If you are reading this, you probably already know about the subject of the film, Lenny Cooke, a one-time high school basketball superstar ranked with the likes of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. Unfortunately, he became a cautionary tale for future young athletes, and now the eponymous documentary answers many of the questions you might have about who Cooke was and what happened.
Lenny (or Leonard as his mom calls him) is generally shown to be a good guy. We may all point to him as a failure, but the decisions he made would probably mirror most of ours if we were put in the same situation (showered with money, fame, and adoration as a teen). The mental maturity wasn’t there for him, and I can’t claim that it would have been there for me. Years later, his mom says she never blamed him for anything that happened, and I agree. He was a kid, and he did what kids do. The environment led him astray.
He was never a criminal or a thug (as far as I know), just a kid. Cooke became a victim – instead of becoming the next NBA superstar, he hung out with Foxy Brown’s (remember her?) brother, and listened to fast money.
What surprises me about the film is how much footage there was of him as a teen – in fact, this confused me about the structure of the narrative. It seems like the directors’ originally tried making a documentary about him to later show off his path to fame. When that did not happen, the film also stopped, and then 6-10 years later, we skip ahead and see a fat, out of shape Lenny Cooke look back on his past. The current-day Cooke gets into a fight with friends, complaining they’ve abandoned him as he’s now a nobody, and this made me wonder about the directors as well. Why now come back and shoot new footage to show the sad story? For whose benefit?
Perhaps Cooke answers this himself at the very end of the documentary – it’s the first time he really discusses what happened and why he failed. I think the reason the documentary exists then is that this is Lenny Cooke’s attempt to help future players avoid his path, and it’s intimate enough to not just be “another” cautionary tale. Cooke is young enough in that he’s not just a legend of some bygone “old man” day. He played with Melo, Joakim Noah, LeBron; the lessons are still relevant.
I think a big question left unanswered is why didn’t Lenny Cooke make the NBA or continue to play basketball after a few years of struggles? Why was he fat by age 26? He feels he may have been blackballed by the NBA (he admits to being a bit of a jerk in his youth), but is that really enough to get blackballed? Kobe is a jerk too. Would anyone blackball him? Cooke was a great talent, and he wasn’t a criminal, yet no team would give him a try? Perhaps he continued being a jerk after not getting selected in the 2002 NBA Draft. After that letdown, Cooke played internationally and in the US, including the Philippines, USBL, and China. Cooke admits he didn’t have a true passion for the game, that he did it to keep getting paid, but if that’s really true, he still could be playing today to make money.
I would have liked to see people from the NBA or his professional teams talk about what he was like, or about his basketball skills during this time period. Otherwise, while there is some discussion of what’s happened between Cooke’s high school days and today, it’s limited. In this sense, I feel the documentary strives more to show who Lenny Cookie was as a phenom and what he is today to show the possibility of lost opportunity to a modern audience rather than discussing the story of Lenny Cooke and his overall struggle to reach the NBA over the years.