Fifteen years ago, Lenny Cooke was known to everyone in New York who followed AAU basketball, the competitive club circuit scouted by college and NBA coaches. As author and basketball writer Jonathan Abrams recalls, Cooke seemed to be a player of infinite promise.
JA: So, Lenny Cooke was probably about 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7 — pretty big for high school, but, you know, not all that big for the next level. He first attended high school in New York back in the early 2000s and he went on the AAU scene and pretty much dominated the competition. And, in New York city, the spotlight is gonna be brighter than anywhere else.
At that time, I think all the temptations called out to Lenny. He was a guy who was getting home a lot of the time other kids were getting ready to go to school. He would be in rap videos. He would be at clubs. He would drink. And, you know, if you have that available to you, I can't say that I wouldn't have been led that way myself.
I think in a different world, in a different era, under different supervision, Lenny could have been a pretty good NBA player.Jonathan Abrams
"As he got better, some coaches tried to pay him," Abrams says. "And Lenny would go play for the best AAU team, but also the team that would pay him the most, and he almost became like a paid high school assassin."
'You Go Under The Christmas Tree And There's Just Nothing There'
Eventually, perhaps inevitably, Abrams says that Cooke faced a team led by a future phenom: LeBron James.
JA: They met at this camp in Teaneck, New Jersey, and Lenny was supposed to be the best player the king of New York. He was supposed to dominate that camp. LeBron James is a year behind him in school. Nobody really knows LeBron before this camp, and they meet up in this game. And LeBron dominates the game and he ended up scoring the game-winning basket on a pretty miraculous shot over Lenny. And Lenny, to this day, doesn't know how that shot actually went in. But that was almost kind of like the rise of LeBron and the downfall of Lenny because, soon after, Lenny kind of fell off the map.
James jumped from high school to the NBA, pausing briefly to acquire a Hummer and an enormous endorsement contract from Nike. He became a multiple MVP winner, and, in Miami, a two-time NBA Champion. Abrams says Cooke lacked the drive as well as the support of a sneaker company and a high-powered agent.
JA: He didn't get drafted after he had declared out of high school. And I think he described it as, "You think it's gonna be Christmas Day, and you're excited, you're geeked up, and you go under the Christmas tree and there's just nothing there." And from there he kinda just drifted away. He played in a couple of minor basketball leagues out in Los Angeles. I believe he played in the Philippines for a little while, and he ended up rupturing both of his Achilles, and that really limited his game. He got in a car accident and he rehabbed and he eventually came back and played in another minor league, but, by then, he was closed to 300 pounds. I think in a different world, in a different era, under different supervision, Lenny could have been a pretty good NBA player."
An Age Limit Imposed - But To Whose Benefit?
Though James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and lots of other players have succeeded in the NBA without minor league experience at a university, in 2006, the league established a rule that prevents the immediate transition from high school to the NBA. One might assume that rule came to be because of cautionary tales such as the sad story of Cooke. But…
"This rule is not set up with the players in mind," Abrams says. "This rule is made for the league executives. In making their decision, they're about to invest multi-million dollars in these athletes and they want to have a finished product — or as close as they can get to it — coming into the NBA."
By Abrams’s count, players coming out of high school and acquitting themselves at least well enough to hang around in the NBA have outnumbered the busts. But these days, the league is making noises about making high school graduates wait even longer to declare themselves eligible for the draft. Abrams sounds as if he’d like to see the pendulum swing the other way, freeing others to follow LeBron’s route. But he feels players inclined to consider themselves prepared for the NBA must understand the necessary commitment.
JA: You're not trying to get to your first NBA contract. You should be thinking about trying to get to your second or third. And if going to college is going to help you get there, then you should go there for as long as you can. And, if not, going overseas for a year, if that can help you can do that. But I don't think you should immediately try and jump at that first paycheck. You should try to look at it with longevity in mind because, at the end, even if you play 14-15 years in the NBA, that's a very, very, very small slice of your life."
And Cooke? Is he still haunted by what might have been?
JA: Today, Lenny is basically almost in a kind of suspended reality. I think it still hangs over his head where he's trying to get involved with basketball in some capacity, trying to be a high school mentor or a high school coach. He was living down in Virginia. But it's almost like this still hangs over his head, the thoughts of that he once could have been great. And he sees guys like LeBron and Carmelo [Anthony], Joakim Noah — guys who he used to play with and a lot of times dominated — still enjoying their NBA careers. So I think that's tough for him to get over and I think that would be tough for any of us to come to terms with."
Jonathan Abrams is the author of "Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution."
This segment aired on March 26, 2016.