Ordinary life comes to look like a humiliation in the late reels of Lenny Cooke, yet another heartbreaker of a doc in which a compelling basketball story powers a discomfiting examination of a crisis facing young American men, so many of whom are encouraged to develop skills and interests having little to do with those rewarded by this country’s economy.
Such is the case with Lenny Cooke, a top high-school basketball player who chose to skip college ball and leap directly into the NBA draft. Problem is, Cooke attempted this the year after a clutch of highly touted high-schoolers went bust after going pro. Worse, at least one kid better than him was attempting the same leap: LeBron James.
The year before, Cooke and James competed in a to-the-buzzer tournament game captured in the film. We don’t see footage of the time LeBron bests Cooke for good — when, as the ’02 draft wound down, Cooke realized he wasn’t going to be picked at all.
Later, we hear him tell a reporter about breaking down, and his fiancée, Anita, sighs about how hard it is to go from great expectations to having to scratch out a living.
Shooting over a decade, the filmmakers introduce us to both the cocksure wunderkind and the man with his promise behind him. Both Lennys reveal themselves in well-observed moments: the kid signing autographs at 18 or joking with the cops who turn up to investigate a family party on his grandma’s lawn; the adult who cooks a mean hard-boiled egg, sings Mario’s “Let Me Love You” to Anita, and harangues his ballplayer buddies for not keeping in touch.