It's a story about failure. A story about an entourage of advisers with mixed motivation and questionable character, shaping the path of a would-be superstar. Agents, coaches, parents, and benefactors, all with their own agenda, orbiting around a would-be superstar who has no idea who to trust.
It's a story of a teenager tracing an uncertain path and taking the wrong turns. It's the story of Lenny Cooke in 2002, and an epilogue ran in the New York Times on March 3, 10 years later.
It's a fantastic, occasionally heartbreaking read about a player and person who's had to come to terms with the mistakes as a 19-year-old that kept him from becoming the superstar everyone assumed he'd be just a few years later. He was one of the three or four top-ranked players in America at 18 years old, when he faced off in one of the most hyped summer matchups in years. I still remember reading message board clippings about the showdown-to-be at ABCD Camp. It was Lenny Cooke, the superstar from Brooklyn, and LeBron James, this apparently superhuman 16-year-old from Akron.
LeBron got the better of him that day, and from then on, their lives have gone in opposite directions. Cooke had graduated high school at that point, and as he ignored certain advisers and trusted others, he never enrolled in any post-grad courses. He didn't play organized basketball the following winter, never qualified for college, and entered the NBA Draft. But where Amar'e Stoudemire, a player in his class who'd played at six different high schools, was drafted in the top 10, Lenny Cooke, the player who'd been too arrogant to enroll in a final year of high school, went undrafted.
He was an out-of-shape character risk with entourage before he'd even entered the NBA. Sad as it seems 10 years later, it's not hard to see where scouts were coming from. Now, as he approaches 30 years old, Cooke looks back at his showdown with LeBron, sees where the 16-year-old from Akron is now, and he shakes his head at all the criticism King James faces today.
“I mean, look at where he is, how much money he makes and where he came from,” he says. “From where I’m sitting, I wish the only thing they could say about me was that I have no championship ring.” It's the sort of heartbreaking dichotomy that's all too common in basketball.
Worse than the Allen Iversons that eventually lose it all are the ones who go all-in on the dream and never even get to sit at the table. And it happens all the time. There are a lot more teenagers who expect basketball to make them millionaires then there are millionaires who made their money playing basketball. This is context for the other New York Times story that emerged this past week.
Nerlens Noel is the son of Haitian parents who emigrated to the Boston area in 1990. He's the brother of two star athletes who now play college football at Boston College and North Carolina State. Unlike his brothers, Nerlens is almost 7 feet tall, and he plays basketball.
I'm less of a recruiting nerd than I was back when I was reading message boards about ABCD camp showdowns, so when I heard there was a big profile on Noel this weekend, I couldn't wait to check it out. But then ... the whole thing was written before it was even written, ya know?
It's Lenny Cooke's story transposed onto a 17-year-old who, most notably, is not Lenny Cooke. "Everybody Wants A Piece Of Nerlens Noel" was a feature in Sunday's New York Times, it was written by Pete Thamel, the Times' college sports reporter, and it quickly made the rounds among reporters to much fanfare. All because this is what people want to believe about basketball recruiting.
One called the piece, "A fascinating window into big time college basketball," while Sports Illustrated's Peter King called it, "A great job on the sad, bizarro world of recruiting." But the "window" into the world of big-time basketball is actually more just a hamfisted indictment therein.
We meet an ex-assistant coach, a high school administrator at the school Noel transferred from, the coach at his current high school, and a low-level agent who lives in Boston but has nothing to do with Nerlens Noel. That last character's a good indication of what this story's really about. Under the heading, "The Unmistakable Influence Of Agents" we get a section that peaks with this exchange, between an old teacher of Noel and an agent.
For George Wright-Easy, an unassigned teacher at Everett High School, he saw the interest of agents in Noel up close more than a year ago while at a trendy Boston nightclub called Rumor. A mutual friend introduced Wright-Easy to Ty Sullivan, a low-level agent for Creative Artists Agency, which represents star athletes and actors like Will Smith.
Sullivan eventually said, “Your guy is going to be the truth.”
A confused Wright-Easy asked, “Who?” When Sullivan said, “Nerlens,” Wright-Easy responded indignantly, “Man, he’s like 15 years old.”
Of course, Thamel doesn't stop there.
He takes thing a step further and wonders aloud on our behalf:
...he is probably one of many agents and their associates who are trying to become involved with Noel’s recruitment. ... Whether Sullivan or C.A.A., which also represents Kentucky Coach John Calipari, will become a significant factor in Noel’s agent recruitment is not known.
"Will the agent with no ties to this player somehow steer him to Kentucky? WHO CAN SAY."
It's the sort of circumstantial, connect-the-dots McCarthyism that can stain a reputation. Not of the New York Times reporter passing this off as reporting -- he did a "great job" on the "sad, bizarro world" -- but of the 17-year-old kid who's apparently never spoken to the agent.
