At the turn of the millennium, Lenny Cooke had the basketball world in his hands. He was a bad-ass baller from the streets of NYC with his sights set on the NBA. He hung with rappers and entertainment personalities like DJ Clue, and was a “personality” MTV had on its radar.
He flashed truck jewelry, drove expensive cars and shared top billing at ABCD camps with future NBA stars such as Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and LeBron James. He was a shoe-in NBA beast. As his press grew, his legend and ego grew and he became a local celebrity with a sense of “entitlement.”
“He was a teenage kid, and every day, he had money in his pocket — and I don’t mean $200 or $300,” Cooke’s mother said in a 2012 NY Times article. “It was whatever he wanted, like the world was his, so he took advantage of it. I guess he didn’t figure that things were going to fall down because people kept telling him it was only going to get better and better.”
Twelve years later, Cooke is another player on the long list of NYC basketball stars, who got swept up in the hype, before they could actually reap the benefits. Now he’s a chubby, out of shape mainstay in the “Where Are they Now” sections of hoop-head publications across the country.
Cooke, a native of Bushwick, Brooklyn, was a casualty of the beginning of the social media barrage and Internet craze. He couldn’t deal with the pressures of the spotlight, the vultures and opportunistic groupies that prey on potential superstars.
In 2001, as the No.1 high school basketball player in the country, aspiring New York film director Adam Shopkorn chronicled Cooke’s rise. In fact, Shopkorn turned down an offer from Maverick Carter to do a doc on a buzzing freshman in Akron, Ohio named Lebron James, to follow Cooke’s story.
The director shot crazy footage, but when Cooke went undrafted—as quick as he rose to prominence—he faded into obscurity.
Cooke became a regular up at the Rucker Park League in Harlem during the early 2000’s, playing for Fat Joe’s Terror Squad team at the height of the group’s popularity. That was as “big-time” as Cooke would get and Shopkorn never got the fairy-tale ending he wanted for his film. Years later, Shopkorn dusted off his old footage and showed the tapes to directors Josh and Benny Safdie, who turned them into Lenny Cooke, a huge hit at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
To some, Cooke’s story is a tragic one about an all-world talent, who became another victim of the decapitating sidewalk cracks prevalent in NY’s concrete jungle.
However, everybody doesn’t feel that way. Former St. Johns forward Tyrone Grant is from Brooklyn and says a lot of cats feel Cooke was overrated goods to begin with.
“His hype was so high because he was a much older player,” Grant said about Cooke who was a 20-year-old, 6’-6” 240-pound monster in high school. “He was just an average player who did things like get career advice from rappers. In high school he was a young man playing against kids. Simple.”
Grant’s response only heightens the interest in Cooke’s story. Why didn’t he get drafted? Was he shafted? Was he the real deal as Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah—who says Cooke was his idol—declares? Or did he ride the high school-to-Hollywood success of Kobe Bryant, right into a destructive dose of reality?