LENNY COOKE: The Fall & Redemption of an Urban Legend

by H.S. Bayer

From my perspective, as a Sports Film Fan and indie filmmaker/journalist tracking indie film like a sports circuit,  Lenny Cooke (2013) screening through December 12th at Lincoln Center, scores strongly both as a film and a project to deconstruct.

Directed by up and coming indie directing duo, Benny and Josh Safdie, the documentary plays well on the screen while simultaneously offering several intriguing  back stories in the making of the movie, its roll out and chronicling the Lenny Cooke story as it still evolves.  The film premiered last April at the Tribeca Film Festival, one of more than a dozen sports themed features, anchored by the ESPN Sports Film Fest, as Tribeca continues cementing itself as a Sports Genre haven of importance. The blurb in the Program Guide, read like this:

In 2001, Lenny Cooke was the most hyped high school basketball player in the country, ranked above future greats LeBron James, Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. A decade later, Lenny has never played a minute in the NBA. In this quintessentially American documentary, filmmaking brothers Joshua and Benny Safdie track the unfulfilled destiny of a man for whom superstardom was only just out of reach.

What else would you possibly want to know before shelling out $12 for a ticket? Perhaps knowing that Cooke’s hype derived from his deserved legendary status proven on the courts of NYC – he was THAT good – and that at 16 he was hanging out in the clubs with the likes of Jay Z and Fat Joe during the heyday of Hip-Hop. Or that Lebron and Carmelo as teens are in the film as well as a number of current NBA stars. The fact that, at the age when most of us are finishing undergrad studies, both Josh’s feature ‘The Pleasure of Being Robbed’ and Benny’s short ‘The Acquaintances of a Lonely John’ were both selected to screen at the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes (2008), their feature film, ‘Daddy Longlegs’, garnered the John Cassavetes Award at the 2011 Independent Spirit Awards and they won awards at the Sundance and SXSW Film Festivals in 2012 for their short ‘The Black Balloonmight pique your interest.  If you’re still wavering about heading to Lincoln Center, consider that Lenny himself comes to the Q & A’s, the music includes songs from MOBB DEEP, ARCHIE SHEPP, YUSEF LATEEF and BOI-1DA and that several critics have already examined the film in the context of the classic ‘Hoop Dreams’ although the story depicts the American basketball dream from a totally different angle lodged in the dark underbelly of the sport where money rules and talent is a commodity.

I first met Adam, Benny, Josh and Lenny on the red carpet before their premiere at Tribeca and I recently spoke with them again at the press day ahead of the release. The interviews and other material to follow were compiled from both days while much of the back stories came in small nuggets and kernels dug out of the flurry of press around Tribeca.

April, 2013: The Safdies
How did you come into film?
: “We came into film because our dad filmed us constantly through thick and thin from the mundane to the exciting. This taught us the importance of reflection and that film is a medium to look for answers in.”
How do you feel about opening your film at Tribeca?
: ”It’s good because it’s a NY fest
Josh/Benny: “…and we’re fom NY
Benny: “…and it’s a NY story” (Josh recently added that “It was also instrumental in getting the film shown at the Venice Days FF in September, which Tribeca has a relationship with”)

What does being a brother team like the Coens, Maysles, or Polish Bros. bring to your movies? Obviously the trust aspect is important in this business.
: “Or the Safdies! It allows you to Divide & Conquer so we utilize that to its fullest and the trust element plays into that

ESPN has 6 films at the festival besides how many they buy from the 6 or 7 other sports docs.  Four of them are part of their “9 for 9” women’s version of the filmmaker driven “30 for 30”, (which is probably now like “43 for 33”), series? How do you think this influenced the genre?
:” It’s cool. It’s like an anthology of biography which is cool and it’s turning sports {docs} into this kind of anthropological history of humanity and that’s very cool.

