Once upon a time, on the eve of the media machine we know today, Lenny Cooke was the No. 1 high school basketball player in the nation (LeBron James was No. 2 as a junior) and a legend on New York City basketball courts. The game came naturally to him. He was tall, lanky, had handles, could hit a jumper consistently, had a post game, could play defense. Lenny had all the tools except for one: discipline. As he'll tell you in his new documentary entitled: Lenny Cooke is set to open in New York today, he never truly loved the game, but he loved the perks that came with it more. The money, the free sneakers, the groupies, the fake love from the homies. He and a lot of other people were sure he was going to the NBA. However, it didn't happen and now we have this great documentary co-directed by Ben and Josh Safdie, produced by Adam Shopkorn, and executive produced by Joakim Noah. We spoke to Lenny and all parties involved about that fateful ABCD camp matchup between LeBron and Lenny in 2001, the mistakes he's made, and his plans for the future.
Lenny Cooke opened in Chicago on Nov. 29, in New York today, in L.A. on Dec. 13, and in San Francisco on Dec. 20.
The documentary was very raw. Was that your aim?
Ben Safdie: Lenny wanted people to look at him as an example. You have to work hard. The fact that Lenny’s narrating makes you listen.
What else have you guys done?
Josh Safdie: This is our first documentary. We’ve made two features before this and a bunch of short films.
What were the first two features?
JS: One’s called Daddy Long Legs. The other one is called The Pleasure of Being Robbed.
I know this was a different experience throwing this together. How did Lenny Cooke come about?
JS: The producer Adam [Shopkorn], was filming Lenny back in the day in 2000 thinking he was going to go to the pros. He’s like, “I’m going to film him. he’s going to go from prep to pro.” He had it all planned, and when it didn’t happen, him and Lenny kind of lost contact and that’s where that gap in the film is. We got involved in 2008 or 2009…He approached us and was like, “Look, I need your help. I have all this stuff. I need to know what to do with it.” We looked through the footage and made a gameplan. It’s funny, because for us film is the greatest tool of introspection and basketball is the greatest distraction, and those are our two greatest passions. Basketball and film. The movie kind of operates where the two intersect, so you’re dealing with a lot of high energy from our point of view.
Nothing at all. Everything I’ve done, I made those choices. Nobody helped me make those decisions. I did those things because those are the things I wanted to do. I’d say I should’ve listened to people more, but I don’t have no regrets.
Where are you guys from?
JS: From New York.
So basketball is ingrained in you. If you’re from New York, it’s built in.
JS: In 1994 when John Starks didn’t pass to Ewing [in Game 6 of the ‘94 Finals], I walked from the apartment we were living in with our dad in Queens. I walked with a basketball to the nearest playground, and I just looked at it and I said right then and there, “I’m never going to be in love with a team ever again,” because I hated John Starks. I actually saw John Starks recently. He was leaving the Garden as I was going in. We were in like a very private area to this very exclusive elevator, I wanted to kill him [Laughs]. Although when Ewing missed that finger roll two years later…
So Lenny, how are you doing? How has this whole process been for you?
Lenny Cooke: It’s been wonderful. It’s a great story. They’ve put together a great documentary, and I hope the people like it. I enjoyed filming it. Got some good points in it, got some bad points in it, but that’s life and I hope the next generation of student-athletes take heed to it.
Has it been therapeutic for you?
LC: I wouldn’t say therapeutic, because I don’t have nothing that I need therapy for. I enjoyed the things that I’ve done while I was doing them. It’s just a story that needs to be told because there’s a thousand Lenny Cooke stories.
So do you have any regrets?
LC: No, about nothing. Nothing at all. Everything I’ve done, I made those choices. Nobody helped me make those decisions. I did those things because those are the things I wanted to do. I’d say I should’ve listened to people more, but I don’t have no regrets.
Do you still follow the game?
Do you have a team you root for?
LC: Chicago. Always have been a Bulls fan. I’ve been a Bulls fan since I knew the game.
It was cool to know somebody that’s playing for your team. It’s a good feeling, and [Joakim's] a good guy. He wanted to be a part of this project, because he felt that it was a story that needed to be told too. I appreciate that.
