A Convo With Lenny Cooke
The one-time prep superstar talks about the recently released documentary on his life, and reflects on his basketball career.
If you’ve been down with SLAM long enough, the name Lenny Cooke resonates as heavy as names like Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James. After all, his come-up paved the way for those two—in LeBron’s case, quite literally, jumpstarting The King’s mercurial rise in a famous showdown at ABCD Camp. In 2001, Lenny was the best high school basketball player in America, bar none. And he was a product of the streets.
“Straight Outta Brooklyn” read the headline for his SLAM 56 feature, celebrating the Bushwick-bred kid’s inevitable march to NBA stardom. Being a few years Lenny’s junior, I ripped that two-page spread out and taped it to my bedroom wall.
Fifty issues later, in SLAM 106, Lenny was profiled again. Only a few years removed from his No. 1 player status, Lenny had gone undrafted, been in a debilitating car crash and landed in North Dakota, living an anonymous like in the now-defunct CBA at 25 years old. These days, Lenny (who turned 31 this year) tells his story to others as a motivational speaker, coaches junior high ball and lays low with his family down in Virginia, while players he once used to dog routinely are NBA All-Stars. What happened? Lenny Cooke the movie may not provide a definitive answer, or one that is completely satisfying to those of us who rooted for him, but that’s kind of the point. It’s a startlingly raw, honest look at Lenny’s journey, and a must-watch for anyone that grew up in the LeBron/Melo era.
After screening the film last month, I had the opportunity to sit down with Lenny, directors Josh and Benny Sadfie and producer Adam Shopkorn in a conference room on the west side of Manhattan. At times, listening to Lenny recount pieces of his story—and what might have been—gave me goosebumps. At others, he had me cracking up.
The film will have the same effect. You will laugh hysterically. You will fist-pump. You will wish you could download some of the old sneaker camp footage so you can have it forever. You will get a lump in your throat. But as Lenny says, “it’s the truth.” Our conversation lasted about 45 minutes—though we could have been there for hours. Below is the best of that chat.
The film opened in NYC on Friday at the Elinor Bunin Film Center. For more information on the film, and to find out where you can see a screening, visit LennyCookeMovie.com and follow @LennyCookeMovie on Twitter.
SLAM: When you saw the finished product for the first time, what was your reaction to it?
Lenny: I enjoyed it. Me being more mature than I was then, I think it’s a story that needs to be told to the next generation of student-athletes. Overall, I just think it’s a good story. There’s some pieces missing, because we lost contact for a while, but other than that, I enjoyed it.
SLAM: Do you think it’s a pretty accurate portrayal of your life story?
Lenny: It’s the truth.
Lenny: It’s all me. I tell everybody when they see it—there’s gonna be some funny parts in it, and there’s gonna be some down parts in it. You gon’ laugh, you might shed a tear. But it’s the truth. It’s all real. There’s nobody narrating my story. Everything that’s in there, I did. When I fucked up, I fucked up. When I did good, I did good. I think it’s a good story.
Josh: We just wanted the story to come from him. That was the goal every time—every time we would go down to Virginia and hang out with Lenny, I would always just say to Adam, “Drop me off, I’ll walk from the edge of Emporia to the house.” And I’d just be walking through the ‘hood with a camera. Once I took a walk around the neighborhood with D, and he took the camera, he wanted to film. We literally walked around and his brother was filming. I wanted to not only let Lenny tell his story—not in the sense of “storytelling”—but him tell the story with how he feels. That was a big part of going there and just disappearing, and trying to capture his life as it is now.
Benny: To treat the beginning, 2001, as the present, which is what the movie does, it gets rid of “hindsight is 20/20,” which most films wouldn’t normally do. With all that pressure, all those people talking to you, it’s such weight, and we wanted to show that weight, and really feel it.
Josh: Of course you could sit down and talk to LeBron, sit down and talk to Carmelo. But that’s stuff that’s good on its own. That doesn’t need to be part of the movie.
Adam: The most powerful scenes from the early stuff was the observational stuff.
Josh: Like the Draft.
Adam: That scene, with Lenny sitting in Debbie’s house…
Benny: “There’s no way Kobe’s better than AI!”
SLAM: With the McDonald’s!
Josh: And one of Lenny’s friends is on camera saying McGrady is better than Kobe!
