Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Remember Lenny Cook

Before the diamond-crusted title ring, before the Olympic gold medal, before the multi-million dollar shoe contract, before being called The King, LeBron James was just a 16-year old kid out of Akron, Ohio, looking to steal the thunder from the alpha dog of high school basketball.

Back in 2001, Lenny Cooke was the most outstanding player in the annual ABCD Camp. A strong, cocky kid from Brooklyn, Cooke, the camp's MVP the year before, has the skill set way better than other prodigies like James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Amar'e Stoudemire.

Street agents, neighborhood leeches and hoop mafias claim that he was already ripe for the pros – that he was set to become the next Kobe Bryant or Tracy McGrady, camp standouts who made the jump from high school to a stellar NBA career.

He was a fancy basketball player with all the jewelries, a huge entourage, throwing away lavish parties. Reports have it that he already had his own mansion at that time and was already driving a brand-new Mercedes – all at a tender age of 17.

He was The King before The King.

"I was a 13-year-old French kid from Paris, and all of a sudden, I met Lenny and was watching him play in all of these tournaments," Chicago Bulls' Joachim Noah said, recounting the days when he was riding the bench with Cooke as their star player. "He was really my hero because the way he could dominate a game was unbelievable to me."

And on a day like this, in the sweltering Court 2 of Farleigh Dickinson's Rothman Center in Teaneck, New Jersey, Cooke and James finally square off, eager to settle the score on who is better: is it Ohio's Mr. Basketball or the cocky, self-styled Beast from the East who hoped from one high school to another?

"It was like an Old West duel," recruiting guru Tom Konchalski remembered. "It was a young gunslinger coming into town, trying to make his reputation."

Unfortunately for Cooke, that remarkable game turned out to be his laying ground. James destroyed him in all fronts, scoring 24 points, highlighted by a running three-pointer right on his face to lead his team to an 85-83 victory and landing on the scouts' radar en route to becoming the first overall pick of the 2003 NBA Draft – and an NBA champion nine years later.

Cooke, meanwhile, was held to only nine points as James exposed all of his weaknesses with his relentless defense. He walked into the night with a shattered heart, a bruised ego and a remark that he is a lazy, unpolished, one-game wonder who never takes the game seriously.

"That game," former Adidas executive and camp founder Sonny Vacarro said. "That game was one physical moment that symbolized the beginning of LeBron James and the downfall of Lenny Cooke."

"He beat Lenny on his own turf. I mean, you can say it was just one shot, one game, but in a way, Lenny never recovered."

Meanwhile, Cooke passed on college and declared himself eligible for the 2002 NBA Draft. He wasn't selected. Scouts said he was skilled but unpolished, too raw, arrogant and immature. Had he been a 7-footer, maybe – but at 6-foot-6, talents in the 2-3 position were overflowing.
Lenny Cooke in this recent New York Times photo
"Lenny Cooke has all the talents in the world," said Queens basketball consultant Rob Johnson. "But his head wasn't screwed in the right direction, and NBA people knew that."

After he was passed over in the NBA draft, Cooke signed a free-agent contract with the Seattle Supersonics, but was got cut after being hampered by a toe injury and the fact that he was in a terrible shape after failing to see a single minute of organized basketball in 18 months.

All of a sudden, Cooke found himself alone. Scouts stop calling, self-styled hoop evaluators and neighborhood leeches who were expecting a big pay day had he made the pros slowly drifted away. His glow had started to fade.

"I got a little big-headed," Cooke said in a 2003 interview. "In high school, I didn't take the game and academics seriously. I listened to the hype. I believe in the rankings. Now, I know I had to work on my game. I will take it a lot more seriously."

With the hype gone, Cooke brought his wares to the USBL, a second-tier basketball tournament where even the 10th and 12th man on a college team were making it big. He posted a tournament average of 27 points, highlighted by a 47-point, 17-rebound explosion in a 126-120 home victory at Long Island University.

Now, he is ready to give the NBA another try.

The Boston Celtics included him in its pre-tournament roster, but in a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers and a hot rookie named LeBron James, former Celtics coach Jim O'Brien refused to field him. He was devastated. And his old rival, James, was there to rub in everything that went wrong.

Cooke played a season in the PBA, hooking up with Purefoods in the 2003 Reinforced Conference where he averaged a league-leading 37.9 points and 17.1 rebounds. He even shone with 42 points, 26 rebounds, nine assists and four steals in a 92-83 win over Shell as the Hotdogs ended the eliminations on a high note.

But bad luck continues to stalk him.

In the playoffs, Purefoods blew a big lead as Cooke was sidelined due to cramps before yielding a sorry 92-83 loss. Cooke limped off the court with 29 points.

A month later, Purefoods brought him back for the Fiesta Conference. But in his opening game, he went down with an Achilles tendon in the Hotdog's 84-80 win over Coca-Cola. He finished the game with 20 points and 14 rebounds as Dr. George Canlas confirmed that he is already done for the year.

After recovering from the injury and having a brief stint in China, Cooke played for the Long Beach Jam in the ABA until he broke his left sheen and femur in a car accident in Beverly Hills. He was with his teammate, Nick Sheppard, who was behind the wheel, when their car hit a light post. He wasn't wearing a seatbelt.

Fortunate that his left leg doesn't have to be amputated, Cooke returned to the court, back with the old CBA, with the Rockford Lightning. He was overweight and unmotivated. His basketball odyssey had ended.

"I put him with our trainer and thought that if we help him get back in shape, he can still play somewhere," Lightning coach Chris Daleo said. "Lenny was a likable guy, somebody you wanted around. You just wished you could turn back the clock for him. Even when he was out of shape, literally dragging his leg to make a basket, you could see that he had the tools."

"He is still LeBron – only rawer."

Or rather, the anti-LeBron.

"Every time I go to the Internet and somebody is talking about LeBron and Lenny, you know what I'm saying?" Cooke said. "Give my kids something to read, some way to know without me telling that I was there with LeBron, a guy with $100-million contract. It used to bother me when they said, 'Lenny Cooke was supposed to be something and he isn't.' Not anymore. I'm living my life."

Cooked completely gained weight and worked for a food distributorship to make both ends meet. He is now unemployed.

"I wish somebody would just give Lenny a job," Daleo said. "People who benefitted from him in the past should come out and help him with his finances. He has a family to feed."

A decade ago, Cooke was the hottest commodity in high school basketball. Everybody was kissing his hand, calling him as The King. The jewelries. The entourage. The Mercedes. The lavish parties. And the reported mansion. Everything.

Yes, he used to be The King. But now, he is a pauper.

And his ghost will continue to haunt basketball kids who think that they can get away with everything.

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