And Joakim Noah is a good friend of yours.
LC: It was cool to know somebody that’s playing for your team. It’s a good feeling, and he’s a good guy. He wanted to be a part of this project, because he felt that it was a story that needed to be told too. I appreciate that.
In the movie, there was a part where you were in Brooklyn arguing with your friends. Do you still keep in touch with them?
LC: I was just letting them know how I feel. If I can’t talk to them, then they don’t need to be my friends.
That’s true. Where you ever in love with the game?
LC: I did love the game, but it was a while ago. When I first started playing, no. Then once I started seeing that I could potentially go pro, then I was like, shit, I might be in love [Laughs]. But I didn’t take the game serious.
JS: You’re talking about the rapper or are you talking about basketball? [Laughs]
LC: This guy. [Laughs] But I never took it serious. I just played off pure potential, you know what I’m saying? I didn’t work hard.
You were just naturally good at it.
LC: I didn’t work. I didn’t go to practice. Sometimes I’d look and say, “What if I did work out every day, three to four times a day?”
JS: First time he got handed the basketball he became the best in the world.
Growing up in New York, you had to have heard about Lenny, right?
JS: Yeah, of course. You couldn’t not know about Lenny. I think people—as the film is being released throughout America—are seeing that anyone who was into basketball for the last 15 years knows about Lenny Cooke. He’s still a conversation. Just two days ago in the [Andrew] Wiggins-Jabari Parker matchup, people were talking about Lenny. Lenny vs. LeBron. It was the same conversation. Lenny’s friend walks in, “Wow, he’s got the Knicks hat on?” [Laughs] He’s in the movie. He’s the one saying A.I. is better than Kobe.
You still think that?
Denton Foster: At the time and year, yes, but as the years go by—when Shaq left—he pulled his own a little bit more.
JS: That’s true.
LC: I can’t believe this guy.
DF: To me, you’re great when they can’t replace you on a team. You can take Kobe off the team, and Shaq would’ve still won the championship.
I feel what you’re saying.
DF: Think about Iverson. He went to the Finals with [Dikembe] Mutombo. Tyrone Hill! Aaron McKie. Eric Snow was his starting point guard. Eric Snow couldn’t hit the rim!
JS: I will agree with you with the fact that Iverson is more original than Kobe because Kobe just stole all of Mike’s moves.
DF: That’s another thing. Even MJ said it. Mike said, “I gotta pick up Kobe.” Why? “Kobe takes some of my moves. You think I’m going to play against myself? Why would I play against myself? “He stole all my moves. Why wouldn’t I pick him up? I can trust him. That’s like trusting me!”
You came up with Amar'e, with Melo, with LeBron. Do you still follow their careers closely?
LC: Yeah, I follow their careers. Like I told the guys earlier, I’m proud of those guys. Those guys worked hard, and they dedicated themselves to something that they wanted a career in. I didn’t work hard. It took me a while to say that LeBron is the best basketball player on the planet, you know what I mean? It’s fucking true. This man is the greatest basketball player maybe ever.
DF: I’m telling you he’s gonna be better than Mike.
LC: This guy still has at least 12 more years to play, yo. That’s what’s amazing.
You couldn’t not know about Lenny. I think people—as the film is being released throughout America—are seeing that anyone who was into basketball for the last 15 years knows about Lenny Cooke.
He’s kind of like Jordan too, where he doesn’t get injured. Jordan just broke his leg that one time.
DF: Jordan broke his leg one time and didn’t he come back and average 36?
I think he won the Defensive Player of the Year and MVP two seasons after breaking his leg. Like I was saying, did that matchup against LeBron really devastate you like everyone suggested at the time?
LC: I didn’t see it as being devastated.
People made a big deal about it at the time.
LC: Yeah, he blew up off of me [Laughs].
DF: That’s what I don’t like that people don’t realize.
LC: He had a good game against me. He blew up. Like I just told the dude earlier, if LeBron would’ve missed that shot and I would’ve won by one how would my career have turned out? You know what I mean? Who’s to say? He did his thing. He hit the winning shot.
