As expected as Lebron James rise to superstardom is, is just as unexpected as Lenny Cooke’s fall from the spotlight was. As a high school recruit Cooke was ranked above Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire by numerous analysts but says his own complacency lead to his eventual downfall. Now as his documentary, the Lenny Cooke Movie is being played at the Tribeca Film Festival Cooke gets to use his story to help young talented kids not repeat the same mistakes. Page 31 caught up with Lenny Cooke who broke down why he feels this story needs to be heard, his 2013 NBA Finals predictions, and his favorite moments of the film.
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“I just think there’s a lot more kids that get ruined coming out early, or going to school trying to be developed to come out early, than actually make it,” Cuban said. “For every Kobe (Bryant) or (Kevin) Garnett or Carmelo (Anthony) or LeBron (James), there’s 100 Lenny Cookes.”
Yet there remains a restless side to Cooke, a meandering and moody soul, the father of three (a son lives in Brooklyn and another daughter in Maryland) who will wander off for weeks at a time to Atlantic City, where he was born, or back to Brooklyn, where he lived during his early high school years. This is where the story, still at its crossroads, becomes more complicated. Nobody seems to know what Cooke is looking for — closure from basketball and the key to his future, or the perpetuation of a legend that was never quite written.
After arriving with a phalanx of relatives, Cooke’s mother, Alfreda Hendrix, explained that her son had heeded the wrong calling and had mistaken what was given to him as something he had earned. “He was a teenage kid, and every day he had money in his pocket — and I don’t mean $200 or $300,” she said. “It was whatever he wanted, like the world was his, so he took advantage of it. I guess he didn’t figure that things were going to fall down because people kept telling him it was only going to get better and better. He made a lot of mistakes, but as far as his attitude, he’s changed now. He has matured a lot.”
There was one shot of much younger Lenny, his thinner face partly hidden under a low-slung cap, posing with Magic Johnson. And there was contemporary Lenny, bloated in the years after injuries ended a career already marginalized, in the separate company of Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire at a Knicks game last season. “When I see them, I get the most respect,” he said. “They knew how good I was.”
Standing tall but cramped in the narrow kitchen at 6 feet 6 inches and not much under 300 pounds, Lenny Cooke suddenly looked up from his culinary masterpiece. “I went from being a superstar basketball player to being a cook,” he said wistfully, unmindful of the play on his name.
By his count, Cooke has played in four different leagues — the USBL, ABA, CBA and the NBDL — as well as four countries (China, Denmark, Philippines and Brazil) since he declared and went undrafted back in 2002. “I’m not done playing,” said Cooke, who currently resides with his fiancé and three children — ages 11, 9 and 1 — in Virginia. At one time, there was Lenny, Amar’e and Carmelo. In that order. “I was playing off pure talent,” Cooke said. “Nobody worked with me. I got my name from pure talent.”
Few recall that Cooke came directly off the court in a head-to-head battle with Carmelo Anthony prior to his matchup with LeBron. And that’s fine with Cooke. “LeBron had a better game than me,” the 28-year-old Cooke said. “That’s when his career exploded.” Most weren’t aware that Cooke, growing up in New York, did have a support system that included his parents, but they weren’t basketball-savvy, so he was basically left to fend for himself while all the leaches tried to swoop in and prey on his naiveté. “Every decision I made, I had to make on my own,” Cooke said.
He averaged 16.2 points and 7.4 rebounds in five games and said he was informed a 10-day NBA call-up was coming shortly after the New Year. Then came the car crash in December of 2004. “I still don’t remember anything,” Cooke said of the accident that put him in a coma for seven days. “I came out and they wanted to amputate my leg.” Cooke wasn’t driving. His teammate, Nick Sheppard, lost control of the wheel and his passenger wasn’t wearing a seat belt. Cooke broke his left shin and femur and still has a metal rod from his hip down to his ankle as a result of the wreck. “The doctors told me I was never going to walk again,” Cooke said. “That I would never play basketball again.” Cooke spent the next year-plus in a wheelchair, fallen out of love with the game that had put him on the map just a few years earlier. His weight ballooned, but eventually he fought his way back and made his return to the court. However, then came a pair of torn Achilles — one with the CBA and one in the Philippines.