Although Lenny Cooke may not necessarily be a name instantly recognizable to basketball fans, there was a time where that seemed nearly impossible. Once ranked in high school scouting reports above current NBA superstars Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony, Cooke was positioned to be the NBA's next big thing. After shockingly going undrafted in 2002, however, a bizarre thing happened: Cooke never made it to the pros and fell quickly into obscurity.
Ten years in the making, Josh and Benny Safdie's new documentary Lenny Cooke, which is now playing daily at Film Society, contrasts footage of Cooke's earlier glory days with current footage showing him overweight, forgotten and dearly holding onto the past. The result provides the viewer with a clear perspective of what went wrong (work ethic, lack of respect for the game), as well as an inside look into professional basketball as a lucrative and cutthroat business. Cooke was a high school star unequipped for what came next. FilmLinc Daily recently spoke with the film's directors to discuss their interest in Cooke, their obsession with basketball, and how the NBA draft process has changed over the past decade.
“Basically, going back to as early as I can remember,” Josh Safdie started, “we had two great passions. One is basketball, and to this day it’s our most useful distraction. We are obsessive fanatics over it. Like a junkie uses heroine, we use basketball and we allow its improvisational manner to take control over our minds... Film is our other passion. It's our only source of understanding and introspection: the way we look at and understand things, mostly within our own lives but sometimes in the lives of people around us."
"This project first started when I was a senior or junior in high school. Adam Shopkorn was filming it and he was just out of college. It involved my two greatest interests: film and basketball. It was a nexus: it was the introspection and the distraction at the same time, and all I wanted to do was be a part of it. I was as impressed by Lenny’s basketball skills as I was with the Canon XL1 that I was being shown it on, and the shots, etc. We just weren’t allowed to work on it because we were too young and Adam was doing his own thing and that was that.”
As the two grew, their interests momentarily changed, focusing their attention on narrative features that were often critically acclaimed. “As time passed, we kind of fell out of touch with Adam and we fell briefly out of touch with basketball, too. That was just for a couple of years because, I don’t know, that’s just life. It’s interesting. When we were releasing Daddy Longlegs at IFC Center, Adam showed up at a Q&A. We hadn’t seen him in years. It was about 2009 or 2010 and Lebron was starting to become the biggest he had ever been. Adam approached us and said ‘Hey, remember that project about that guy that was better than Lebron James? Do you wanna come and take another look at some of the footage that you looked at back in 2001?’”
For basketball fans, Lenny Cooke represents a fun who's who of recognizable faces. Future success stories such as Raymond Felton, Jarrett Jack, Joakim Noah (a producer on the film), Chris Bosh and more are briefly featured at early stages in their high school and college careers. “Lenny was the star of this group,” Benny Safdie pointed out. “You couldn’t help but have [other recognizable players who went on to become stars] in the background or interacting with Lenny because they all wanted to be around him. He was the center and these guys were all orbiting around him. The scene with Kobe, where he comes in… of course you’re going to use Kobe because he’s incredible… but just that scene where Lenny confronts him and says, 'when are you going to play me one on one?' when Lenny hasn’t accomplished anything of note! If you compare him to Kobe, it’s incredible that he would have the guts to say that to him. We didn’t go out of our way, except for the beginning, to show who was around him and just how big this [draft] class was. We just wanted to explore Lenny’s world and these people just happen to be there, which makes it that much more credible.”
What drove Cooke downhill? Was it the impending money and fame that often comes with being a young athlete flirting with celebrity superstardom? As the directors imply, he may have fallen victim to a heightening culture of excess. “It’s very easy,” Josh explained, “I don’t know if it was the narcissistic age, but if you go back to September 11th and even earlier to the summer of 2000, the biggest song on the radio was a song called Bling Bling. One of the biggest shows on television was a show called Cribs. We’re talking about the post-modern American dream, this idea of having all the riches and the fame before you have the riches and the fame.”
“Or the security to keep it,” Benny chimed in.
"That was the beginning of culture starting to have tons of credit and layaways just so you can wear the $50,000 chain so that people think you have $40 million in the bank and that you’ve hit the American Dream," Josh continued. "This is how Lenny came up. It only makes sense that Lenny’s actions would follow the same path. To me, it makes perfect sense. The American Dream of the 50s and 60s was work hard and you’ll get there in the end.”
“Or even work hard for your children to get there,” Benny added.
Things have certainly changed over the past few decades, as Josh was quick to reiterate: “In the 70s and 80s, there was no American Dream. And then when the dot com phase kind of fell over, it just left us with this weird, mangled version of the American Dream. I think that people like Lenny Cooke are kind of the casualties of it, this idea of the post-modern dream, that the idea is stronger than the journey. In the NBA, we were seeing first hand…look at the 2001 Draft. It was all high school kids. I remember after that draft there was speculation from people that maybe they should come out after junior year. ‘Oh, have you seen this sophomore? He’s legit, he can play.’”
The NBA has since implemented a rule which states that no player can be drafted directly out of high school. He must either play a year overseas or a year in college before declaring himself eligible for an upcoming draft (known primarily as the “one and done” rule). Is this for better or worse? “Lenny Cooke said, 'if I could come out after my junior year [of high school], I would, because that was my best year,’" Benny remembered. "It doesn’t really work as well in team sports. If you’re an exceptional tennis player or an exceptional golfer, you can go professional at such a young age because the only person you’re going to hurt is yourself. In this case, it affects a lot more people and it affects chemistry. You have to have a bigger mind wired for it. I agree with Lenny when he says it’s a good idea [to wait] because there are a very small sample of kids who are capable of going straight to the NBA out of high school and being productive right at the get-go. So that sort of break just allows you to breathe and slows things down. At that point, all this hype is moving, you’re being forced into situations, talking to agents, everybody's pushing you, and if you’re forced to take a break, even for a year, I think it does help you put things into perspective and build up your body for what will become a much more physical sport than when you are surrounded by high-schoolers. I think it’s a good idea because it forces that sort of time.”
