Interview: Lenny Cooke and the Filmmakers of His Documentary Talk About LeBron, Their Process, and Lenny's Regrets

Interview: Lenny Cooke and the Filmmakers of His Documentary Talk About LeBron, Their Process, and Lenny's Regrets

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.

Sharks.
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.”

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Tags: lenny-cooke, documentary, nba, lebron-james, joakim-noah
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