It’s incredibly frustrating watching another human being with so much natural ability and resulting opportunities, not realize their potential; and even worse, are the primary reason for not realizing that potential, whether unwittingly or not, when those opportunities are almost certain to lead to lifelong dreams fulfilled, and the kind of financial reward that would relieve one of oppressive burdens.
While compassion might be the desired response, it’s not necessarily the most natural in this instance. Instead, a smack across the back of the head to shake them out of whatever stupor they’re in, that’s preventing them from making wise decisions, seems more appropriate.
As it often goes in life, the fall usually comes after the rise. The athletes are drafted from college (or high school, although the NBA ended that practice in 2006), sign professional play deals worth millions of dollars, and waste no time reveling in materialistic excess, while also becoming the credit cards to an entourage comprised of family, friends and other freeloaders, leading to an eventual financial collapse.
Lenny Cooke – a once star high school basketball player, considered one of the top athletes in the entire country, and one of the top NBA prospects, while still in his junior year in high school – never quite saw his “rise,” because he was never drafted, and never played a single game in the NBA, which made his “fall” even more saddening.
And it’s his story that’s documented in the rather tragic, no-frills feature documentary from brothers Benny Safdie and Joshua Safdie, titled aptly and simply enough, Lenny Cooke.
Cooke’s story isn’t an entirely unfamiliar one: young black kid from the “hood” with incredible athletic ability, sees a professional sports career as his (and his family’s) ticket out of poverty. Although he never quite makes it, thanks to a series of poor decisions that eventually prove detrimental to that dream.
If there’s empathy to be found here, it’s in the fact that Cooke was really just a kid – although, at 6 ft 6 in and just over 200 pounds, a massive kid; an immature, easily influenced mind in a man’s body. Not necessarily a problematic mix, but when you add notoriety and money (or at least the potential for a lot of it, and very quickly), without much real adult supervision (the kind of tough love that a parent should be able to give to their child for their betterment), the concoction becomes quite potent.
I should note that Cooke never had a father or father figure in his youth.
Oddly enough, Cooke seemed like a relatively well-mannered, grounded kid, but who also realized the unique position he was in as a star athlete with pro-sports and million-dollar contracts about a year away. However, the pressure that comes with being in that position, especially when you come from *nothing* and your family and friends are all looking to you as their lottery tickets, must be quite a burden to carry, and in his case, negatively influenced his decisions. The potential riches that were waiting for him were just simply too alluring to wait too long to finally come into, and so, instead of going to college (he was courted heavily and early by top basketball schools), he opted to, understandably, strike while the iron was hot, and enter the 2002 NBA draft after high school, influenced, in part, by the encouragement of those same family and friends (as well as an agent), and the fact that, the years immediately prior, he’d watched other high schoolers forgo college, enter the draft and become top selections, signing multi-year, guaranteed multi-million contracts with NBA teams.
Cooke’s problem was that, unlike those who went before and after him, directly from high school, he lacked discipline. He seemed to believe that his talent alone was enough, and all the mental and physical training that comes with developing oneself into the type of athlete that would become a top draft pick, was inconsequential to him. So while his contemporaries like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony were going to bed early to rest, to later get up in the morning and run through a variety of workout drills, Cooke was at a club with his buddies.
And with what he felt was an assured future career as a NBA player (thanks in part to an agent filling his head with seemingly unsupported certainties of his desirability as an NBA prospect, as well as his wallet with $350,000 in cash), his high school education became inconsequential to him, and in the end, his arrogance ended up getting the best of him.
He lost a year of high school basketball eligibility, declared his plans to enter the 2002 NBA draft, giving up the opportunity to play in college, a decision he would later admit he regretted deeply, and on what would be a night that held his entire future in its hands, watched player after player be selected on draft day – the first round, and then the second, 29 players in total – and not hear his name called by the end of the evening.
Devastation. Goodbye dreams…
20 years old. A girlfriend and a child to support. And no plan B.
So now what?
Playing in the minor leagues, as well as overseas, making a pittance. That continued for another 5 to 6 years.
Cooke would turn 30 in 2012. Footage captured of the party he threw for himself was actually quite disheartening. While still very much the life of the party as he apparently always was, he’d put on quite a lot of weight, and looked decidedly unhealthy – far from the lean, sliced NBA prospect he was 10 years prior. Watching a scene in which he asks his girlfriend (the same girlfriend he’d been with since high school) to bring him a can of soda and some fatty leftovers, in the middle of the night, as he lay back on his sleeper sofa, his belly almost seeming to block his eyeline to the TV that was in front if him, I thought to myself, if the deep regret and sadness he still felt 10 years later didn’t kill him, his unhealthy eating habits just might.
Thankfully, he seemed to still keep himself active by playing a pickup game of basketball every now and then.
Unable to let go of the past, Cooke is now directionless. His girlfriend works 2 or 3 jobs to help keep the family afloat. It’s not entirely clear what he’s doing today. I couldn’t stay for the Q&A, for which a leaner Lenny was present, so that question might have been answered during the session.
Directors Safdie smartly don’t color the film with unnecessary adornments, because they really don’t need to. They also keep themselves completely out of it, with no running commentary. It’s a straightforward, no frills documentary that does its job. Your appreciation for the film will depend on how interested you are in (and maybe even tolerant of) Cooke’s story and the workings of basketball’s “farming” system (some refer to it as a form of present-day slavery).
Ultimately, a tragic story.
A clever ending scene in which a present-day, mature Cooke addresses a 19 year old stubborn Cooke, face to face, in one of those “letters to my younger self” moments, says it all.