You Can Buy Them Cheap
“I did love the game, but it was a while ago. When I first started playing, no. Then once I started seeing that I could potentially go pro, then I was like, shit, I might be in love. But I didn’t take the game serious.”
“I see it as she’s seen something inside of me. She’s seen that I could go places. And I couldn’t even dribble a basketball when I met her.” Lenny Cooke is grateful to Debbie Bortner, a white lady, the mother of a high school teammate, who took him into her home when he was a kid, who encouraged him to work hard and believe in himself. And, for much of the documentary, Lenny Cooke, you see what Bortner might have seen, a likeable, awkward, big-dreaming kid who finds a means of self-expression on the basketball court.
This self-expression is thrilling. In his high school games and practices, Lenny Cooke shows dexterity and vision, the sort of brilliance that makes fans and players alike delight in the present and also imagine a starry future, the sort that makes agents and team executives see dollar signs. In the film, this other part of Lenny Cooke’s story, what happens off the court, is only partly visible, but it is narrated, reconsidered, and worried over by teammates and friends, by Bortner and Lenny’s mother Alfreda Hendrix, and by Lenny, too.
This story is directed by the brothers Ben and Joshua Safdie, who came on to the project around 2009, after Adam Shopkorn (this film’s producer) started filming this charismatic kid from Brooklyn starting in 2000. Shopkorn had in mind a long-term project, along the lines of Hoop Dreams, only with a central subject who does make it, who gets to the NBA. And indeed, his footage shows all kind of promise, along with some hints of trouble. At La Salle Academy in the Lower East Side of Manhattan (1999-2000) and Northern Valley Regional High School in Old Tappan, New Jersey (2000-2002), his numbers were remarkable; he was ranked number one in the nation, above his peers at other schools, kids like Amar’e Stodemire, Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron James.
It’s this last comparison that haunts the film, in large part because Shopkorn—at the time filming Lenny every chance he had—is on hand at the 2001 ABCD camp, where Lenny’s playing against LeBron. Shopkorn’s footage of Lenny’s killer crossover and then, LeBron’s answer in the second half of the game, a game-winning shot that leaves Lenny shaking his head in disbelief. The film assembles this moment in a series a images that seem to capture Lenny’s entire life trajectory, from dazzling greatness to utter loss, all reduced to a minute or so of game play.
But what you don’t see here, what’s “inside” Lenny, is the film’s focus. This story is conveyed in part by Lenny’s interviews, in part by observational footage, for instance, his six-foot-six figure draped over a chair and ottoman as he watches TV, his face falling as he realized he’s not going to be drafted in 2002, his press conference at a Brooklyn Junior’s Fabulous Cheesecake restaurant with his young son in his lap, marking his decision to leave Debbie Bornter and to sign with an agent from Immortal Sports. “I always call them Immoral Sports,” Debbie says during an interview that might best be described as painful, her face in close profile, still visibly angry all these years later, “Because, you know, who goes and steals a child from a home and leads him down the primrose path to destruction?”
This path might be linked to the instantly legendary ABCD camp encounter with LeBron, but Lenny’s non-career has many facets, including his immaturity, his and others’ expectations, and the perception by recruiters—based on stories they heard and perhaps witnessed—that he was not dedicated, that he liked to party, that he lacked focus. The film suggests as much in a couple of scenes, Lenny being reprimanded for arriving late to practice, Lenny signing autographs, Lenny riding in the back of a car one night with a girl in his lap, a girl who asks vaguely, “You play basketball, right?”
You don’t need to see much more than this to know what happens to Lenny Cooke. And it’s clear enough that even if his turns into a cautionary tale, his is also the story shared by many more kids than LeBron’s. While you’re not seeing Lenny, you are hearing from observers, including Sonny Vacarro, erstwhile sports marketing executive for Nike and founder of the ABCD camp, who observes of the Lenny-LeBron matchup, “Everything was scripted for LeBron that day… some shots go in, some shots don’t go in.” Mike Jarvis, the coach at St. Johns, has another view of the game and the industry of basketball, less philosophical. “I don’t think they’re evaluated and drafted because they’re ready,” he says of the 2006 shift in policy that has teams drafting high school players.
I think they’re evaluated and drafted because of their potential, you know, someday they’ll be ready and also they’re cheap. You can buy them because in its own way, it’s not a whole lot different than slavery you buy the best-looking person. In this case, you’re buying a lot of young people cheap. If they make it, fine. If they don’t, you go out and find somebody else.
There have been many “somebody elses” since Lenny Cooke was not drafted in 2002, since he played a year abroad, since he suffered injuries and since he’s settled into another sort of routine. You see part of this in a scene shot by the Safdies, where Lenny is transformed physically and considerably more self-reflective. As he reveals his current occupation, as a cook, for the New York Times’ Harvey Araton. whose terrific 2012 article, “Star-to-Be Who Never Was,” quotes from what you see and hear here: “Like on Christmas Day” Lenny says of draft day, “you think you’re getting this toy, and then Christmas comes, it’s not under the tree. It breaks you down emotionally. I broke down, realized I got bad advice. But you wonder, why not? Why didn’t my name get called?”
As much as Lenny ponders what might have gone wrong for him, his lack of commitment to the game, to a career, to his own gifts, the film suggests not just what might have been, but also, how these moments, these possibilities, might intersect, for Lenny and for those of us contemplating his story. His fiancée Anita Solomon—driving, her face set ahead as she speaks—notes, he’s not settled. “I think at this present time. He’s starting to let it go a little bit, but he very much lives in the past. I know it feels like yesterday to him.” The film suggests this collapse of time for Lenny in a justly already-famous scene that splices together images of Lenny now and Lenny then, Lenny instructing on the value of hard work, and Lenny looking uninterested and distracted. As you see these two Lennys, you still can’t see inside either.