Are you going to do more sports films?
:”Who Knows? Our next film has an element of sports in it but it’s a fiction film. We’re in production of a new feature this summer called Uncut Gems.  It’s a thriller-esque story that takes place in the Diamond District with hustlers, crime … etc.

lenny-cooke_poster-01April, 2013: Lenny Cooke
What was it like being such a big deal in the NYC world of High School Basketball?
:  “The pressure is crazy because this is the Mecca. The greatest of the greats came from here & I was one of the greats in my era. I was under a LOT of pressure. I didn’t have no one behind me to say, “You’re not going to the clubs tonight. You’re going to the gym at 6 or 7 o’clock in the morning – and getting ready for school.” I didn’t have that, so me being 15, 16 and being from Brooklyn and not having much and being able to hang out with the big collegiates and the Jay Z’s at the same time – these guys were my models at 15.  I don’t know a 15 year old NOW who wouldn’t want to sit beside Jay Z at a game. I want to mentor kids showing them anything’s possible if you work hard at it”.

The fourth key player on the Lenny Cooke team, producer Adam Shopcorn started his film career working under Ed Pressman, producer of films such as ‘Wall Street‘ (1987), ‘City Hall‘ (1996), ‘Hoffa‘ (1992) and ‘American Psycho‘ (2000).  Adam went from Pressman Films to the documentary about Lenny Cooke in 2001, when the NBA was recruiting high-school players with great intensity (a practice that ceased in 2006). “I wanted to document someone going from high school into the NBA, making a ton of money, seeing how they acclimated themselves. The question was, are these kids too young or being drafted just on potential?” Lenny was living in this leafy suburb in New Jersey but was from Bushwick.  It was as if Lenny was a big star already going to New York clubs with Fat Joe and Fabolous and Foxy Brown. He was like a celebrity.”  “I remember filming him watch the draft, watching Kwame Brown and Tyson Chandler get drafted as the top two picks, both out of high school, and at that time Lenny was the number one high school basketball player in America. He knew that could be him in a year.

Going to the ABCD basketball camp was amazing. Lenny was there as well as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and a lot of other great players, and I was able to capture the future best of the NBA. I filmed the big match up, LeBron against Lenny, with Lenny being better known, but LeBron scored 24, Lenny scored 9, and LeBron hit this crazy floating jump shot at the buzzer to win the game and the gym erupted. It was kind of like the shot that sunk Lenny Cooke, the shot that put LeBron James on the radar screen. The next day the LeBron tidal wave began. Lenny was kind of shell-shocked.  A few months later LeBron was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

The New York basketball world always has to find the next big thing and they put these kids on pedestals and it’s very hard to live up to. There was a shift in where these kids were coming from, a lot of kids coming from these humble upbringings in small towns across America where they could focus on their grades and school. They weren’t focusing on the things that Lenny was focusing on, like being in Fabolous videos and going to Jacob the Jeweler and going to the club with Fat Joe. The game came so easily to Lenny that he didn’t really have to work as hard as others. But if you don’t work as hard, people eventually catch up. Lenny had bounced around so many schools that he had turned 19 before his senior year of high school and the state of New Jersey would not allow him to play high school basketball. Then he fell into the hands of the wrong people – people ill-equipped to be managing someone’s career, who didn’t have the right relationships with NBA teams. He was in a tough spot, as he was having trouble getting his grades to a level to be academically able to go to college.  It was almost like he had no choice but to put his name in the NBA draft, but after not playing organized basketball for a year and a half, he fell off the map. He got 85 or 90 percent of the way there and then just kind of imploded. He wound up bouncing around the USBL and the CBA , among other leagues, for the next few years. I’ve always believed that in order to be a successful pro athlete you have to be wired a certain way, and not everyone is wired to be a pro athlete or disciplined enough.  Not everyone has the desire. You have to love the game.

Five years passed, while Shopkorn pursued a career as an art consultant but a chance encounter changed everything.  Adam ran into the Safdies –old childhood friends he hadn’t connected with in years – at a screening of ‘Daddy Longlegs‘.

This thing was sitting on my shelf and I needed a different vantage point. I needed someone to get me to the finish line – so I brought these guys in. Three years later we’re finishing a 13 yr. journey. Josh & Ben made sure I didn’t wait another 7 years until LeBron was like 39.”

