A pair of standout documentaries analyze the hopes, dreams, and irredeemable errors of youth.
Reviews by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Directors: Benny Safdie and Joshua Safdie
Running time: 90 minutes
It's crazy to think that, back in the early 2000s, neither LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony—two of the NBA's best players and unquestionably both future hall-of-famers—were considered the best hoops player of their generation. That honor went to Lenny Cooke, the top-ranked high school basketball player in the nation who battled those guys, as well as eventual NBA stars like Joakim Noah and Raymond Felton, on the court during invitational camps like Adidas ABCD and Five-Star.
The difference between Cooke—a hulking physical specimen from Brooklyn's Bushwick projects with natural, scarily dominant roundball ability—and his peers, however, was work ethics: Whereas they busted their asses at all times to make themselves elite players, Cooke, young and misguided, thought his raw skills would carry him along. He showed up late for morning drills, talked back to counselors and coaches, and generally miscalculated his own stock. Once the 2002 NBA Draft came along, Cooke watched everyone else in his class get selected, and by the end, he was stuck with the realization that his NBA dreams weren't going to happen. He'd, no pun intended, dropped the ball; now a 30-year-old man living in Virginia with three kids and a fiancee, Cooke can only look back on his life with regret and sadness.
Up until now, Cooke's post-draft existence has mostly been the stuff of uninformed speculation. He's become a cautionary tale for young ballers who think the leap from high school straight to the pros is an easy one. Through Benny Safdie and Joshua Safdie's engrossing and deeply sorrowful documentary, simply titled Lenny Cooke, his side of the story finally comes out, and it's a heartbreaker. Opting away from rampant talking heads and invasive narration, the filmmakers chart Cooke's rise and fall with home video footage capturing the aforementioned b-ball camps, his time spent with friends watching the 2001 NBA Draft and debating whether Kobe Bryant is better than Tracy McGrady, and the disappointment and shock of shooting a proverbial air-ball at the 2002 draft.
Lenny Cooke's contextual first half should be intriguing for basketball historians and enthusiasts. The sight of Cooke guarding LeBron James during an invitational camp game provides the kind of access that's not easy to track down, but those moments aren't what gives the film its real power. On that end, Lenny Cooke's modern-day section—its crowning achievement—is a shattering exhibition of a man's struggle to accept his failures. No longer lean and chiseled, the older Cooke is heavier both physically and mentally. His birthday party ends with a drunken Cooke lying along on a couch, just he and his mournful thoughts, a far cry from the days when he was a golden prospect adorned by beautiful girls and flashing lights. The closest he gets to an NBA court is to sit in the stands and watch old rivals Carmelo Anthony and Joakim Noah play the game that he used to love.
Even as the directors pull a bit of special effects wizardry to show the older Cooke giving his younger self some wisdom and this-will-be-you warnings, Lenny Cooke doesn't present a man who feels sorry for himself inasmuch as it displays a has-been who's been positively humbled by the follies of his youth. Hopefully wide distribution is in the film's immediate future (which seems likely, considering the strong buzz its accruing at the Tribeca Film Festival so far), because Cooke's story is one that needs to be shown to any promising teenage athlete who thinks that he or she has it made. One day you're the next LeBron James; the next, you're the new Lenny Cooke.