Lenny: He’s crazy.
Adam: A great line in the movie is when Tyson Chandler gets drafted, and one of Lenny’s friends says, “Oh that’s a good pick.” And Lenny goes, “No it’s not.”
Adam: Who knows if it’s a good pick, but everyone has an opinion, and everyone watches the Draft.
SLAM: What’s your all-time favorite basketball memory from your playing days?
Lenny: I was playing in the Bob Gibbons AAU tournament in North Carolina. We were playing against Amar’e Stoudemire’s team. I was probably 17. Gary Ervin was my point guard. I told Gary I was going to go out and get 40 because they always ranked either me or Amar’e No. 1. So if I give him 40, they gotta put me No. 1. And Gary told me, “Go get a triple-double and win the game.” And that was the first and last triple-double I ever had.
Lenny: It was crazy. I honor those guys now. I love the fact that they’re at the peak of their careers, where they worked hard to be. I didn’t work hard—imagine if I had worked hard. If I went to practice—I didn’t go to practice at all. You know what I’m saying? So imagine if I worked hard at basketball and took it serious as these guys did. Who knows? Maybe I would have got the $90 million. But I’m proud of those guys. I can sit back and tell my kids, “I played with the best basketball player in the world. He got his name off of me.” I respect those guys. I was in Portland two weeks ago, Francisco Garcia walks up to me and introduces me to James Harden and says, “He used to bust my ass!” I honor those guys, I respect those guys for working hard and accomplishing their goals.
SLAM: Do you remember the SLAM feature stories you had?
Lenny: Yeah, I remember. SLAM did the article, “Straight Outta Brooklyn.” I remember that one, that was a nice article. Four pages. I walked them through Bushwick. And then they did the article when I was in North Dakota, when Jordan’s face was on the cover. I remember all of them. SLAM treated me nice through my career. Never downplayed me in any kind of way, like some of these people that I know. They always been real nice to me.
SLAM: There’s a point in the movie where you say you were just playing, but didn’t love basketball. Is that true? When did you realize you were just kind of going through the motions?
Lenny: I didn’t know it at the time. I was being used, basically, as a child. Me not knowing the business side of basketball, I allowed it to use me. If a team say, “Lenny, you gon’ play with us this week,” like I say in the movie, and they’re like, “Here’s some money and we’ll get you the new Jordans,” well then, Lenny’s going. It was crazy. I wish I knew the business. If I knew the business, and how far it could have taken me, maybe I would have done things differently. Maybe I would have went to college, when I knew I didn’t want to go to school anyway. It was just crazy. I never really expected none of this to happen, so it’s a plus to me regardless. If I would have never picked up a basketball, nobody woulda ever knew who Lenny was—they would have never gave me the name “Lenny.” It’s a plus. All the negative press—I tell everybody the same thing: If you got something negative to say, if you talking about me, that’s good press for me. It’s all a plus for me. It’s 13 years later, everybody wants to know what Lenny’s doing. Why? What makes me this important for people to want to know what Lenny’s doing 13 years later [even though] I never played in the NBA? That’s crazy. I love basketball, because my son loves it, and that’s all that matters to me, my kids. Basketball, I’m no longer playing. Don’t have the want. I don’t want to play. But as long as my son is playing, and he’s doing his thing, I’m satisfied. I’m happy with that.
SLAM: When you watch the movie now and see yourself as a teenager, does it even seem real?
Lenny: At times, I be like, Damn. You know what I mean, like, “I got a movie—I got a movie?” Looking back, some things I would change—but I have no regrets on what I’ve done, because I never expected it to go that far anyway, you know. I didn’t know I had the ability to possibly go pro. I was just playing. Nobody guided me. Like, LeBron, Melo, those guys had coaches from day one that were there for them, maybe still to this day. Everything I did, I did on my own. I made all my decisions on my own. I don’t have no regrets. I enjoyed it while it lasted. The things that I’ve done—the things that I’ve done, good god!
SLAM: What’s your favorite part of the movie?
SLAM: That was one of my favorite parts, too.
Lenny: Vegas. Vegas was nice.
Josh: There was a scene we had to cut because the video isn’t great, but it’s of Lenny and Gavin [Marchand] eating Chinese food in Vegas, and Lenny describing the house he’s going to build.
