Seeing Lenny Cooke the other night in downtown Chicago, at a screening of the documentary about him, brought me back to Minot, N.D., where I visited him when he played in the now-defunct CBA, as he was trying to make a comeback following a Cali car accident that left him in a coma and almost caused doctors to amputate one of his legs. Lenny probably weighed around 280 and he traded in the flashy handle and bunnies that defined his energetic, explosive game for using his bulk to muscle defenders on the block and occasionally stepping out for jumpers, though the slick passing remained. And you know what? Lenny could still play. I forget his exact numbers, but he had to be in double figures that night, playing with and against a bunch of players who had achieved at least moderate college success. I left thinking he could to either turn himself into an undersized post-up player and make some decent money overseas or, more improbably, if he got back into shape, at 25 or so at the time, with the humility he’d acquired through his experiences, get a look at Summer League and take it from there. But it wasn’t to be. A month or two after the issue came out, he tore his Achilles and it was over, for real this time.—Aggrey Sam
by Aggrey Sam / portraits Michael Schreiber
“It’s some kids that don’t have nothing but basketball,” states Lenny Cooke. “I was one of those kids.”
Once upon a time, basketball made Cooke’s name ring out with the best of them. He was ranked higher than Carmelo and Amar’e in the high school class of ’02. He was Bassy before Bassy in New York City. He had a feature in SLAM before he was finished with high school. Shit, the kid from Brooklyn was as talked about in high school basketball circles as LeBron.
Then things started to go terribly wrong.
Some people say Lenny had holes in his game and wasn’t ready for The Show. Regardless, Cooke endured setback after setback—including a car accident that came thisclose to ending his career, and worse, his life. Now, basketball has taken him to Minot, ND, far removed from the path most expected him to take back in the day, which sounds strange to say about a 24-year-old.
On this early-winter night, Cooke is starting at power forward for the Minot Skyrockets of the CBA. No Melos or Brons here. The player with the most NBA experience on the floor is Butte Daredevils’ skinny big man Keith Closs, who played for the Clips a few years back. But the talent is solid, with several ex-D1 notables and small-college stars on both rosters.
The pay ranges from $350-$1,000 a week, and the Skyrockets put the players up in an apartment complex in Minot, where, as Cooke puts it, “There ain’t nothing to do but focus on basketball.” The Skyrockets’ arena also doubles as Minot’s town auditorium. The locker room is cramped and with tonight’s attendance of around 1,000, the game has a small-town high school feel to it. It’s surreal, seeing a player here whose every move was once watched more closely than The Wire.
Maybe it’s because his original success came so fast that it felt like a dream in the first place.
Despite being the next big thing out of the Big Apple, Cooke wasn’t a Steph-, Bassy- or Lance Stephenson-type hoops prodigy at an early age. Raised in Atlantic City, NJ, before his family moved to the BK hood of Bushwick when Lenny was 10, he was “discovered” on a playground and was subsequently brought to a tryout with the Long Island Panthers’ 15-and-under AAU team. Blessed with catcher’s mitts for hands, arms long enough to jab you from across the street and feet the size of small boats, Cooke looked the part of a ballplayer. An indifferent student at Franklin K. Lane HS, Cooke transferred to La Salle Academy (alma mater of Ron Artest and God Shammgod) and promptly led the JV team to a city chip as a 9th grader.
“That’s where I first got my reputation in the city,” says Cooke. “Once I realized I had the potential and talent to play the game, I just fell in love with it. I didn’t want nothing but basketball.”
His basketball development was quicker than his first step. The raw, gangly kid who once balled in Hush Puppies had a natural feel for the game, tremendous athleticism for a player who would grow to be 6-6 and a motor that led legendary high school scout Tom Konchalski to say he “plays with the metabolism of a hummingbird.”
After dominating his peers and grown men at proving grounds like IS8 and Rucker Park, everyone was buzzing about him. Cooke tore up the AAU circuit in 2000 and dominated at ABCD, where he led the camp in both scoring and rebounding. “Before camp, when Debbie dropped me off, I told her I was winning [underclassmen] MVP,” he recalls. “And I did.”
“Debbie” refers to Debbie Bortner, the wealthy mother of Brian Raimondi, his friend, AAU and high school teammate and the person who helped him transfer to La Salle. While Cooke’s own family was “very loving and supportive,” they weren’t rich by any means, and Cooke was floundering academically. “After the season, I wasn’t going to school,” he says. “I moved in with Debbie to get on track academic-wise.”
Cooke transferred to Northern Valley Regional High School near Bortner’s home in New Jersey to get his grades up so he would be qualified to play college basketball, with St. John’s seen as the logical destination if he could in fact get eligible. But even in the affluent suburb of Old Tappan, NJ, Lenny couldn’t escape that NYC hype machine.
“Everything came so fast,” Cooke says wistfully. “I seen money and I said, ‘This is what I’m gonna do.’” The sycophants, street agents, leeches—whatever you want to call them—were circling around him like sharks, telling him he was already a pro, he didn’t need college. “Basically, it was just people that were trying to be around me for the simple fact that I was Lenny Cooke. As I got older and wiser, I realized people will tell you anything to keep a smile on your face.”
After coming out on top in an ’01 ABCD face-off with Carmelo (who had come to ABCD from summer school at Oak Hill for one day, reportedly just to play against Cooke) and demolishing everyone else in his path, Cooke, the No. 1 player in the class of ’02, was going to battle LeBron, the No. 1 player in the class of ’03. “It was the hype of the year,” Cooke recalls. “Everybody that was somebody was in that gym that day. Every time he made a move and scored, the crowd went crazy and every time I made a move and scored, the crowd went crazy.”
