by Curtis Caesar John
If you’re like me you remember that moment when you first truly decided what you wanted to be in life. For me it was a traffic cop since they yielded the power to tell cars, trucks and the like what to do and where to go; I was six years old. For Lenny Cooke, the eponymous subject of a new documentary coming out in New York City theaters this Friday, it seems like he never had many early moments of clarity but like so many others was told so often what he would one day be that he never found it in himself to actually get there.
In 2001 the top-ranked high school basketball player in New York was a dangly wide-eyed young man hailing from the rough and tumble Bushwick section of Brooklyn. At the age of 17, Lenny Cooke was a star whose skills came naturally to him after only beginning to play the sport a few years prior. People would yell his name and wave to him on every street, he hung out with big local hip-hop stars like Fat Joe, Foxy Brown, and Fabolous, and was handed money and jewelry from those looking to get in good with him.
As a poor kid he ate it up…but Lenny never asked for fame. He never really wanted to play basketball, and despite being convinced he should be in the NBA, never had the passion or developed the discipline to be a superstar athlete. And all that leads us to the present day where an obese and playful 30-year old Lenny lives in Virginia as a kind of ‘everyman’ – far removed from the hustle and bustle of Brooklyn outside of the occasional visit to New York City – after declaring himself eligible for the NBA draft ten years prior and not being picked in the first or second rounds. Instead Lenny ended up playing in the NBDL (NBA Development League), CBA, and overseas before eventually calling it quits. A sad state – but is it really? Would the ill-mentored Lenny have been a better man if he achieved NBA success?
“I’m right back where I started. I ain’t lose nothing, I ain’t gain nothing.”
Directors Josh and Benny Safdie, first working through footage from 2001-2002 originally shot by producer Adam Shopkorn (who back then had the idea about documenting the life of a player going straight to the NBA out of high school – an increasingly controversial yet popular occurrence at the time that is now banned) then incorporating news footage and video of Lenny from alternative league basketball games tell Lenny’s story in a linear and at first frustrating order. But the build-up to the present day, occurring in the last third of the film, was the smart choice. Coming in we already know the outcome – he does not get drafted – but that does not make the moment and the fall-out any less compelling. In many ways, seeing Lenny’s questionable decisions makes our knowledge of his future that more fascinating.
In a visit to the Adidas sponsored basketball camp, where the unfocused Lenny’s budding career begins to fall apart thanks to him being supplanted by a then unknown LeBron James as well as his own lack of drive, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who five years prior was the first high school guard to be selected in the NBA draft, provides the greatest reality moment for the young players when he tells them with honest brutality their chances for NBA stardom. Lenny arrogantly does not take the time to listen and let the information sit with him but instead challenges Kobe to a game of ‘ball, a telling act that would provide the basis for the rest of the film.
“They made me this person,” the rotund Lenny bemoans late in the film, commiserating about his life ten years prior and making it clear to his remaining NYC friends that he wasn’t who he wanted to be back then but who they and so many others wanted him to be – something they still fail to understand. Traveling around the world and settling into a non-basketball lifestyle in his mother’s small Virginia hometown had an effect on him as Lenny comes into his own stable homespun existence allowing him to summarize his so-called fall perfectly: “I’m right back where I started. I ain’t lose nothing, I ain’t gain nothing.” Though a greatly profound film, Lenny Cooke is not as much a cautionary tale as it is one of self-realization. Would he had been better off in the NBA or outside of it? That’s not so easy to answer as he’s not even near a perfect person now, but the person he seemed to be turning into pre-draft night did not seem to so great either.
By the way, I never became a traffic cop. And I’m still okay too.
Shopkorn Productions and Brigade will release Lenny Cooke theatrically in New York on December 6th at Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. The film is executive produced by Chicago Bulls star player Joakim Noah.
Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie
Producer: Adam Shopkorn
Executive Producer: Joakim Noah
92 Minutes / USA