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.