Lenny CookeThe Safdies were familiar with the Cooke documentary, and asked about it. “When I was in high school Adam showed me footage of Lenny dunking on friends by the side of a highway in Virginia, and it was fascinating,” Josh Safdie explains. “It was really interesting to watch something with the future ahead of it – it’s not even like watching the present – like getting the privilege of watching the Michael Jordan of tomorrow. Loving film and basketball, I wanted to work on the film, but I was 16 at the time. So we watched the footage, at first it seemed like most was just basketball highlights, and we were more interested in Lenny as a person. The perspective of the cameraman who shot that footage was completely unpretentious, a pure document of Lenny’s life at the time. That fixed memory void of emotional perspective excited us, so we jumped on board.

Adam: “There were all these tapes in a shoebox and you open it up 6 yrs later and you go wow – it’s like the top echelon of the NBA. I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time.

Josh: “All these players that were dominating are now stars in the NBA it was such an interesting juxtaposition and when I finally met Lenny, the fact that he had no regrets made me want to make this film.

Benny: ”We’re interested in characters and there‘s no bigger character than Lenny Cooke for us to sort of get into his head and try to tell the story from his point of view. I think that’s why Adam came to us because he knows what we can do. We get inside of characters and tell their stories.

Josh: ”Lenny’s story had so many perspectives.  This guy has seen the bottom. He’s seen the top. He’s lived in the mansion. He’s lived in the hood and with that perspective you can get this middle all knowing life & we just wanted to tap into that.

For the Safdies, who started the film collective Red Bucket Films while still in High School, Lenny Cooke is their first documentary. Benny described their influences:  “We love the documentarians of the 60s, like Fredrick Wiseman, D.A. Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers, Flaherty, McElwe.  All of their work transforms non-fiction into the hyper-real and fictionalized, so we approached this with those influences.

Benny: “It was very strange, the dichotomy between the worlds of Lenny’s past and Lenny’s present. For me, the moment we had the breakthrough was when Lenny’s lying down on the couch, so relaxed, and he tells us, “I didn’t lose anything, I didn’t gain anything. I enjoyed it while it lasted, and I’m right back to square one where I started.” It’s like, yeah, I could judge him, say I feel bad, but if he’s not upset then I’m just projecting my emotions onto him. I think what makes the story special is Lenny’s perspective. He didn’t really want to do the work, and that’s it. What’s done is done. It takes a very special type of person to look at life that way, to understand that.

 Josh: ”The real filmmaking challenge was not shooting new footage, but incorporating the older work. We said to ourselves, okay, normally we try to treat fiction like reality, but now we’re trying to treat reality like fiction. Half of our source footage was shot with someone else’s eye, so we had to smuggle our vision into this older footage to put our perspective on Lenny’s life.

Benny: “And the truth is you don’t really know where you’re at until you stop filming and start editing. But we realized the way to approach it was the way the world saw Lenny – in a linear fashion, starting from the beginning. That was the way to grasp the greatness of him and also the greatness of the fall.

Lenny CookeJosh: “We tried real hard to not have that narrator telling you about him. We wanted Lenny to tell us about him and that was the driving force of that and part of that was, in order to feel that way, you need to live it the way he lived it and it allows you to get rid of the hindsight 20-20 and allows new perspectives, new emotions and even though you know what’s gonna happen, you don’t know what feeling you’re going to have when you react to certain situations when Lenny sees them. Everyone wants to be the best in life, and Lenny was the best. I genuinely think that for him, it was a high stakes poker game. It was all or nothing. He was a Greek God, and then all of a sudden Zeus showed up – LeBron – and showed Lenny that he wasn’t the best, and rocked his world. I think Lenny thought he could float all the way to the contract on his talent, and he lost his hunger. You know, I don’t know if Lenny had LeBron’s mental toughness, which I can understand. It’s hard to keep a straight head. It’s very easy to succumb to your weaknesses and vices.

Benny. “I think it’s possible Lenny didn’t really want to play in the NBA. He says he didn’t really have the passion to keep going, he just happened to be really good. Lenny’s been number one – how many people know that feeling? So yes, there’s the greatness of the fall, but it’s a fact that he was number one. He’ll always have that.

So now we’re in the middle of the second act in the “Lennie Cooke Movie” story. The filmmakers have graciously allowed us to peel back layers of the onion. The film’s ‘High Concept’ is a Greek mythological tale while its message is something of a Christian Morality play. As you will see Lenny’s story could have been depicted quite differently. The Safdies and Shopcorn were quite aware of the critical choices they made and addressed aspects of this.