The meat of this story has nothing to do with Nerlens Noel, actually. Beyond the agent's section, it all centers on the man that's supposedly advising Noel and his family, a former Providence assistant named Chris Driscoll. Over the years, Driscoll's been accused of Machiavellian schemes at Providence, he's been barred from Noel's high school campus, and at least one former player accused him of soliciting money in exchange for a commitment. Even if it's all true, it's not surprising.
There are characters like this all over grassroots basketball, and it's ugly. The Times' mistake is painting all this in the black-and-white naivete of newspaper writers from the 1940s.
Not every would-be superstar has Sandra Bullock to guide him through high school and college on the way to the top, but that doesn't mean the alternatives are all working against him. It's a predatory world, but it's more complicated than a bunch of sharks feasting on the future of young stars. You can have hustlers and shucksters with mixed motives who still help kids reach their potential. That reality goes completely ignored in the Times, though.
The former player who regrets his time with Driscoll gets another big, bold section in the Times to talk about his former adviser's questionable motives, but the counterpoint gets only a paragraph:
Pernell McDaniel, whose son, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, went to Tilton with the help of Driscoll and is now a junior forward for Hofstra, called Driscoll “the best thing that happened to us.” Alex Oriakhi Sr., whose son, Alex, also went to Tilton and is a Connecticut junior, said his son called Driscoll their “white family member.”
On its own, all this would just be a one-sided portrayal from a reporter who was denied access to the player he was supposed to be profiling. But the audacity of Thamel and the Times doesn't really shine until the end, when we finally shift back to the main character. That's when a coach who's apparently lost Noel's ear laments, "In my opinion, he’s given up this year because of bad advice." This is where Nerlens Noel becomes the sequel to Lenny Cooke before he's even turned 18:
For some who have watched him for a long time, Noel’s game seems to have stagnated, perhaps an outward sign of how the atmosphere surrounding his recruitment has affected him.
“The risk to him is that through poor choices on his part or his family’s part,” Clements said, “he would jeopardize the potential to participate in a college program with integrity and that would be of concern were that to be the case.”
That's the entire thesis here -- that these unsavory advisers are in the process of ruining Nerlens Noel's career. And the worst part is that people actually believe all this. As another Times reporter said in a blog post, "Chances are, it’s not going to turn out well for Nerlens Noel, the subject of Pete Thamel’s powerful and brilliantly reported article in Sunday’s Times." I could've sworn he was visiting Georgetown this weekend and he'll be at North Carolina next week, but perhaps that reporting wasn't as brilliant.
The profile is all shaded with ominous tones that make failure seem likely. But if it's choices we're talking about ... how can we break out the pom poms for Andrew Luck when he works toward graduating as a redshirt junior, but when Nerlens Noel tries to do it, we paint it like a mistake?
Noel, who was originally expected to graduate from high school next year, announced last month that he would attempt to graduate this spring. If he does not qualify academically for college, he could spend a year playing professionally in Europe.
For the record, Andrew Luck came from a family that was well-off his entire life, with a father who played professional football and could advise him every step of the way. Nerlens Noel grew up as the son of a father who drives a cab and a mother who pulls double shifts cleaning hospitals. His mom needs a translator in recruiting meetings. But absent parents who understand the process, we're supposed to be skeptical because he's trusted an AAU assistant coach with a controversial history.
We're supposed to ignore the fact that he's on track to graduate high school a year earlier than expected, and after jumping into the class of 2012 at the last minute, he's already the No. 1 recruit. In this narrative, Noel's supposed to be a tragic figure already. Ignore that he's currently choosing from the best basketball programs in the country, and definitely ignore the scout who watched him during this "lost" season and reported the following:
It's been a year since the last (and first) time we evaluated Nerlens Noel ... but our overall impression hasn't changed much. Now standing close to 7 feet tall, with a frame that continues to mature, a long wingspan, and tremendous athleticism, Noel looks every bit the part of a top notch big man prospect.
One of the best finishers in high school basketball thanks to his incredible combination of length and explosiveness, Noel is a phenomenal target around the basket. His ball-handling skills seem to be coming around as well, as he showed the ability to create his own shot from the perimeter or in transition with a quick first step and unbelievably long strides which big men at this level simply cannot stay in front of.
He needs to continue to add strength to his frame, improve his feel for the game, and polish up his skill-level, but considering he's only 17 years old, time is on his side.
He may not make it, of course. For every Kevin Garnett, there's a Korleone Young. For every Tyson Chandler, there's a DeAngelo Collins. And yes, for every LeBron, there's a Lenny Cooke.
Even among those who do make it ... there's Derrick Rose, the kid from the Southside of Chicago that grows up to dominate for the Bulls and gets a $200 million shoe contract, but there's also Stephon Marbury, the Coney Island kid who flames out with the Knicks and ends up hawking shoes in China. It's an uncertain path for anyone. But it's not the strange, sometimes inexplicable riddle of success we're supposed to be talking about after this weekend's New York Times profile.
It's the "sad, bizarro world" of basketball recruiting, of course. Filled with all this exploitation and these desperate parasites tainting the integrity of good kids, using them to build reputations of their own. You might wonder: where does the New York Times fit in?