As a high school student in the early 2000s, Lenny Cooke was ranked higher than LeBron James. But due to a string of poor decisions, Lenny never made it to the NBA. I talked with the playground legend about failure, redemption, the current state of professional basketball.
It’s hard to define failure. Was Johnny Thunders a failure? Maybe. The guy who rides shotgun in a garbage truck? Perhaps. Personally, George W. Bush always struck me as a horrible failure, yet he made all of his rich friends richer and he was elected president twice. If that’s failure, I need to fail a little harder. When you think about it, failure means nothing. It’s an ambiguous term resting in that gray area of subjectivity and perspective. Failure, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Take Lenny Cooke for instance. As a highly touted high school basketball player ranked ahead of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in the early 2000s, he had the world at his fingertips. However, due to a string of unfortunate events and poor decisions, Lenny didn’t get drafted into the NBA. Now he tops those obligatory “the best players who never made it” lists on the internet. From a certain perspective, he failed. But did he?
The documentary Lenny Cooke tells the story of how a few simple choices can change the course of an entire life. The film offers an intimate look into the days of Lenny’s youth, documenting pivotal moments like the first and only time he played competitive ball with LeBron and the day his dreams of making the leap from high school to the pros fizzled into nothing. After a ten-year break, the filmmakers reunited with Lenny, filming the man as he struggled with personal demons and what-ifs.
By the end of the movie, I was left feeling like Lenny Cooke had failed. And yet, after spending an afternoon hanging out with him, I wondered if he really had. Never again will he bang bodies with Carmelo in the paint, but he has gained a powerful and unique perspective on life. Now he uses his wisdom to help guide the next generation of basketball players, which is awesome. If I’m destined to be a failure, I’d rather be a Lenny Cooke than a George W. Bush any day.
The documentary—which was produced by Joakim Noah, the all-star center for the Chicago Bulls—will be screening in New York at the Film Society of Lincoln Center until the 12th.
VICE: Have you thought about coming out of retirement and joining the Utah Jazz? They really could use some help in the backcourt…
Lenny Cooke**: **[_Laughs_] If they want to sign me, I’ll come out of retirement.
They’re absolutely terrible, but if you signed a two-year deal, you’d probably get to play with Andrew Wiggins in 2014.
That’s cool, if they want me to go out there. Tell them to put me on a flight… You’re a Jazz fan?
You know it. What do you think about Wiggins? Do you think he’s going to be a better player after a season at Kansas? Or do you think it’s irrelevant?
It’s a good thing that he went to school. But he needs to do two years. He’s got the potential to be good. If he works hard and dedicates himself to the game, he should be all right.
What do you think about the rule that says you have to be 19 to get into the NBA?
It’s a good rule because they might be ready physically, but they aren’t ready mentally. There are different things you’re going to run into when you’re on the road—like money, women, and drugs. You have to be tough mentally to separate yourself from the good and the bad.
But at that point, what’s the difference between being 18 or 19?
I don’t know.
At the age of 18, they’re adults, at least in the eyes of the law. **Shouldn’t they be allowed to make the choice to play professionally?** Yeah, you should be able to, but I guess they’re getting tired of people being unsuccessful.
Do you think the decision to implement that rule is a sign of collusion between the NCAA and the NBA?
I believe so.
So the NCAA makes a shit ton of money off all the players… Would you have been more likely to play college ball if you saw some of that dough?
What do you think about David Stern?
I don’t know him. Shit, I didn’t get the chance to meet him.
I haven’t met the dude either, but I’ve got lots of shit to say about David Stern.
[_Laughs_] You don’t like him?
What do you think? Actually, what do you think about sports as an entertainment industry? For instance, the NFL has a concussion problem, right? Do you think they owe the players, or is it a situation where the players knew the risk and made the choice to play?
The players did know the risk. It’s an entertainment business. You don’t want to see the players get hurt but that’s the chance you take when you go out there and give your all. If you get a concussion, you get a concussion. Handle it later. Come back next week.
**What do you think about LeBron? We know he’s great, but how great is he in comparison to previous generations of NBA players? ** If you look at the way LeBron James is running over people right now, he wouldn’t have been doing all that shit back when guys like Charles Barkley were playing. If he had to play against Detroit when they were the Bad Boys, he couldn’t just go in there like that.
Who do you know personally who you think should have made it to the NBA?
There’s a lot of people I think should be in the NBA who aren’t. I think Booger Smith should have made it to the NBA. Alimoe should have been in the league. There’s my boy from Philly, AO. He’s another one that should have played professional ball.
Even though you haven’t played professionally in years, do you think you could still school Kwame Brown?
There’s a lot of people in the NBA who’s asses I would bust right now. Even to this day. And I’m out of shape and everything. A lot of guys are in there because of who they know and the agents that represents them.
Do you think if you had a different agent, you might have made it?
More than likely. I only saw my agent once, so that should show you right there. If I would have known the business side back then… It is what it is. I made those decisions. I made those choices. I didn’t have this motivator in the background going, “You have to do this, you have to do that.” No. Whatever I did, I did because I wanted to do it. It was like, If they want to give you some money, take it.
But that’s one of the things I want to get out to the kids—don’t jump on the first thing smoking. Get to know somebody before you let them represent you. Find out if they’re really in it for you or if they’re just in it for themselves.
In a weird way, even though you never made it to the NBA, isn’t it kind of cool to be considered a NYC basketball legend?
Yeah. I appreciate the respect and the support I’ve been given after I didn’t get drafted. And to be considered as a New York City legend is an honor, because there are millions of great basketball players that have come through here.
By Mike AbuDecember 9, 2013, 6:22am