Unless you're a hard-core basketball enthusiast who rigorously follows the NBA's annual draft (and the history of said draft), then you're probably not familiar with Lenny Cooke. About 13 years ago Cooke was among the top three high school basketball players in the country, ranked higher than guys like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. He was a machine. At six foot six and 206 pounds, Cooke was a force to be reckoned with during his junior year of high school. He averaged 25 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks per game, and every major college in the country wanted him to play for them. New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony, also a high school junior at the time, personally flew to a basketball camp in order to play against Cooke -- that's how high profile he was. Cooke was an elite player who had ESPN following him around with cameras at 16 years old. He was destined to become an NBA superstar -- someone with potential to be one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
And then he blew it.
All of it is chronicled in the new documentary Lenny Cooke, which hits select theaters on Friday. It's an intriguing documentary, both in its subject and the way it's pieced together, which is primarily through a ton of rough footage of Cooke from back when he was making his run at the 2002 NBA draft during a controversial period when high school players were opting to skip college and enter the draft instead. Guys like Kobe Bryant had become overnight superstars without college, and his stardom -- along with all the money and endorsements that came with it -- was a key factor in convincing so many other high school players to explore the draft instead of school.
It was a decision that would backfire for a majority of guys who were too naive, cocky and money hungry to understand why it wasn't a good idea to skip college, and fortunately the practice was banned in 2006. But not before Cooke became all caught up in who he thought he was -- and how much he thought he was worth -- resulting in an embarrassingly rushed decision to submit himself for the NBA draft.
Not surprisingly, his name wasn't called.
Where, when, why and how it went wrong for Cooke is slowly revealed throughout the film in little moments that were probably never meant to document his downfall. At the time these cameras were following a potential NBA superstar, and while they certainly recorded some great basketball matchups -- including a fantastic one where Cooke and LeBron James square off in a high school camp as teenagers -- the cameras also captured a stubborn kid who had so much handed to him that he didn't know how to work for what he wanted most.
It's the ultimate portrayal of wasted talent and unrealized accomplishments -- proving that no matter how good you are at something, it always takes an exceptional amount of hard work to make your dreams come true. Cooke realized this a little too late, and in one of the documentary's more emotional moments we see an older, overweight Cooke drunk on a couch with tears streaming down his face as he celebrates his 30th birthday.
Are the tears because Cooke finally found true happiness in the people who love him for who he is and not who he's supposed to be? Or are they tears of regret, of loneliness and heartbreak?
If you asked Cooke, he'd probably say it was a combination of both.
For more on Lenny Cooke, including when it'll be screening by you, check out its official website
Note: This post originally ran back in April as part of our coverage of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival
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