J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Lenny Cooke: From Number One to Total Zero

There are always more prospective players in the NBA draft than available roster spots. Most have some sort of reputation from college, yet the Knicks have a history of blind-siding us with baffling picks. Yes, the Frederic Weis debacle was fourteen years ago, but we’re still not ready to let it go. The point is, many players who have always been told how special they are still find themselves out of the money every year.  Lenny Cooke is exhibit A.  Although once the number one ranked high school player in the country, his NBA career never happened.  Viewers will see his hoop dreams implode in Josh & Bennie Safdie’s Lenny Cooke (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.

Even before his senior year of high school, everyone assumed Cooke was bound for NBA glory. Cooke had even moved out of his urban neighborhood into the home of an exurban patron, to protect his future greatness. (That right there begs a host of questions, like why open your home to an athlete everyone predicts will soon be wealthy, instead of an exceptional young scholar or a gifted musician? Just hold those thoughts for now.) Regardless, Cooke’s pro career was considered predestined, especially by Cooke.

Around the time Cooke was seriously considering his options (college versus heading straight into the NBA draft), Adam Shopkorn was allowed intimate access to Cooke for a documentary about the future superstar in the making.  He was there to capture the moment when Cooke and friends watched a record number of high school students get snapped up high in the draft.  He was also there for what in retrospect becomes the turning point in Cooke’s life.  At one of the more high profile high school showcase tournaments, Cooke basically stinks up the joint, but not a certain future NBA all-star.

If you are having trouble understanding why you should care about someone who probably could have had a full ride scholarship to any Division I school but got burned trying to take a shortcut to the pros, don’t expect me to convince you otherwise.  Cooke’s story is not a tragedy, it is a cautionary tale.  The long and the short of it is he believed his own hype.  Granted, he had some terrible advice from people who did not have his best interests at heart, but that is so blatantly obvious, you have to wonder what he was thinking.  Timing was not on his side either, entering the draft amidst the backlash against high school players.  Yet, Cooke fully realizes, perhaps even more than the Safdie Brothers, he is fully responsible for his bad decisions.

Potentially, there is a lot of drama and pathos to this story.  The problem is, both the young entitled Cooke and the older disillusioned and out of shape Cooke are rather passive, inarticulate presences on-screen.  Despite all the humiliations the audience witnesses, they never get much of a sense of his personality.  The Safdies try to open up his head in the gimmicky final scene, in which today’s Cooke tries to give his younger self a good talking to through the magic of digital post, but it just means he is self-aware regarding his flaws and mistakes.

Throughout the film, fans will catch glimpses of the young LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, but some of the footage is a bit draggy.  The take-away for hotly recruited high school standouts should be clear. Great athletic skills are not as unique as people around you say they are.  After all, the Safdies clearly suggest James replaced Cooke as the star of their generation. Frankly, Linsanity is a far more compelling documentary, following the underdog success of Jeremy Lin, a player with strong religious faith and family support, as well as a degree from Harvard to fall back on.  Basically on par with a lower-profile ESPN documentary, Lenny Cooke is mostly just recommended for those who wonder whatever happened to Lenny Cooke. It is now showing at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York.

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