Josh: “You don’t want to manipulate the viewer – the number1 question philosophically nowadays is ‘Real or Fake’. People understand authenticity and that’s what we’re after in all of our movies and all of our subjects … and documentary or fiction, they’re all gods to us.  Lenny is a god to us – this Greek god, this Greek parable. The gods decide that this guy was the best until he’s not the best and then we see how he deals with the trauma of having fallen.

But what about manipulating the subject himself? Josh clearly sees the saga as parable rather than tragedy, “You know, I wonder what Lenny would have been like if he’d gotten that $50 million contract. Would he be a better person? I don’t think so. I think he’s a better person without it. He’s a real human being. It shows in the footage, what power did to him, what hype did to him. I think about what he would’ve been like if he’d gotten the contract, and you know, at 30 years old he’d probably be happier, but I think it’s better for his soul that he didn’t make it.” Shopkorn observed Lenny’s youthful character flaws and {puritan} work ethic flaws in the original footage, “You see Lenny sitting in the gym in a do-rag and a chain, talking with Carmelo Anthony about where Lenny’s going to go after the game’s over, whereas you see Carmelo just itching to get back on the court. Lenny often told us he didn’t love the game. He was running around from tournament to tournament getting sneakers, chains and money. Additionally, the distractions of New York life proved difficult for Lenny to pass up, distractions that didn’t exist for LeBron James in Akron, Ohio”.

Lenny CookeThese were also a number of omitted or un-emphasized facts and events in Lenny’s life that may or may not have influenced viewers from buying into the Safdies’ Flawed Hero’s Fall and Redemption Myth. For instance, after his name didn’t get called at the 2002 NBA draft, Lenny played pro ball with some  success in lesser leagues in the USA and abroad yet his minor league adventures are barely referenced. Nor was his car accident in December, 2004 that put Lenny in a coma for a week, nearly cost him his leg and left him with a metal rod there for life.  Still he fought his way back from that to play professionally until 2007 when a torn ACL ended his career for good. The filmmakers account for his choice not to pursue college based on his lack of academic prowess, that taking the $350,000 from questionable agents was because of his family’s dire financial needs, not stressing that the payment disqualified him from amateur spots and not mentioning St. John’s University’s firing of coach Mike Jarvis, with whom Lenny had a special relationship with and had planned to play. There is also some possibility that the 2002 draft might have not been quite ‘kosher’.  Lennie has said, “”I felt, in certain cases, I was blackballed by certain people” – an issue left unexamined in the film. Perhaps, if more footage had existed, the Safdies would have approached Lenny Cooke as a classic Greek Tragedy.

On the treatment of Lenny himself, Josh explains his viewpoint as follows, “I hope his purpose will be to become a kind of historian. You know, you don’t want to live in the past, and I hope this film helps Lenny get over his past. I see Lenny as a God, and now he’s suffering. This is what was in his cards.”

Ultimately, we should hear what Lenny has to say to make this assessment. Fortunately, we had the relatively rare opportunity to access a documentary’s subject and get his perspective.

One thing about me,” he says. “I fucked up, but I’m more mature now – I’m more family oriented. I don’t have any regrets because I felt I had an obligation to provide for my family and at that time $350K was a lot of money for a kid at 19 – I had a child at that time – that was one of the reasons I decided to bypass college. It was a mistake, but I wish I had known more about the business side of it now than I did when I was 17 years old.” He adds, “That’s just the way it is for a kid who is coming out of the inner city. They gonna jump on the first thing they see, nine times out of 10, especially if they grew up not having much other than a roof over their head and food. So if somebody comes at you with $200 or $300 and some new shoes, who’s not gonna take it at 15?

