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Lenny Cooke documentary makes an impression on Toronto Raptors players

Cooke was once more hyped than LeBron James, but never played in the league. After a screening in Toronto, several Raptors said there was much to be learned from his story.

Steve Novak, Adam Shopkorn, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry
Steve Novak, Adam Shopkorn, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry

TORONTO -- DeMar DeRozan wants young, aspiring basketball players to see "Lenny Cooke." So do several of his teammates who in a private screening recently saw the documentary, which is airing throughout February on Showtime.

The Toronto Raptors swingman saw the trailer last summer. Then, he and his fiancée reached out to producer Adam Shopkorn, who was enthused about showing the team the story of the seemingly can't-miss prospect who didn't make it.

"The trailer was deep," DeRozan said. "I just understood it, being an athlete, being in situations, going to all the camps. It easily could have been a close friend of mine or even me in that situation. Just something that I could relate to, and I knew all my peers could relate to it, too."

Cooke had skills and hype, ranked No. 1 in his class in 2001. At the time, he was mentioned in the same breath as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire.


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But he didn't work like they did. When the NBA tries to justify its one-and-done rule as protecting young athletes from themselves, Cooke is a convenient case study. He wasn't eligible to play basketball at his high school in his senior year, but decided not to transfer to a prep school where he could have. He accepted $350,000 from an agent and entered the 2002 draft, but his name was never called.

Cooke never checked into an NBA game either, instead playing in various minor leagues and small gyms all over the world. Shopkorn collected footage of Cooke when he was a rising star, shelved the project for years and teamed up with directors Josh and Benny Safdie to revive it after that star had fallen.

After some correspondence between Shopkorn and the Raptors, the documentary filmmaker flew to Toronto. In the team's locker room, John Salmons, who was selected No. 26 in the same 2002 draft, told Shopkorn that he ended up at dinner with Cooke in New York around draft time. Shopkorn joked with Steve Novak about all the footage he had of Novak as a high schooler with Cooke at the Roundball Classic in Chicago in 2002 and at the ABCD Camp in Hackensack, N.J., the year prior. When these guys watched a young, overconfident Cooke, knowing the future that was in front of him, it resonated. They also shared laughs when Novak basked in the glow of his appearance in the background.

At that ABCD camp, Cooke famously challenged Kobe Bryant to play one-one-one, with Bryant fresh off the second of his five NBA championships.

"The main thing I want to tell you guys is don't put all your eggs in one basket," Bryant told Cooke and company at the 2001 ABCD camp. "You have to make sure you balance your life out, you have something there for yourself in life, you get your education right, and on the basketball court just rip hearts out."

Cooke failed to follow the superstar's advice. By his own admission, he didn't have the drive to make good on his immense talent and didn't have an education to fall back on. The film illustrates all sorts of lessons learned the hard way. It had the Raptors reminiscing.

"I remember Lenny and I remember him talking trash to Kobe and all that stuff," Novak said. "That was his persona ... this guy who was up-and-coming and who was supposed to be one of the next greats in the NBA, and he kind of had a mouth on him."

Amir Johnson was the last NBA player drafted out of high school before the current age limit came into effect. Selected No. 56 in 2005, he would take a couple of years to find his footing in the league, but by that point his situation was already decidedly different than Cooke's. Johnson credited his family and coaches for steering him in the right direction back then and said Cooke is an example of how you need to listen to the right people.

"As a young kid never having nothing, you get all types of stuff thrown at you"-Amir Johnson

"As a young kid never having nothing, you get all types of stuff thrown at you," Johnson said. "He was better than LeBron and Melo, you know? He was top of his class … I'm pretty sure he took everything."

There's a moment in the movie where Cooke is scolded by a coach for not showing up for 8 a.m. stretches. The coach tells Cooke he's going to have to run suicides at 6:30 a.m. the next time, and he responds incredulously. If he can't get there by 8 a.m., Cooke says, why would the coach expect him to arrive by 6:30?

At this point, the Raptors were shaking their heads. The signs were there, clear as can be.

While Novak was Wisconsin's Mr. Basketball and found himself in some of the same places as Cooke, their approaches to the sport couldn't have been more different. Novak's father was his high school coach, and he had a court in his backyard plus a key to the gym.

"It was like I had my meals on a gym floor when I was an infant," Novak said. "He kind of pushed the game away, whereas I was finding ways to carpool with people to go to tournaments or play on different teams in other cities and states."

After the credits rolled, Shopkorn took questions, telling the players how he connected with Cooke originally, how much harder it was to reconnect in 2009 and what Cooke is up to now. Shopkorn told them how Maverick Carter, LeBron James' distant cousin and well-known business manager, had told him all those summers ago, "Forget Lenny Cooke, come down and do a documentary on my cousin," and how, for a while, he kicked himself for not doing so. He then told them he's happy he wound up telling Cooke's story.

Kyle Lowry told Shopkorn that everyone in the league grew up with someone who never managed to capitalize on his potential, and Novak told him how blessed he feels to be an eight-year vet. To Novak, the most striking scene was when Cooke, far removed from those ABCD camp days, following stints in the minor leagues and the Philippines, was sitting on his couch. James, the planet's premier player and one-time main competitor of Cooke's, was on the screen.

"I don't think that he necessarily chose not to love the game. Some of those things are just in you."-Steve Novak on Lenny Cooke

"You can literally snap back a few minutes in the film and he was LeBron at a certain age," Novak said. "More than anything, the personal side, you really feel for him. And you realize just like I didn't really choose necessarily to love the game, I don't think that he necessarily chose not to love the game. Some of those things are just in you."

DeRozan talked to ex-teammate Jarrett Jack after the screening, informing the Cavaliers guard that he can be seen in it. Jack told DeRozan that he remembered Cooke being lazy, not wanting to do drills. After it aired on Showtime, DeRozan received a text from Jack saying it was a hell of a movie. Other NBA'ers tweeted about it.

But while the pros connect to the film through their particular experiences, the most important audience for "Lenny Cooke" is the ballers still chasing their hoop dreams.

"Every single one of them sitting in there beat the odds," Shopkorn said. "As much as I love doing screenings for the NBA, I'll take all day doing a screening for 500 at-risk 14-year-old youth kids."

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