“Get that money, baby,” an off-camera pal hollers to a young Lenny Cooke during a pit stop on a lengthy road trip. Sadly, Cooke, the titular subject of Josh and Benny Safdie’s new documentary, would internalize that myopic advice and opt for the pros over a college education. There are a number of stories of professional basketball busts, but Lenny, who at that moment was the highest-ranked high-school basketball player in the nation (over contemporaries LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony), would never play even a minute in the NBA, let alone make a regular-season roster, after going unselected in the 2002 NBA draft.
Lenny Cooke explores how such a highly touted prospect slipped through the cracks, but never patronizes this tragic figure or contrarily pigeonholes him as some thankless wretch. Instead, the Safdie Brothers (The Pleasure of Being Robbed, 08, and Daddy Longlegs, 09) follow a charismatic and supremely gifted athlete, who, despite a support system that gave him an opportunity to rise above his underprivileged background, let temptation wreck his career before it ever truly got started. The first half of the film exclusively tracks a young Lenny holding the world in the palm of his hands. That the first half of the film is largely older footage (previously shot for an earlier project by Adam Shopkorn) endows it with wistfulness. No matter how merry the events, they’re obviously distant fragments of a broken dream.
Upon his own request, young Lenny moves from Brooklyn to a guardian’s wealthy New Jersey suburb in order to better focus on school. Despite this display of maturity, Lenny is still only a child and not prepared for his sudden rush of fame. If this weren’t clear enough when he and his buddies are bunched up on his guardian’s couch, eating McDonald’s and debating whether Kobe or TMac is better as they watch the 2001 NBA Draft, then it becomes painfully clear as he asks his girlfriend Anita for permission to play video games in an airport arcade while she’s left to tend to their infant son. As his national profile rises, the sharks begin to circle, and an impressionable Lenny cannot resist. Agents line up at his door in a bidding war, and as Lenny’s guardian, Debbie, laments, he sells himself to the lowest bidder.
The first issue that comes to mind is proper age of eligibility for the NBA draft. Many often argue “old enough to die for the country, old enough to play basketball,” but such a facile argument doesn’t consider the cosmic difference between a more mature twenty-something with at least some college education to fall back on failing versus a kid whose whole life and mental development is staked in the crapshoot that is the pro game. The NBA did somewhat address this issue in 2006, instituting a 19-year-old age minimum, but the Safdie Brothers’ documentary calls attention to a far greater, and unresolved, issue: the way the student athlete is paraded and exploited within the preparatory system. Mike Jarvis, the former men’s basketball coach at St. Johns, candidly admits that these prospects are commodified and purchased in a manner distastefully similar to slavery. This is not only a rebuke of the pros but also of the NCAA, where college players receive tuition but no profit from the merchandise their schools sell.
If the first part of the film is a festival, filled with joyful optimism, the second part is a wake, its events a heartbreaking reflection of long ago. Whereas the film opens with friends crowding around Lenny during special news reports, women flocking to him at nightclubs, and celebrations held in his honor as he declares to go pro, over a decade later, Lenny now hangs around Madison Square Garden after NBA games hoping to steal a moment with those peers who made it (Melo, Amare Stoudimire, and Joakim Noah, the film’s executive producer). He finds himself an outsider in embittered reunions with his Bushwick buddies who once celebrated him as a superhero.
Even with a brief montage of Lenny’s talent being squandered as he floats around the independent circuit and further into obscurity, the transition to the present is jarring. Physically, Lenny is hard to recognize today, yet there is still a record of grace in his puffy frame while playing a pickup game at a playground. As distant observers, the Safdie Brothers deliver the film’s themes and characters’ feelings in tender, subtle moments like this. He also retains many of those charming childhood qualities, but they are undercut by a sense of melancholy and an inability to move on, never more apparent than on his 30th birthday. Lenny’s eyes tear up while he boisterously serenades his ever-loyal Anita, who earlier observes with a mournful acceptance: “It’s almost like it was yesterday for him.” Not a day passes where Lenny doesn’t reflect on where he went wrong, how he would have handled the pressure differently. He currently travels the country and lectures a new generation of starry-eyed, susceptible kids. If only we really could reach out, back into the past, and warn our younger selves.