His take on the car accident and his minor league career: “After my car accident (2004), I kind of lost passion for the game because they wanted to amputate – they told me I’d never walk or play basketball again. Look, other than that, I enjoyed myself. I’m honored to say I had the opportunities to play with those guys – hall of famers you know and I busted Carmelo’s ass! I had the opportunity to do some neat things that I would never have had the chance to do if not for basketball. I played in the Philippines for a couple years and I was a big star, China, Copenhagen, the Middle East – Kuwait…

On the work ethic aspect: “I don’t feel that they were lucky,” referring to his onetime peers who made it to the NBA, “because I don’t believe in luck. I just feel like they had the right guidance and they knew what they wanted to do. I didn’t take it serious. Basically, the right people were around them. I would never want the next generation to make the mistakes I did. I want the kids to see me as an example. I would tell them to stay focused, work hard cause those were the things I didn’t do. I didn’t work hard, I didn’t go to practice. I was hanging out in clubs, doing things a 16-year old wasn’t supposed to be doing.

Cooke has evolved into a motivational speaker, telling his story to talented young basketball players.  His message: “Keep your circles small, keep good people around you, stay humble, get your education … I don’t sugarcoat it, because it doesn’t make sense to sugarcoat it when I know for a fact. I basically just keep it real with them and let them know. Use me as an example. I made a lot of poor choices and mistakes and it’s my goal to get this story told to every child that it can get told to.

So Lenny has no regrets about the film ascribing his fall to his flaws on character. He has always been a team player (people were comparing him to Magic Johnson at the time) and realizes his story can accomplish a greater purpose. The fact that his son is now 13 and a pretty good player himself, who adores LeBron, certainly impacts Lenny’s decision to stick with the program as well.

The final acquisition to the “Lenny Cooke Movie” team: Joakim Simon Noah –Born in NYC 2 years after Lenny; Moved to Paris at age of 3 with parents; Father is Yannick Noah, a former pro athlete (ATP) and currently one of the hottest pop stars in France; Mother is Cecilia Rodhe who won the Miss Sweden pageant in 1978; returns to NYC at 13; Led his Lawrenceville, NJ high school team to the state basketball title in his senior year; Starter on 2 NCAA championship teams; selected in the first round of the NBA Draft with the number Nine overall pick in 2007; All Star Center for the Chicago Bulls; Co-Founder of Noah’s Ark Foundation which devotes its efforts to helping kids in the Chicago community through sports and the arts; Executive Producer Lennie Cooke.

Bringing Noah on as the fifth player helped take the project to another level.

Nowadays to go wide in the movie business you need a franchise, not just a great film.  Shopcorn seems quite attuned to this. At the press conference he pointed to their early December screenings in Chicago.

We have a week of screenings in Chicago at the Gene Siskel theatre and on Dec. 1st Joakim will be coming down to do a Q&A with Lenny bringing a bunch of kids with him from the city for his ‘Noah’s Ark” Foundation. For Joakim it really is all about the kids. He does a lot of charity work but does it quietly not for publicity.

Noah played with Cooke for the AAU team The Panthers in 1999. Noah was just 5’9 that year ultimately growing to 6’11. “Lenny has always been one of my biggest inspirations as a basketball player,” Noah says. “Still his story always reminds me to keep my eyes on the prize and to keep distractions away. I hope Lenny will push his story out to the next generation of kids who aspire to one day play competitive basketball at any level. If his story can make an impact on just one or two kids who have the opportunity to see the film, I believe we’ll be making a difference.

Adam: “Joakim had played with Lenny when they were in high school. Basketball came very easy to Lenny. Joakim had to work incredibly hard to get to the point he’s at but he’s a winner. He’s a fighter. He’s hungry. He’s smart.

Smart enough to invest in the film considering the synergies between Lenny Cookes’ message and his foundation’s work. The infusion of some small part of Noah’s basketball fortune as well as the PR value of his name attached gave the project a real shot in the arm.  Noah seems to have come on board rather late in the process, constituting an interesting back story open to speculation.  The announcement of his participation showed up in Variety and Hollywood Reporter in April just days before the film’s premiere at Tribeca, yet the completion date is listed as having been in March with almost simultaneous festival acceptance.  It’s probably a moot question whether Noah joined the team after seeing a final cut or after Tribeca’s selection or had come on as a silent investor well before – an answer very likely dependent on when the DCP (Digital Cinema Package – necessary for proper theatrical exhibition these days) was made. However the timing begs the question whether Shopcorn as producer calculated that a quick sale was unlikely, with so many unsold sports docs. entered in the fest, and having a film that was rather raw content wise and a bit low rent in technical quality.  Making the announcement so close to the start of the fest maximized the short term buzz factor while minimizing too much early scrutiny of the project.