That was the thing, too. That winning shot hyped everything..
LC: Media sells.
When you were getting all that attention, where you cocky?
LC: Hell yeah, fuck yeah.
Like you made it?
LC: I ain’t say I made it, but I was on my way. I was the shit. Simple as that.
DF: That’s an understatement.
It’s kind of refreshing you’re not bitter about any of it. You’re willing to share. The last scene where you’re talking to a younger version of yourself, that was powerful. How do you feel watching it?
LC: Yeah. I was just letting him know that I actually was you 10 years ago. I shouldn’t have made some of those choices. I was telling him, this is what you’re going to run into soon. It’s up to you to make the right choices and be successful or make the wrong ones and don’t be successful.
It took me a while to say that LeBron is the best basketball player on the planet, you know what I mean? It’s f***king true. This man is the greatest basketball player, maybe ever.
When did you know that you were the shit? What moment?
LC: They should’ve never put me as No. 1 player in the country. [Laughs] They did that and it was a wrap.
DF: And it was after what? The summer?
Adam Shopkorn: That’s an interesting question. When did you really know you were really, really good?
LC: When I came out of nowhere and took my team to the city championship.
AS: When you were playing at La Salle?
LC: Yeah. When we went to the city championship and my name just started ringing around the city and I just killed it. When my name started rising…
AS: Then you won the MVP of underclassmen at the 2000 ABCD Camp. Guess you had a bigger target on your back.
LC: Then when I won those championships, that really did it.
What happened during Draft Night and your name wasn’t called?
LC: I went to the afterparty, you know what I’m saying? [Laughs]
You were No. 1 in the country, you skipped your senior year in high school instead of going to prep school, and then you put your stock in getting drafted and it didn’t happen. What was going through your head after all that?
LC: I wouldn’t say hurt. I was upset that my name didn’t get called. But my life went on. I continued to do the same thing that I wanted to do from the day before the draft. I mean nothing changed. My name just didn’t get called.
AS: You were surprised right?
LC: I was surprised.
AS: Because people told you…
LC: That I was going in first round, then when it came to the second round I said, “I know it ain’t gonna be called now.”
I was upset that my name didn’t get called. But my life went on. I continued to do the same thing that I wanted to do from the day before the draft. I mean nothing changed. My name just didn’t get called.
You’re going to start doing a speaking tour. Did it start already?
AS: The film is opening in Seattle and Chicago on Nov. 29, New York Dec. 6, L.A. on the 13th, San Francisco on the 20th, and then we’ll have some something to announce very soon in terms of TV and stuff. So it’s going to go on for a while. I’m sure that speaking stuff will accelerate.
You’re going to just go around basketball camps and stuff like that?
LC: Schools, Boys and Girl Clubs.
What’s up with you now? How is the family and everything?
LC: Everybody is cool. My kids are alright.
They’re still in Virginia?
LC: Yeah, they’re just chillin’. I’m back to living. I ain’t lose nothing. I ain’t gain nothing.
AS: That’s what we were going to call the film. That was one of the 12 film titles: Back to Living.
After you didn’t get drafted, you were playing overseas. Why didn’t you stay doing that to try and get back into the league. What made you quit?
LC: I was having too many injuries. After the car accident, I did come back and play again. Then I tore both of my Achilles’. After those I said I was done. I just gave it up.
You still play a little bit?
LC: I play around with it.
In the film, you guys were playing a little pickup in VA and you still had the shot. You still got it.
LC: I still play every Sunday.
AS: That was one of the titles, too: I Still Got It. [Laughs]
So how was this process for you guys? What do you learn from Lenny that you didn’t know already?
JS: I always had an idea about hunger and remaining hungry. For example, look at LeBron James. His motivation isn’t anything but this deep hunger inside of him. There’s always a bigger better meal out there that he can eat. You read these stories about coaches in Canada and they’re starving their goalie, because they think that if you’re hungry your visual acuity is higher. So then you have these goalies who are starving because hunger drives them to be a better goalie. I think that works on every level. There’s this writer who talks about how he’d only go to a museum on an empty stomach so that when he looks at the painting, he’s hungry. I think watching a movie like this you have to be hungry. Always.
