American story: the life and times of Lenny Cooke


Never heard of Lenny Cooke? Neither had I till last night, and I’m a sports fan. Lenny was considered the number 1 high school basketball player back in his day, circa 2001 and 2002.

Lenny Cooke was a high school superstar
Lenny Cooke was a high school superstar

He was tipped as a better player than LeBron James, which says something really, and the documentary about his life, “Lenny Cooke”, includes footage of the two young men playing against each other in a ABCD draft pick camp. He was destined to be the biggest thing to ever hit the NBA, but he never ended up playing a game in the league.

“Lenny Cooke” is showing as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), and MIFF means one thing in this town: the hipster apocalypse hits city cinemas. While there was our fair share of Ned Kelly beards in my screening, I was also happy to see plenty of sneakers, B-ball caps and jerseys. It was, after all, a sport documentary.

There’s no real fall from grace story here, which makes it even more powerful. It’s a mixture of elements that mean Lenny never plays an NBA game. He didn’t have the work ethic he needed. He got caught in the NBA propaganda machine, had his tyres pumped up when really only a very, very small percentage of kids make it. One of his coaches draws parallels between NBA and slavery, where young, fit (and predominately black) men literally sell their bodies for sport.

More than anything, Lenny came from nothing and when some agents offered him big bucks – not even big bucks really, just some money like he had never had before – he took the money. He lived a Las Vegas life for a few months there. He was a teenage father who left his family to live with a wealthy white family, thinking it would better his position.

Subtly, it’s the story of class and wealth in America, of youth and youthful potential, told through the lens of sport.

It’s an astounding film for a number of reasons. Originally filmed over an intense three week period back in 2001 when Lenny was about to make the big time, the footage was shelved after his success didn’t eventuate. It was picked up six years later by its current directors Joshua and Benny Safdie, two white guys who make trendy indie films (I’m told), but obviously just love the round ball more than anything.

They continue filming Lenny in his new life: overweight, working as a cook and coming to terms with his past, while also cutting and piecing together the old footage to show his story.

Even heavily overweight, he can still shoot hoops like nobody’s business, as we see when he plays two of his friends in a backyard game in some backwater town in Virginia.

Lenny's life today isn't as glamorous as his contemporaries like LeBron, 'Melo and Noah.
Lenny’s life today isn’t as glamorous as his contemporaries like LeBron, ‘Melo and Noah.

Not a lot of us have been that close to glory, fame and wealth so I can only imagine going to the brink and coming back, having it denied to you, would change you forever. His old mates from b-ball camps, like LeBron, Carmelo Anthony and Joakim Noah are now crazy rich, mega NBA super stars while Lenny celebrates his 30th birthday in a trailer park style home with family and friends.

As Lenny himself explains, he’s just come full circle: he didn’t have anything to start with and he’s just back where he started.

Go watch the trailer here now and if your heart doesn’t break, you just ain’t human.

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