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Watch for It: Lenny Cooke Documentary

Photo Credit: Josh Heller

“Whatever happened to?”

Those are three dreaded words for star athletes.

Sometimes the answer is drug use.  Other times, it’s financial mismanagement.  Frighteningly often, it’s a career-ending injury.

But what if it’s none of the above?

That is the question posed, and poignantly answered, in the acclaimed documentary “Lenny Cooke,” a re-telling of the factual and inglorious fate of one of the most hyped high school basketball players in history.  Cooke, in his prime, once was ranked above peers including present-day titans LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire.

What happened (or did not happen) to Cooke is puzzling then, a striking parable of what can occur when you attract too much hype, too soon.  The story of his rise and  fall is worth telling in a climate where there are still disturbing disparities in the graduation rates of Black and White NCAA basketball players. 

The project, executive produced by Chicago Bulls standout Joakim Noah, premiered at TriBeCa Film Festival in April where it attained deafening levels of buzz. It is slated to hit the big screen for public consumption by early 2014.   Check out the trailer here.  In the meantime, JET caught up with the filmmaking forces behind the movie—producer Adam Shopkorn as well as directors (and brothers) Benny Safdie and Joshua Safdie. Shopkorn originally began shadowing and recording Cooke in the early 2000s.

The three men shed some insight on making the film and their relationship with the bowed, but surprisingly unbroken titular star.  JET suggests you add this effort to your watch list.

Q: Adam, you began filming Lenny Cooke during his heyday in high school, so your history with him goes way back… What is it that led you to start videotaping him in the early 2000s?

Adam: I just read a piece in the news about this quote-on-quote movement of high school basketball players making the leap into the NBA.  It was not a new movement; it had been happening since the 70s, but now it was happening in a bigger way.  I was fascinated by this change in the landscape.  I wanted to find a subject to follow through this process.  A friend introduced me to Lenny Cooke.  One thing led to another, and a few weeks later, I was documenting him. I was 22 years old then.

Q: Did you see any hints of a coming downfall when you began following him?

Adam: I think the doubts came obviously later in this elongated process. He was basketball royalty when he was coming up. I don’t know if I thought it was strange at the moment.  I wanted to be invisible, and I was just watching the process unfold.  I don’t think we realized how strange until Josh, Benny and I sat down years later and picked apart the footage.  We took Lenny back to Bushwick and he was showing off where he grew up almost as if he’d left those circumstances and moved on to greener pastures, but he hadn’t at that point.  That was a little bizarre ….and MTV cribs at that particular moment, must have been one of the top-rated shows on TV.  That is what the experience was like.

Q: Josh and Bennie, when did you get involved in the project?

I guess we’d known about the project back in 2001.  I was 17 and Bennie  was 15 at that point. I remember Hoop Dreams being one of our favorite movies, and we wanted nothing more than to be part of this film.  It’s funny to think of it now.  We witnessed his star collapsing and burning before it was a creation.  At the time, I felt like I was looking at the future. But we didn’t get involved until 2009.  This attracted us because we want to tell human stories. If an alien found our films, we want that alien to watch and be able to learn how the human brain works. Our faults, that’s what makes us beautiful and scary.

Benny: What attracts us to the story is we had moments we saw within old footage we felt we could make into scenes.  When you watch the movie, you watch as the world saw Lenny.  It’s best if you see it the way the world saw him.  Nothing bad happened to him.  He basically did to himself.  In a way, the downfall starts with asking: how did he control his own destiny?  He was not working as hard as he could. He didn’t really like playing, though he was so great at it. Studying him, we knew we could make the movie that we really wanted to make.

Q: How did you approach the film and make sure you were not exploiting a man whom some would say has been punished enough by his own actions, or lack thereof?

Josh: Well, it’s easy to love the top ranked basketball player and more difficult to love one who is also saying he is the best.  From the get go, we started filming Lenny looking for an entry point to find the love for Lenny.  As a friend of Lenny’s and observer of the film, I can watch and see that there are certain people born to be immortalized by NBA, and others born to be immortalized by cinema.  It’s such a parable.  Hunger is everything.  If you’re not hungry, you’re fed. And if you’re sitting down, digesting, you’re not doing anything.

Benny: We strayed away from having a God-like narrative or other people talking about Lenny’s bad decisions.  We put it in his hands. The only way to understand is from his point of view. Through his eyes and voice, we’re being sensitive to Lenny and his feelings.

Q: What do you think people will learn walking away from this film in a world where we still have this adulation of athletes…of entertainers in general?

Benny: It’s very possible to look at it and easily make him the biggest example of failure. The way we look at the story, Lenny is a better human being today.  Even he will tell you: “I was an asshole back then.  Now, I’m more interested in my family.”  He expresses himself better.

Josh: I think he’s a success; not a failure in any way..  He’s seen so many perspectives in life. He came from nothing and you can claim he has nothing monetarily, but then again, you can’t buy success.

Credit: XXXXXX

Credit: Adam Shopkorn

Q: How did Joakim Noah get involved as an executive producer?  It’s obvious he was passionate about this film being made.
Adam: Joakim grew up idolizing Lenny and when Joakim got moved to New York for the first team he played on, Lenny was the star that came to his mind.  He always looked up to Lenny and felt that he represented what New York was, or what he thought New York was.  At that moment in time, New York was the mecca of basketball.  But the one thing Josh, Benny and I talked about is that Joakim told us Lenny never saw the big picture.  He was focused on going up to Rucker and getting sneakers and X number of dollars here and there.   He never saw what benefits he could have reaped if he stayed the course.  I think we’re trying to show Lenny today that his story immortalizing, and putting Lenny’s story on film, he will be around a lot longer than us.  Lenny will talk to kids and he has these real life experiences that can really teach something, especially today.  He went head to head and at one point, was higher ranked than those in the top echelon.  Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Francisco Garcia…. turn on TNT and NBA any night of the week, and there was someone there that Lenny was not only better than.

Q: Is he envious of those players?  Does he find it hard to watch them?

Benny: He’s been humbled.  He has said many times that because he knows how hard they had to work, he has only the utmost respect. He doesn’t want anybody to think he feels they shouldn’t be there.  If he had worked, he would be there.  It’s probably hard but not because of envy.  What hurts most is he could have done it.

Adam: When he watches, you watch the expression on his face.  He’s not a rabid basketball fan.  But it’s only natural to notice that when he does watch it’s the look of “what if.”  He doesn’t have any regrets, but when he’s watching these guys, you can guess it would have to be hard.

Josh: I think he’s very gifted in the sense that 99.9% of the world, America, looks at these sports heroes as gods and Lenny sees them as equals.  That is very interesting.  What makes Lenny’s story unique beyond the fact that this is such a moral tale.  It’s a unique perspective to have.  He sees himself as a peer.  He’s a Greek god who has fallen off.

Q: How do you feel seeing this film will impact the Black community specifically?

Benny: I had a woman who called my number on the Website and asked to see film. She wanted to show her son. He is going to college and has one year left and wanted to enter the draft. She said “I need to show him this film so he knows value of education.”