Adam: He’s building his own NBA dream house, and he’s his own architect.
Benny: He goes, “There’s a vending machine when you walk in, ‘cuz you know they ain’t drinking for free.”
Adam: “Marble pool balls—can’t play with them. Glass staircase—you don’t use it.”
Josh: First he goes, “Basketball court, second floor.” And Gavin’s like, “It’ll be noisy, why don’t you put it in the basement.” And Lenny’s like, “What about the bowling alley?”
Josh: He’s like, “Full 18-hole golf course, ‘cuz when Jordan comes through you know he’s gonna wanna play.”
Lenny: That’s crazy. I wanna see this footage, now that the movie’s complete.
Josh: All the footage from Vegas is good.
SLAM: What was the hardest part to watch, for you?
Lenny: Seeing my grandmother again, that broke me down a little bit. That’s about it. I can pretty much remember everything that’s in there, so I know basically what I shoulda did, and what I shouldn’t have done. There’s nothing that I’m like, “Damn, I don’t want to live through that again.” There’s nothing in there that makes me look back and say, “Well, this is where I messed up my career.”
Josh: The fact that Lenny has no regrets, to me, is heroic. People get angry at him for not being a superstar in the NBA, but at the same time, he took nothing and made something out of it. He went from a kid on the block to driving fancy cars—you can have your criticisms of that, but he did more than most kids would think about or dream about.
SLAM: How did you guys link up and realize that this could be a full documentary?
Adam: There are a lot of pieces. It was definitely a puzzle completing this film. I linked up with Lenny after becoming interested in the prep-to-pro phenomenon when I was right out of school. People were starting to write about it. It was not only a sports issue, it was a social issue. People were writing social commentary on it. The floodgates had opened, and there was a place for high school basketball players in the NBA. So I went out and tried to identify someone it was happening to. I met Lenny up at Fordham University and read more about him, and—I didn’t know what I was doing, I was like, “Yeah we’ll just get a mic and a camera and we’ll start rolling around.” I thought it was going to be a couple of year process showing that and then the story changed. I put the project down for X number of years. The longer it sat on my shelf, the harder it was to pick it back up. I knew [Josh and Benny] from a while back and I had heard that they were making films. They had won some awards, and we had a history together. Josh came over and watched the footage, and was moved by the whole thing. It was totally different than anything they had done—and they are basketball fans.
Josh: I should add that when Lenny was ranked top of the ranks, I remember Adam was showing me footage. I was like 16 or 17 years old, and I loved film and loved basketball. This was kind of like the meeting place of my two big passions, and all I wanted to do was work on the film but I was too young to really get into it. Later on, towards the peak of LeBron in Cleveland was when we really started to think like, “Wait a second, wasn’t there this project with that player who was better than LeBron, and LeBron made his name against?” And you still see it today, like Jabari Parker—all during the Wiggins-Parker thing, people were talking about Lenny online. People were being like, “Oh shit, Wiggins is getting Lenny Cooke’d by Jabari Parker.” And it was like Wow, this is crazy. Twelve years later and it’s still relevant.
Benny: One game in a high school gym still being talked about, still reverberating.
SLAM: What was your reaction when Adam came to you the first time, and then when these guys came to you again all these years later with the idea to finish the story?
Lenny: The first time—I don’t remember, for real.
Adam: So much was happening.
Lenny: The second time, Adam gave me a call, like, “Let’s finish it.” I guess we spoke for maybe 20 minutes.
Adam: Yeah, it was a little bit more complicated than that.
Adam: I had to meet him at location X, at time Y. And then I had to meet this guy and that guy. In truth, it’s funny, but Lenny was a different person when I picked the project back up. He didn’t trust as many people. He was hesitant to throw himself back in this. The first time around, it was very easy. I was just, like, another piece to Lenny’s crew. Like, the Lenny Cooke crew back in the day: Camera man? Check. Driver? Check. Jeweler? Check. When Lenny used to walk into a gym, he would command a ton of attention. It was totally ordinary that he was rolling around with a camera in his face the entire time. Looking back on it, it was kinda crazy but in that era it was normal. Today, it’s even more normal. I tried to be as invisible as possible.
Benny: When we took over the film, we had to sort of put the two together and make it feel like it’s one seamless story. It was hard, but we got it to a good place.
Images via Shopkorn Productions