Rediscovering A High School Basketball Legend Who Never Made It To The NBA

The co-director of the new documentary Lenny Cooke, about a high school basketball phenom who fell short of the NBA, writes about the long process of finding his subject and making the film.

Benny Safdie co-directed, with his brother Josh, the documentary Lenny Cooke, which explores at the life of the former high school basketball phenom. In 2001 , Cooke was ranked as a more promising prospect than LeBron James. Cooke, for several reasons, did not make it in the NBA; with a mix of old footage from Cooke’s HS days taken by a fan named Adam Shopkorn, and new footage taken in the last few years, the documentary traces his rise, fall, and new, more humble life at 30 years of age. It opens in select theaters on Friday.

We always talk about seeing into the future, but what made this film special was my ability to see the past. The past is unchanging, and as humans we fictionalize it with memory. In the case of Lenny Cooke, the legend grew with each passing year. The less people heard about him after he stopped playing, the more they wanted to know. With Adam’s collection of footage from the heyday of future superstars, I had the ability to unpack the legend that was Lenny Cooke.

My brother Josh and I wanted to know what made him tick, what were his motivations and what were his faults. All of this meant pouring over 50 hours of archive footage that Adam had amassed over ten years ago.

There were small moments and large ones in the old footage, but the one thing that became frozen in my mind was the presence of the great Lenny Cooke. When he entered the room everyone wanted to say hello. When he called you over, you had to run to make sure you got a good seat. He even had the nerve to challenge Kobe Bryant to a game of one-on-one basketball!

After a year of living with this footage and pouring over every shot and detail, the past started to play tricks on me. I started to feel as if the past was the present. There was no way Lenny could be that different.

After many attempts, Adam finally reconnected with Lenny. He and Josh were about to meet up with him and bring me back the footage of their meeting. Not only was I going to step into the present and have to deal with an open-ended flow of life, but I was going to see the real Lenny. I was going to have to give up on the past images and make sense out of the transition of time.

Needless to say, I was shocked. The tape starts with Adam introducing himself to Lenny, under the mistaken impression that Lenny is his cousin. Lenny corrects him and laughs it off, but the sheer difference physically meant time can do strange things, not only to the body but also to the mind.

Lenny didn’t want to let us back in. He tried to play up his legend by renting cars and limousines, but Josh never stopped filming so we always saw the beginning or end of Lenny’s story. It took about six months of following Lenny for him to get comfortable with having us around. It took even longer for him to be real with us. We didn’t want anything phony. We weren’t making the comeback story, we were making the human story and that meant Lenny had to bare it all for us. What we wanted to do was explore and not exploit.

One day Josh turned off the camera and told Lenny straight, “Do you want this film be successful? I’m talking about true success, an intellectual one, an earnest one; successful on its own terms.” Lenny nodded and Josh added, “Then we need you start being completely honest with us, because it’s not going to be a success if you’re going to be holding anything back, we need to see you as a whole.”

Lenny got it and he let it go. The camera turned back on and what I saw was Lenny relaxing on the couch telling us he had no regrets. He told us about the agents, he showed us his true self. It was beautiful. Lenny let us see everything. He let us see him cry and he let us see him laugh.

By him opening up, he allowed us to finally unpack the myth. He also allowed me to see the importance of seeing into the past with clarity and truth while being open to the changes of time and seeing the present.

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