James came out on top, finishing with 24 points and the game-winning shot. James had proven he was the better prospect, but there wasn’t much shame in that; Cooke was still a consensus top-10 prospect in the class of ’02. He intended to stay with Bortner in Old Tappan for his senior year even though at 19, he was too old to play high school ball in Jersey. By the spring, however, he had left Bortner’s home to live with a basketball trainer in Michigan to prepare for the Draft and attend an adult high school in an attempt to get his GED.
“At the time, my whole thing was, if I get drafted, I get drafted,” says Cooke, who came off as confident at the May, ’02 press conference where he announced his decision. “And if I don’t, I don’t.”
Observers familiar with Cooke’s saga felt sadness at his precipitous fall from the mountaintop. “It just shows you how big mistakes can be for the top-rated kids. If you have the right people around you, nine times out of 10, those people are going to tell you to go to college for at least a year or two,” says ex-Villanova standout and NBA player Ed Pinckney, who preceded Cooke as a Big Apple high school star by two decades and is now an assistant coach at Nova. “It’s unfortunate that a kid with all that talent didn’t have the chance to do all he could do to really prepare himself for the League.
“I saw LeBron’s first exhibition game in Boston when Lenny was trying to make the Celtics. It was a little heartbreaking because Lenny got no playing time until garbage time,” Pinckney continues. “The crowd had heard about how good he was and every time he touched the ball, people were screaming for him to shoot. I said to myself, ‘I cannot believe this kid, two years ago, had the world at his feet—and now he’s subjected to this.’”
“Time went by real quick and people I thought had my back really didn’t,” says Cooke. “That’s why I distance myself from everybody except my fiancée and my family. It’s a good thing because I’m trying to set an example for the younger kids, that everything ain’t what it seems to be. People will tell you anything. Just do what’s best for you.”
Cooke’s early professional odyssey included playing in the USBL, the Philippines, China, a few NBA summer league and exhibition games, and then for the Long Beach Jam of the ABA during the ’04-05 season. While in the ABA, Cooke and Jam teammate Nick Sheppard got into a car accident on December 9, 2004. Cooke, who wasn’t wearing a seat belt, received the worst of it. “I was in a coma for six days. Glass broke through my face. I had broke my whole leg,” recounts Cooke. “From what I was told, the doctor said I was never gonna play basketball again.”
Less than three years after being the basketball world’s prince, Lenny Cooke was now its pauper. “I lost a lot of love for the game,” he says. “People fell away from me. I was like, ‘Forget it, I don’t even wanna play no more.’”
So how did he end up in Minot? Chris Daleo, then coaching the CBA’s Rockford Lightning, invited him to the team’s training camp before the ’05-06 season. While it was clear he wasn’t yet back in playing condition, Daleo let Cooke work out and rehab with the team’s trainer. When the Rockford franchise folded, Daleo took over the coaching and GM duties for the Skyrockets, an expansion team. Cooke was one of the first players he contacted.
Fast forward to December, ’06. Introduced by the Skyrockets’ PA announcer as “The Comeback Kid,” Cooke is a mismatch for anyone on the opposing Butte team.
Using a blend of power and finesse, he goes to work in the low post, drawing fouls and finishing adeptly around the basket. In the high post, he either uses his court vision to find open teammates or beats his man off the dribble. Even his jumper, one of his weaknesses in high school, is hitting.
Cooke’s conditioning isn’t the best (he got as big as 275 pounds after the accident and is about 235 now, 10-15 pounds over his desired playing weight), as he plays in spurts and labors to get back on D or be part of his team’s transition attack, but even from the bench, he’s an enthusiastic teammate, always standing and giving encouragement and instruction.
With Butte up in the third quarter, Daleo puts Cooke back into the game and he’s instrumental in Minot’s run. Diving on the floor, hitting shots to beat the shot clock and handing out dimes on his way to 21 points, eight boards and the game’s MVP honors (good for a free dinner at the International Inn), Cooke is the happiest man in the arena when Minot wins, 108-104.
“What impresses me the most is his enthusiasm and passion for the game. He’s passionate, he gets along well. The accident might have humbled him,“ says Daleo. “Some guys will go home and play at the Rucker, where people love them. Lenny takes the good with the bad. Everything will come for him with hard work.”
Teammates like shot blocker Kenyon Gamble appreciate having Lenny. “That dude is full of passion and desire,” Gamble says. “He takes it upon himself to bring that energy. Plus, he has a 7-1 wingspan and even the biggest dude in this league can’t stop him.”
Perhaps it was coming back from the accident or just a natural maturation process, but by all accounts Cooke’s work ethic has improved dramatically. “I’m just trying to learn the game as a whole. Before, I didn’t have nobody teaching me. I was just playing off potential, but now, because I had a downfall, I’m just trying to learn the ins and outs,” says Cooke in his kind, if cautious, cadence. “My goal is to get 100 percent healthy, lose some of this weight and make people believe in me again because I’m more mature and I understand the game more now. People said I was a headcase, but I’m really not.”
As far getting to the NBA or being back in the spotlight, Cooke isn’t overly concerned about those things right now. After all, he’s still only 24. “I’m just taking it how it goes. I’m gonna work hard and bust my ass every day. Hopefully, one day I get there. I just hope it’s not too late,” he says. “Since this summer, when I played in some tournaments [in New York], a lot of people been trying to come around, but the difference is, I’m keeping myself distanced from those people. Instead of it being handed to me, like it was before, I gotta take the long route. Now I see the difference between things being handed to you and having to work hard for it.”
In closing, Lenny offers a warning to those who think he’s done: “Take heed to the name they gave me this summer, ‘The Comeback Kid.’ I ain’t going nowhere.”