I was having too many injuries. After the car accident, I did come back and play again. Then I tore both of my Achilles’. After those I said I was done. I just gave it up.
One thing I’ve learned by just going through a deep personal story and going through the process of seeing it through this perspective, now I can look at LeBron and Carmelo from a completely different perspective for what it took for them to get where they are. So I have such a different respect for them in a way. I see them out in the court and I feel I know them, because I know what they go through. How many people, how much bullshit and stuff that they had to tune out and just focus.
That’s funny that you say that because in the film when Carmelo comes to sit next to [Lenny] you and you’re asking him what you’re going to do tonight, and he’s looking at the court and he’s itching to get back out there…And you’re like, “Yo, you’re chillin’ tonight?”
DF: I think that’s what it was. It came too easy for Lenny...I think you’re playing against people that’s working hard and you’re not working at all and you’re above them, you don’t practice.
Adam, how did you get interested in Lenny?
AS: So in 2000, I write a couple of articles about high school basketball players making it to the NBA and I was really fascinated by that process and I wanted to identify someone who was about to go through that process. So I found Lenny through some sports management friends of mine from Fordham University and I told them what I wanted to do. So for Lenny it was like, “Shit, there’s another camera on me? Let’s do this.” So I just blended into the crowd and shot for a year or two, and then I kinda was tight with him until he wound up leaving his guardian’s house and he fell into the hands of…
It’s like Carmelo is barely even listening to Lenny. He’s watching the game and itching to get back out on the court, and Lenny is in a fucking durag and a chain with Foxy Brown’s brother Gavin looking like they're ready to go to a club after Lenny’s team got their asses beat by some team from Nebraska.
AS: Yeah and he didn’t want me around. He was like a different person.
Why didn’t he want you around?
AS: When we’re at Debbie’s house in 2001, you see the dollar signs in Lenny’s eyes while he’s watching Kwame Brown. You can see him going through the motions like, “This is me next year.” And then when he left Debbie’s, it was harder and harder to get in touch with him, and he wouldn’t get back to me. I was supposed to be with him until the 2002 NBA Draft, and I must’ve called him like 400 times that day and he didn’t answer my calls. As a filmmaker, I was like, “Oh God. What the fuck?” because I’ve been working on this for so long. So then it sat on my shelf for lyears, and my wife was like, ‘you gotta finish this.’ I was like I gotta finish this, and all my friends were like you gotta put the right team together, so I knew these guys from growing up through our families and stuff. They’re like five years younger than me so I was kinda like their older brother. These guys have already made quite a number of successful films, but they’ve never messed with a doc before. So I brought Josh over one day, and he started looking at the footage and he was like, “Holy shit, this is crazy.” These guys attack a documentary film almost from la fiction background, so there’s not a lot of interviews in the film.
Lenny narrating definitely made the doc feel realer.
AS: We’re not trying to put our personality or our stamp. We’re just showing you as it was. I’m sure he was shocked when he wasn’t drafted. You made great points. It’s like Carmelo is barely even listening to Lenny. He’s watching the game and itching to get back out on the court, and Lenny is in a fucking durag and a chain with Foxy Brown’s brother Gavin looking like they're ready to go to a club after Lenny’s team got their asses beat by some team from Nebraska.
Lenny was one of those guys before the LeBron hype and Sebastian Telfair after that.
AS: I spent a lot of time with Telfair when he was a freshman, but even Sebastian looked up to Lenny. Just like Joakim Noah did. They all looked up to Lenny like a god.
I was amazed that his name wasn’t called. The 2002 Draft was weak, and for nobody to give him a shot said something about his attitude toward the game.
AS: I guess. It’s interesting. He wasn’t a bad guy. He wasn’t a dangerous guy. He hung out with the wrong people, and when he stepped on the basketball court, he played really hard on both ends of the floor. That was kind of interesting. Yeah, he was out in clubs and stuff, but that stuff can be contained. I always asked myself, What if he was drafted? What if he caught on with a team? Debbie had everything taken care for him, she looked out for him. I’m not sure what Debbie’s motives were. Is she doing it for him or is she doing it for whatever? But at least there was a stable environment there. She cared for him unlike these people he left her for however much money. And then the whole thing about being academically ineligible at the age of 19 in the state of New Jersey, he could’ve gone to any prep school and played basketball and he chose not to. I always scratch my head at that.
