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Ten minutes into Lenny Cooke, the documentary’s star sits on a couch, watching the 2001 NBA draft with two friends. They debate who is the best player in the NBA: Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, or Kobe Bryant. This is the Post-Jordan Era, and there is no clear king on the NBA’s throne.
It’s an era of irreverence and optimism. Of Iverson talkin’ ’bout practice, of NBA scouts combing through high schools searching for the next Kobe and T-Mac, of a Wild West summer league hoops circuit where AAU coaches and shoe company reps jockey for control of the next generation of ballers.
It’s an era of youth and wealth. Of Cash Money Millionaires and Jacob the Jeweler. Of MTV Cribs, Hummers in the driveway, Mitchell & Ness throwbacks in the closet, Cristal bottles in the fridge, stripper poles in the boom-boom room. “The post-modern American Dream,” Josh Safdie, one of the film’s directors, called it in an interview this week.
Lenny Cooke was riding the wave in 2001. The Bushwick, Brooklyn native was the top high school basketball player in the country at a time when the country was giving high school basketball players millions of dollars. As he notes to his friends in the film, he had “less than a year to make a decision,” less than a year until he is eligible for the NBA Draft and competes for the throne. Moments later, Cooke watches the Washington Wizards select Kwame Brown with the number one pick, making him the first high schooler ever taken in the top spot.
“That n—- a millionaire right now,” the young Cooke says in the film. “Eighteen years old.”
Two of the next three picks are high schoolers as well. By the time the clock starts for the ninth pick, four preps have gone off the board.
We know how this turns out, of course. We know that this era was fleeting and that the wave of preps-to-pros was at its crest. Cooke did not get picked in the 2002 NBA draft. He made a brief living playing overseas. He grew overweight. He became basketball’s ultimate cautionary tale. The 2001 NBA Draft was not a new normal but an aberration so absurd that pro basketball eventually barred high schoolers from entering the draft. And as Hip-Hop’s bling bling culture evolved into one of self-reflection and skinny jeans, the Post-Jordan Era gave way to the LeBron James Era.
Back on that couch in 2001, though, Cooke looked like the future of basketball. And a young filmmaker named Adam Shopkorn was shadowing him with a camera to “document a potential two-year journey, show someone going from high school into the NBA, making a ton of money, seeing how they acclimated themselves.” Shopkorn had read about Cooke in the New York Times and reached out to Cooke’s guardian, Debbie Bortner, an upper-class white woman from New Jersey who had moved the kid off the streets of Brooklyn and into her suburban home. From there, Shopkorn gained access to the athlete’s daily life.
But the project fell apart. After announcing that he would enter the 2002 draft, Cooke left Bortner’s house and moved to Michigan to train. Shopkorn’s calls went unanswered. So he wasn’t there to capture Cooke’s reactions on draft day. And anyway, with Cooke’s basketball career in shambles, the story Shopkorn envisioned was gone.
The narrative of Lenny Cooke didn’t take shape until years later. In 2010, Shopkorn linked up with his old friends, directors Josh and Benny Safdie, and asked them to help him finish the film. The story was no longer about a rise, but a fall. And from the hours and hours of raw footage, the Safdies hoped to discover how the best high school player in the world wound up never playing a single NBA game.
“Lenny’s story is not one that you’ve seen before because there was no one reason why he didn’t make it,” says Josh Safdie. “He didn’t get shot. He didn’t turn to drug dealing. He didn’t get injured. We knew we had to dig deeper.”
The result is an intimate portrait of an amiable and confident teenager impatiently waiting for his own greatness to carry him and his people to a promised land. The presentation is minimalist, observational, scenes of real life with no narrator and few talking heads.
“We didn’t want to have the film talk down to him,” says Benny Safdie. “We always wanted Lenny to say everything.”
So there’s promising young Lenny with an ESPN reporter in Bushwick, pointing to the dilapidated building he will turn into a YMCA and the one he will turn into a movie theater. There’s Lenny discussing how he plans to manage his money once he’s in the NBA. There’s Lenny signing an autograph for young boy.
But then there’s Lenny showing up late to a morning workout at the prestigious Five-Star Basketball summer camp, and when a coach doles out a punishment of extra sprints for 6:30 a.m. the next day, shooting back, “I can’t get here at eight o’clock, how I’mma get up at 6:30?”
And there he is trying to skip some drills before another coach drags him back, lecturing about how all the other stars who passed through the camp, like Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing, “never missed one” of these sessions. We see Cooke plop down on the court beside Jarrett Jack, now a guard on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Jack chuckles and says to Cooke, “I thought y’all was leaving.”
Familiar faces like Jack’s pop up sporadically through the film, future NBA players providing a frame of reference for Cooke’s potential, reminding us of all the names ranked below him. At one tournament, Cooke introduces his friend from Brooklyn to Carmelo Anthony. “He all right,” Cooke tells the friend. “I busted his ass at ABCD [summer camp], but he all right.”
None of the peripheral characters looms larger than LeBron James. When Cooke and James match up against each other for the first time, at the Adidas ABCD summer camp, Cooke is the star and the younger James is the up-and-coming underdog. James hits the game winning shot over Cooke, and it sort of feels like the climax of a morality play: the arrogant ball hog ousted by the selfless team-player. It’s as if the basketball gods chose this epic stage to showcase their plans for the game’s future, with James representing where the NBA would go and Cooke representing what it would leave behind. In the next scene, after all, we see that Cooke is late to a tournament game in Las Vegas, and we hear his team’s coach mention that he ran into Cooke at the club at 4 a.m. the previous night.
As Cooke admits later in the film, he lived the life of an NBA star while his blue-chip peers went to class. To him basketball had always been a transaction. He’d understood that about the game from the start and he enjoyed the ride more than the playing. “I didn’t love the game,” admitted a 30-year-old Cooke, when Shopkorn and the Safdies caught up with him to record the footage that would make up the documentary’s final act. “I was doing it because somebody else said, ‘Shit, Lenny, you come play with me and I’mma give $100 and I’mma give you some Jordans.” He embodied the era that created him and his steep, sudden, high-profile fall helped end the era. Exhibit A of too much, too soon.
Cooke first saw the documentary in a screening room in New York City, alongside many of his friends featured in it.
“We were a little bit nervous because the movie doesn’t hide any of his faults,” says Josh Safdie. After seeing it, “he didn’t really say anything at first. Just gave us all strong, heartfelt, earnest hugs.”
Benny Safdie recalls someone later asking Cooke if he had any regrets. Cooke replied, “Regrets? I have a movie!” Though his fall will live on, it carries with it the memory of his reign at the top.
In one of the film’s most quietly powerful scenes, Cooke catches a Knicks-Bulls game at Madison Square Garden. When the contest is done and the stands have cleared, he walks onto the court to greet some of his old friends. He slaps hands with Amare Stoudemire, who doesn’t recognize him at first. But when Cooke says, “It’s Lenny, man, Cooke,” Stoudemire responds with “Oh, wassup boy!”
Next, Cooke embraces Joakim Noah, a former AAU teammate who signed on as an executive producer on the documentary. Cooke asks if Noah is down to go out tonight, but Noah says, “I can’t do it…. Not yet. I’m not where I wanna be. When I get to where I need to be, that’s when I can start getting it poppin’.”
Then Cooke makes his way to Carmelo Anthony. “My man Lenny Cooke right here,” says Anthony, wearing Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses and a grin. Anthony talks of old times, of how Cooke was the “only person at the Adidas camp that wore Jordans.” They exchange well-wishes and part ways. The camera stays on Anthony for a few more seconds as he slaps hands with another man waiting to see him.