cooke is interesting as a case study for how wrong sports speculation can be, the most salient point of the documentary may well be that there never should have been a camera crew following Lenny in the first place. The media hype machine that covers athletes when they are only teenagers can rarely—if ever—be said to be acting in the best interest of the players.