At one point in the film, former St. John's University basketball coach Mike Jarvis compares the idea of drafting players straight out of high school to being a modern day form of slavery. “He’s using hyperbole," Benny contextualized, "but at the same time, he has a point in the sense that you’re using the league minimum (which is still a lot of money) and using that to buy potential. And if it doesn’t work out? Fine, because you can just go back and enamor some other kid. You’re basically using the hype and the speed at which all of this can happen to your advantage and you’re not really seeing it through. So when Lenny didn’t make it, how many people stuck by him to try and help him out? There were a couple of people who helped him get into a different league, helped him get into the Summer League, but there weren’t that many people who were really in his corner at that point. The way it worked back then was like a lottery. You had your number and, if it got called, you hit the jackpot. I think it’s much different now because there are mock drafts and very few surprises when it comes to the number one pick or the later picks.”
When reminded that Anthony Bennett, this year's number one pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, was considered something of a shock, Benny agreed. “[Anthony Bennett] was injured when he came into the draft. That was a surprise. Nobody was expecting that. But because he had that extra year, in college, it just allowed scouts to get more information and allowed the teams to make different decisions—some better, some worse (in the case of Anthony Bennett). But you look at Nerlens Noel [the sixth pick in this year’s draft]. He slid because he got injured in college. That’s where things get a little dicey, because if he would have come straight out of high school, he would have been a top pick. He was this giant who was averaging five blocks… he was incredible. But because he got injured in college, he lost a lot of money, and he wasn’t getting paid in college, and that’s the whole other argument. These coaches are making millions and millions of dollars, and these kids who get a scholarship, yeah they’re getting a scholarship and that’s a kind of payment, but if something happens to them, what then? They’re not really being compensated in that sense, for all the millions of dollars they’re bringing to the school—ESPN, Old Spice sponsors, tournaments on TV and everybody watches it and tweets about it… it’s forcing people to think longer term as opposed to short term. We were very specific about how basketball was [used] in the film. The three of us—Josh, Adam and I—would be sitting around saying 'is this too much basketball? Should we cut this out?’ because we didn’t want it to be just about that. In life, the things that Lenny did wrong… it would affect him in any career that he would have chosen.”
Was Cooke at all resistant to getting involved with the documentary crew so far removed from his past days of glory? “What was interesting about the movie from our point of view,” Josh, the film's chief cinematographer explained, “was that we shot with him over the course of three years. The film presents it as a couple of weeks surrounding his birthday. That's just us as narrative filmmakers approaching life as fabric and seeing what we could do with it. From the get-go, the goal was always to present to Lenny that it was an egalitarian perspective. We were the same as him and that was the goal from the get-go. We had to spend six or seven months trying to break him down and let him know that we weren't making a movie that was presenting him as a successful basketball player. We had to really gain his trust again. As you can imagine, he had a lot of issues with trust because so many people had dogged him. It would be a lot of traveling down to Virginia and spending four or five days with him. In the beginning we would only go down when there was an event to cover, whether it be going to visit his grandmother's grave or things he wanted to do or things that were happening in his life that we knew we had to document. But they say it's like going to a therapist, they say that the most productive days are the days where you don't have anything to talk about at all. I would have this checklist of emotions, of what kind of emotions I wanted to get while I was with him. I would just try to spend as much time with him as possible, to fall asleep with him and wake up with him. It wasn't a big crew, it was just me for the shooting. We really had to establish that demeanor and relationship so that he could then in turn feel no shame in showing us anything, in exposing himself.”
"So when we go to the basketball game [a Knicks vs. Bulls match-up at Madison Square Garden],” Josh continued, “I wasn't judging him. I was in awe of him. Here he was, this guy who had the respect of these superstars with $100 million dollar contracts and they're coming out to say hello to him and he's getting all this praise from these people... you can still see a slight fear. Melo doesn't take his sunglasses off because he's letting us know, 'you were calling me out in the gym but look who's wearing the $600 Cashmere sweater now.'” In this same scene, Amar'e Stoudemire, a power forward for the Knicks, doesn't even recognize who the older, physically heavier Cooke is. Stoudemire wasn't the only to do a double-take: “When Josh and Adam went to go see Lenny after they had not seen each other in 10 years,” Benny mentioned, “Adam thought he was Lenny's cousin.”
Lenny Cooke is, of course, a film that basketball fanatics will love. It discusses the larger issues (the draft, the politics of the game) while delighting in the minutia as well; in one scene, prolific coach Mike Fratello discusses money-saving techniques with potential NBA prospects. “What's cool about this film,” Josh confesses, “is that it will absolutely satiate the basketball junkies of the world, but you don't have to like basketball, you don't even have to like sports. This is a movie about ego, about determination, about hustling... it's about life. We're talking about someone's life over the course of 12 years. That's anthropological and interesting on a very simple level.”
Lenny Cooke opens Friday, December 6 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The Safdie brothers and Lenny Cooke, himself, will be in person for Q&As on Friday and Saturday.