That year off hurt his stock.
AS: He made the decision to not play basketball for that senior year. He could not have played that senior year in the state of New Jersey, but he could have played that senior year somewhere like Oak Hill. If he played for one of those schools, he would’ve been playing 32-34 games a season and would’ve been on the radar.
Does he keep in touch with Debbie?
AS: He does. The film has kind of brought them back into contact.
But it’s not what it used to be.
AS: It’s funny. Ron Naclerio, who’s the coach of [Benjamin] Cardozo in Queens—I think it’s one of the only talking soundbites—says, “Debbie is gonna put him on the train to success,” and I think the line is, “Lenny’s gotta know when to get off.” She’s not going to take care of him when he’s 30, 40, or 50. That’s true, and she doesn’t take care of him and it hurts her. He did carve out a career. He traveled the world. He did play all over the place, but some of those gyms you see him playing in are depressing. Those last gyms he was playing in during that national anthem scene, there’s like 12 people in the gym and it’s -30 degrees outside.
It’s like a CYO game.
AS: Yeah, and there’s a shot from up top and you see cups on the floor and there are like 30 people there. That gym gets 12-15 thousand a night during high school basketball games. It’s crazy, it’s like one of the biggest high school gymnasiums in the country. But when a semi-pro team comes through there, 10 people show up. He was a big star over in the Philippines and I think he came close. He also played on the Boston Celtics summer league team, but I guess there are only so many spots. One of the things I guess we didn’t touch on is how Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, and all those guys who were 6’10”, 6’11”, 7’0” were all being drafted on potential. Obviously they were all great players. Lenny was 6’6”. There are a lot of athletes who are 6’6”.
That’s why those guys are still in the league. Kwame Brown still gets contracts. The list goes on.
AS: You can’t teach size right? He was 6’6” and he was kind of like a banger, you know? He was kind of a wing, but he was like a swinger. A little like how Artest played. Ron caught on even though he was a wild.
Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, and all those guys who were 6’10”, 6’11”, 7’0” were all being drafted on potential. Obviously they were all great players. Lenny was 6’6”. There are a lot of athletes who are 6’6”.
He could play that defense, man.
AS: Yeah, but he knew how to channel his anger. Lenny just had the wrong people around him.
He didn’t have the focus either.
AS: Yeah that’s another thing that he spoke about. At the end of it, it’s like you’re either wired to be a professional athlete or you’re not wired to be a professional athlete. Not everyone is wired to be a professional athlete. Eighty-two games a season, you’re never around your family. That shit is hard. That’s discipline. You have to be responsible. He didn’t see it, but no one was really showing him. The only one who tried to show him was Debbie, who was a blond hair blue-eyed lady but he’s a black kid from Bushwick. After a while it’s like, “you don’t know what’s best for me. I gotta go out and find out what’s best on my own.” I feel like there was something protective about her. Coaches used to have to get through her to get to him.
When you guys were talking to her about the time when he decided to leave she looked heartbroken. I think she was genuine.
I think so. Can you imagine the shit she had to take from Lenny Cooke in 2001 living under your roof? You can only imagine. Then you have all his friends over? Who knows what the fuck they were doing in that house? I can only imagine. Who knows what they were doing. But once he was out of her house, he didn’t have guidance. What if he had better representation? If someone did Debbie a favor. Debbie would’ve probably hooked him up. You saw that guy who was outside of Junior’s Cheesecake who was blowing smoke up his ass.
That’s the guy that’s probably telling him, “Oh yeah, you’re going to get your name called.”
But what if someone did Lenny a favor and one of these big superagents like David Faulk took a chance on him. You don’t think those guys have a better relationship with NBA teams? No phone lines into any GMs, right? That guy probably didn’t do a thing actually. Just did nothing, He put Lenny’s name in the draft, and said, “ With all these articles that have been written about Lenny, someone is going to draft him.”