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Catching up with Lenny Cooke, the former can’t-miss kid

Mar 6, 2012, 6:07 PM EDT

Lenny Cooke

So many things can happen to high-school phenoms. Kobe Bryant is a five-time NBA champion. LeBron James is a two-time MVP. Dwight Howard is the best center in basketball. Sebastian Telfair is a mediocre backup point guard who has bounced around the league. Jeremy Tyler is currently trying to pay his dues in the D-League. Greg Oden‘s injuries may keep him from ever playing again.

Then there’s the sad, sad tale of Lenny Cooke, the can’t-miss kid whose rise and fall was chronicled in a very long and very good profile by the New York Times’ Harvey Araton today. Cooke, who was a hyper-athletic 6-6 swingman who could score at will and seemingly do anything on the court, considered himself a superstar long before he received his high school diploma. As a high school student at ABCD camp, he challenged Kobe Bryant to a game of one-on-one, confident he’d win. In high school, he often neglected to go to class, because he was sure he’d go straight to the NBA and achieve instant stardom. In a Sportscenter piece done on Cook a year or two after he declared for the draft out of high school, only to go undrafted, he confidently declared that he knew he was better than LeBron James, who was in the class behind him.

Araton’s piece includes a recap of Cook and James’ showdown at ABCD camp over a decade ago, which many consider a turning point in Cook’s career and life:

It was the summer of 2001, weeks before 9/11, and Cooke returned to the popular ABCD Camp for the nation’s most prominent high school players at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Teaneck, N.J., campus as the defending most valuable player, the presumed chosen one…

…[Carmelo] Anthony’s team was defeated by Cooke’s group. Cooke dazzled the packed gym and set up a showdown between him and a lesser-known player who was generating interest and who was one grade behind Cooke. His name was LeBron James, out of Akron, Ohio, a comparative basketball backwater…

Sitting in the stands with Debbie Bortner that day, Joakim Noah says he remembers Cooke’s climactic moment — crossing over James on the dribble several times before draining a midrange jumper. The gym erupted, but it was only the first half of a game that would go down to the last possession, a much leaner James with the ball and his team trailing by 2.

James had already outscored Cooke, 21-9, but he saved his best for last. Guarded by Cooke, he dribbled out of the backcourt, to his right. Just as he approached the 3-point line, with a step on Cooke, James went airborne, kicked his feet back and floated the ball toward the rim. He hit nothing but net — game over — while Cooke’s jaw dropped.

“How’d he make that?” he said to a friend afterward, mixing in profanity. “Oh my God.”

After that game, Cooke went undrafted (he expected to go in the late first round or early 2nd round), didn’t do well in the D-League in part because of his sense of entitlement, and spent time bouncing around lower-level professional leagues in the US, abroad, and one stint in the Vegas Summer League before a car accident destroyed Cooke’s athletic career and made him a permanent cautionary tale about the dangers of leaving school early in order to chase the fame and fortune that high-school prospects get promised to them. The entire article is too lengthy, far-reaching, and deep to be properly summarized here, so I encourage you to click the link and read the full story of Cooke’s sad fall from grace.

  1. edmazeing1 - Mar 6, 2012 at 6:30 PM

    the short story, was some Good reading (PBT), I never heard of that man b4 this!!!

  2. ppc50 - Mar 6, 2012 at 6:55 PM

    Oden played for Ohio State, not straight out of HS

    • burnsy - Mar 7, 2012 at 8:52 AM

      Doesn’t mean he couldn’t be a high school phenom, which he was.

  3. donfelder440 - Mar 6, 2012 at 7:23 PM

    The most remarkable part about this story is not the typical youth prodigy’s fall from grace; rather, it is the fact that it features LeBron actually sinking a clutch shot (at least presumably, from the way the story is written).

  4. denisceo - Mar 6, 2012 at 10:54 PM

    Very interesting read on Lenny Cooke. It was posted up by former NBA player and villanova great John Celestand. It was a very interesting story.. I Always wanted to know, what ever happened to the player who was ranked number 1 for about 2 years straight from NJ who never made it to the NBA.

    This article was very informative and I think every player who has dreams of playing in the NBA should atleast read this article.

    Lenny Cooke still reminisces about the times when, he was the most dominat player in his age group and was in a class with Amare Stodimere and was positive he would make it to the NBA. Having hoop dreams is one thing, but without the work ethic and dedication.. You will just be known as a great street ball player. And that is where the legend of Lenny Cooke end. He is still troubled by the fact, Lebron hit that last second jump shot over him in the ABC camp. And Lebron is freighten by the fact, he can not handle another moment like that.

  5. losangelasbasketball - Mar 7, 2012 at 12:00 AM

    Victim of neglectful or careless parents…. Entitlement complexes come from upbringing….

  6. rexismybff - Mar 7, 2012 at 1:09 AM

    He shouldn’t be complaining. Doesn’t look like he’s missed many trips through the buffet line — or trips to the tattoo parlor for that matter. I mean, those are the things that are really important in life anyway. Not money or fame.

  7. franbotel - Mar 7, 2012 at 2:31 AM

    It takes more than talent to make it in the nba.

  8. cuffhimbanano - Mar 7, 2012 at 8:06 AM

    Funny, that’s the first I ever heard of Lenny Cooke. I’d heard plenty about LeBron before ABCDEFGHIJ camp.
    Undrated too?
    Another instance of over inflating a legend that never was.

  9. 700levelvet - Mar 7, 2012 at 9:01 AM

    Uncle Rico…..More or less

  10. circuscivics - Mar 7, 2012 at 9:22 AM

    I know Lenny. He went to school in So Jersey for awhile before his move to NY. I actually ran into him last year at a friend’s function. Besides what you might have read or heard, he is a good guy. I really wanted him to be successful. I don’t know for a fact, but from what I could gather, he just didn’t have that support system with people in it to tell him “no” at crucial moments. A few less yes men and hanger-ons, and this story could have had a different ending.

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