What happens when the player you once idolized becomes a cautionary tale?
If you’re Joakim Noah, you take part in telling it. The Chicago Bulls star recently announced that he was jumping on as a producer for Lenny Cooke, a documentary about the once-heralded high school hoops player who flamed out in spectacular fashion while his peers went on to fame and fortune. Noah, in fact, played with Cooke on an Amateur Athletic Union squad when he first came over from France — Noah was a scrawny 13-year-old and Cooke, two years older than him, was already getting attention for his raw ability.
“He was really my hero because the way he could dominate a game was unbelievable to me,” Noah told The New York Times last year, as the documentary gained distribution momentum (it will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival next week). And Noah wasn’t alone. Whenever Cooke crosses paths with other contemporaries — Amar’e Stoudamire, Carmelo Anthony — there’s still a reverence paid to him. As well as some sad head shakes.
In case you’re not familiar with the legend of Lenny Cooke, a quick recap: high school star gets lauded as the next Jordan/Magic/(Fill in your favorite NBA legend here), starts attracting the attention of scouts and agents, faces a high school phenom by the name of LeBron James in what may be the most famous basketball camp game ever played, gets schooled by said phenom, falls in with the wrong crowd, goes undrafted, fades into obscurity playing for every D-league, rec league, foreign league and summer league you can think of (and some you never knew existed), then tries to orchestrate his own comeback story after years of self reflection.
It’s a narrative that has become a cliche in the sports doc genre (see: “Hoop Dreams” and just about any “30 for 30″ episode for examples). However, there’s something about the Cooke story that continues to fascinate people, maybe even more than Len Bias or some of the other “coulda been a contender” names that have littered the high school and college landscape over the past few decades. Here was a guy who had the skills to make an impact in the NBA and yet didn’t get a chance to show his full potential, not because of injury or bad luck, but because he couldn’t will himself to take the steps necessary.
Like many kids who think they’re entitled to glory before proving anything, Cooke listened to the wrong people, took money he shouldn’t have, behaved badly. Personal problems and a lack of focus on academics prevented him from having a college career. The general consensus was that he didn’t play enough as a teen for scouts to get a good read on what his game was all about. Take a look at this 2002 ESPN Draft Tracker analysis. Summary: “Has the talent to be a first-round pick if he stayed in school a couple of years. Now …?”
But those who saw Cooke on the court … they knew the answer to such an open-ended question. And the famous Reebok ABCD camp game with LeBron? Well, the doc may be worth watching just for that alone. There’s still some archival footage floating around from an old ESPN special that gives you a glimpse of what the atmosphere was like back then: a baby-faced LeBron, the swagger-licious Sebastian Telfair, a sheepish Lenny Cooke seeking out advice from Kobe Bryant, who had been in Cooke’s shoes before.
As the years went on, the event became all about LeBron and Cooke. Two kids at a crossroads, forever linked in basketball history. There’s a Shakespearean tragedy vibe to it — the rise of a hero, the downfall of another with a fatal flaw. James certainly knows the way the story goes.
And Noah knows too. He remembers a point early in the ABCD game where Cooke shook James off the dribble and drained a key jumper. He saw the legend first hand and now wants to participate in it. And, yes, profit from it too. Last year, Noah seemed to hedge his bets on his involvement with the documentary, only wanting to join the team if it projected a positive message: you know, “hey, kids, stay in school or you’ll end up like this.”
So we’ll soon see the cautionary tale and shake our heads and wonder at what might have been. You never know — it could be box office gold.