Early on in failed-prodigy documentary “Lenny Cooke,” the titular basketball star, then in high school, is caught off-guard in one of the film’s many revealing passages. He is discussing the 2001 NBA Draft, which made history with three high schoolers taken in the top four selections. Before the draft, Cooke is casually asked who will be selected first overall. He offhandedly mentions three distinct possibilities: Seton Hall freshman Eddie Griffin, high school center Eddy Curry and the eventual number one pick, Kwame Brown.
What helps make this documentary fascinating is context. Griffin, the seventh pick, played only six years in the league and was later killed in a car crash. Curry became a punchline around the league as he gained weight and largely fell apart after earning an exorbitant contract from the New York Knicks. And Brown, selected by Michael Jordan himself, never came close to living up to the promise of being the first high schooler taken number one in the draft, a millstone who floated from team to team and is only barely still in the NBA. Cooke was long considered a cautionary tale for young athletes, but the line between “professional” and “flameout” (never mind “star”) is simply that thin.
In the early 2000’s, Cooke was ranked the number one high school player in the nation in a crop that included LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. What happened remains difficult to document even now, but to casual sports fans, he simply fell off the map — one day a media superstar, the next a non-entity. “Lenny Cooke” isn’t a documentary, it’s an autopsy, detailing exactly why Cooke vanished off the map and why he struggled to get back into the game, a focus that goes micro where other sports docs go macro.
With very few talking heads and no narration, “Lenny Cooke” heavily relies on footage of the prep camps Cooke attended with the best high school players in the world. The highlights are there, of course: Cooke was a unique athlete, very similar to LeBron James with an abnormally-advanced upper-body strength and a unique physicality that allowed him to pry himself free of defenders for an easy two. But the footage also captures Cooke during training sessions lagging in practice, inventing excuses for not waking up earlier, and firing daggers through his eyes towards coaches begging for more effort. None of this a crime, naturally, but at that level, you only need to slack off once to drop in the ranks. A compelling on-court battle with James during a game features the two of them toe-to-toe until Cooke botches a late defensive assignment, leading to James hitting the game winner. Out of context, it’s preposterous, but when a scout later claims the game dropped Cooke from number one to number three nationwide, it reveals the microscope in which he lives underneath.
Cooke’s aversion to academics is mostly offscreen, but he actively eschews the classroom, eventually dropping basketball so that he can finally complete high school at nineteen. By then, the bloom is off the rose, and Cooke, long removed from competitive games, announces his candidacy for the draft not in a boardroom, and not in front of flashing cameras, but at a middling diner restaurant. He goes undrafted, a year after those top high school picks failed to perform anywhere close to expectation. One of them, Tyson Chandler, was the second pick of 2001, and it took him a good five or six years to develop into the All-Star he is today with the Knicks. The argument implicit in Cooke going unpicked is that had he been selected in the draft, he would have arrived with an NBA team, in the first real situation where he would have found support that Chandler eventually discovered; Cooke’s parents had since moved away in his youth, and in his teenage years he lives with a local basketball booster with school ties in order to work on his game, but no one is really seen as a mentor to the star.
The narrative doesn’t develop real weight until the modern day segments hit like a hammer. After becoming a professional basketball vagabond, never once reaching the NBA, Cooke now resides in Virginia. His home is modest and his gut is generous, turning 30 as he raises three children with his fiancee. As Cooke drunkenly lounges on his couch long after his birthday festivities have ended, his wife wears an un-glamorous bathrobe as she re-heats leftovers for him before alerting him that she’s going to sleep alone, assuring him that the next day will no longer be a celebration. Contrasted with earlier footage of Cooke in Las Vegas, attending a basketball camp but riding in backseats with pretty girls in his lap (one obliviously asks if he’s a basketball player), it’s a sobering reminder of how far he’s gone.
Late in the picture, Cooke returns to New York City to reunite with Carmelo Anthony and a fellow former prep star, Joakim Noah (currently an All-Star, also one of the film’s producers). Cooke is now simply a fan cheering on his favorite players: it’s telling that Anthony has affectionate words for him, but indoors he refuses to remove his sunglasses, as if emphasizing I’m a star, you are not. Visiting an old friend later, the footage is raw and upsetting: Cooke has been forgotten by his friends who won’t even visit him, cementing the notion that they were simply riding his assured future stardom. When one associate gives him the truth, it’s hard to watch: even he’s been given a hard time by people around him for Cooke’s failure, as if Cooke’s failure has made him an albatross to his loved ones.
“Lenny Cooke” ends with a bit of digital trickery that reveals the power of special effects in bringing real humanity to filmmaking. Footage of an older Cooke is spliced in seamlessly next to early camp footage of Cooke as a prep star. In this moment, the older Cooke appears to be giving a speech on where he failed and what mistakes others can avoid as well. But there’s something a little too personal about Cooke’s confessions, as well as the self-defeating notion that his advice probably won’t even matter. Not unlike the confessional in the middle of the surprisingly affecting “JCVD,” Cooke is mostly lecturing himself on where it all went wrong. Sadly, but honestly, Cooke’s acknowledgement is that he never learned how to avoid taking these shortcuts, but that age and perspective has granted him only one real attribute: “I’m humble.” [A-]