So began the third act of the Lennie Cooke Movie Story: Rollout/Distribution/Exhibition:

With Noah on the team the long term strategy, for widely showing the film to kids in a program bringing Lenny’s message to them, strengthened immensely. At the press conference, Adam told us that he was already in serious discussions with companies such as NIKE for such an initiative.  The new funds available from his Executive Producer, enabled Shopcorn Productions to self distribute during at least the first stage of Lenny Cooke’s release and Adam so far has proven quite proficient at the distribution game.  After the Venice screening Sept. 3 Shopcorn and team got the film into the following film festivals as well as a number of art house/film society type venues totally booking the film through November:

The Loft Cinema Film Festival, Tucson, Arizona; Festival Tous Ecrans (Geneva International Film Festival Switzerland); Viennale (Vienna International Film Festival Austria); Cape Ann Film Festival, Gloucester, MA; American Film Festival, Wroclaw, Poland.

After its open at Lincoln Center, bookings are in place till the end of January with the following locations already confirmed:

DecemberSilver Spring, MD at AFI Silver Theater and Cultural Center, Columbus, OH, Lancaster, PA, Los Angeles, CA., San Francisco, CA at Roxie Theater , Montreal, Canada
JanuaryHouston, TX, Harlem, New York at Maysles Documentary Center, Bryn Mawr, PA., Syracuse, NY, Bloomington, IN, Pittsburgh, PA, San Antonio, TX

Recently we asked Shopcorn how he accomplished all this to date, about TV sales and the final rollout.

Describe how you arrived at and executed the distribution strategy that has the film showing in so many varied venues.     Adam: “The film is in so many theaters because I’ve worked my ass off trying to get it into theaters.  That is pretty much it – hard work and persistence.”  His experience arranging art exhibitions around the world and working under Ed Pressman probably helped as well.

There’s a scene in the film that’s real raw with some rather appropriate profanity in my view where he visits his old entourage type ‘buddies’ not one who ever visited him or came to his 30th birthday party and there’s some rancor when he confronts them on the subject – the kind of scene you don’t ever see on Sports TV that a lot of people might like to see in the theatre for its realness. If ESPN or say HBO made an offer for the film but wanted the scene sanitized so to speak or even pull it out, how would you feel about it?        
Adam: “I don’t know whether say HBO or Showtime would ask us to clean up those scenes but I know these guys (pointing to Ben and Josh) would rather throw themselves off a building.

What do you see as the final endgame with the movie?
: “As a producer, I kind of gauge the success of this film by how many young kids get to see it.  If 800 kids see it, it’s a failure. If the number is 8 million then it’s a success.

As of the moment the rollout of Lenny Cooke is just beginning but we should expect it to get a TV sale, a solid international run and several years of rentals at high schools, middle schools and other community centers.

The omnipresent Scott Foundas who wrote Variety’s capsule review of the film in April correctly predicted that, “Lenny Cooke will inevitably be compared to the seminal high-school basketball docu Hoop Dreams.  In fact the filmmakers were strongly influenced by Hoop Dreams themselves. According to Josh, “Hoop Dreams is a favorite film of mine, I’ve always been inspired by it. But where Hoop Dreams is focused on the sincerity of dreams and passions, ours is about the American dream as a concept, something that has little to do with passion and more to with the endgame. Lenny lived at many polar frequencies in his life, and I think that’s the epitome of the American dream. Embarking on our film, we could only hope to further the conversation or add to the perspective. In a way we are telling the alternate reality of that film. While we were in the beginning stages of scripting the edit and still shooting here and there, we went to see it projected on 35mm at Lincoln Center just to live in that world, remind ourselves of its influence.”

In an appropriate coincidence, the Executive Producer of Hoop Dreams, Gordon Quinn premiered a new film of his own at Tribeca this year – The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013) which will air on PBS in 2014. Lenny Cooke should claim its place in the major sports doc. catalog and within a year or so we will be able to download it back to back with Hoop Dreams on Netflix and compare the two film’s visions.




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