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Lenny Cooke was once as good as LeBron James

TribecFilm Festival 2013 Portrait Studio - Day 2

Tribeca Film Festival 2013 Portrait Studio - Day 2

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Updated: November 20, 2013 1:46PM

You can see it coming — slowly, insidiously, inexorably. And, yes, sadly.

Lenny Cooke is going to blow up.

The No. 1 high school basketball prospect in the nation in 2000 is going to implode, then detonate, then, as the ashes settle quietly, be left in the tragic, banal world of might-have-been. You can feel it coming the way you feel a subway rumbling in the dark.

The documentary ‘‘Lenny Cooke’’ begins its run at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Nov. 29 and is, in its way, nearly as powerful as the legendary gemstone ‘‘Hoop Dreams,’’ which the late Roger Ebert called the best movie of the 1990s.

To have mentioned both Siskel and Ebert in the same paragraph should let you know that I, at least, feel we have moved into seriously good film territory. ‘‘Lenny Cooke’’ is the anti-‘‘The Blind Side,’’ the film for which Sandra Bullock won the Oscar for playing the feel-good, hot white mama who took in the young, impoverished Michael Oher and steered him into the Baltimore Ravens starting lineup.

Lenny Cooke started for no NBA team.

Now 31, he would end up playing for a couple of semi-pro teams before a handful of people in small-town gyms. His life is a sports cautionary tale, writ large.

A 6-6 Brooklyn high school phenom rated higher than Carmelo Anthony and even LeBron James at first, he once seemed to be headed straight toward the peak, signing autographs everywhere he went and telling one TV camera crew, in a particularly delusional moment, how he is going to convert his blighted Bushwick corner into a shiny place with a movie complex over there and a YMCA over here. Like he was Magic Johnson. And not a school-failing 18-year-old.

The documentary is also fascinating because it lists the Bulls’ Joakim Noah as ‘‘executive producer.’’

A junior high-aged Noah appears early in the film, sitting and watching Cooke perform at a high-level summer camp. The corn-rowed Noah sits with Cooke’s white female guardian, Debbie Bortner, the wealthy New Jersey woman who took in Cooke when his mother abruptly moved to Virginia.

‘‘She was genuine,’’ says Noah. ‘‘She really looked out for him.’’

The Bulls center tells me this in the locker room after a recent win against the Charlotte Bobcats. He put his name on the film and gave it his backing because he was so impressed by Cooke as a young, not-particularly-gifted New York hooper (pre-growth spurt) that he saw the older player as a role model. And then as an anti-role model.

‘‘He was like a bigger Tony Allen [the 6-4 former Crane star now with the Memphis Grizzlies],’’ says Noah. ‘‘Athletic as hell, could pass the ball, ferocious competitor, tough as nails, great basketball IQ, unbelievable handle. He could dunk on you, knock down the jumper.’’


‘‘Well, a lot of things went wrong. Lenny had the biggest heart ever, but he got caught up in distractions. Distractions are different in the inner city than, say, Wisconsin.’’

True. But as Noah adds, ‘‘What’s important about the film is that your mind-set is everything. That’s the moral of the story.’’

There are many telling scenes, and the basketball royalty that passes through in the 13 years of filming is stunning — young Amar’e Stoudemire, an almost unrecognizable Anthony, gangly Chris Bosh and, yes, the chosen one, James himself. Also appearing are coaches Mike Krzyzewski, Mike Fratello, Bill Self and Mike Jarvis, young star Kobe Bryant and chatterbox shoe salesman Sonny Vaccaro. Elton Brand is in there. So is New York Times writer Harvey Araton, already aware of the debacle occurring before him.

I asked Coach K about Cooke.

‘‘The kid from New York?’’ the Duke coach replied, thinking. ‘‘I don’t remember much. I know we didn’t recruit him.’’

Two scenes rivet and resonate. In the first, the young James scores the game-winning, buzzer-beating shot over Cooke in a summer camp. In the second, near the end, the now-obese, 30-year-old, jobless Cooke confronts members of his old high-riding posse and angrily and tearfully accuses them of never visiting him, never standing by him through his travails.

Those friends don’t seem to have done all that well themselves, and one says to Cooke, just as defiantly: We’re all just looking out for ourselves.

It’s up to you. That’s the hardness of the world. Cooke had a tough life, a confusing and abusive life, but he had rare gifts, too.

‘‘He just took the wrong advice,’’ says Noah.

It’s more than that, really. Cooke had no idea how to take advice. From his equally clueless street-corner buddies? From his absent dad? From smoke-blowing sycophants filling him with gas?

Early on, back when they’re teenagers, one Cooke pal waxes wise: ‘‘Now that you’re playing basketball, everybody’s your friend.’’

And when you’re not?


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