Don’t put all your hoops into one basket.
Lenny Cooke, at one point in the early-aughts, was considered one of the best, most-sought high school basketball players. He was fast, smart, and incredibly athletic. But the one thing that brought him back was the fact that he didn’t really care much about school. Like, at all. And considering that he grew up in poverty, he didn’t believe that having an education would really amount to much, other than just more annoyances in his daily life. So, rather than spending a year or two at a nice college, getting some form of education, and then heading for the NBA, where he would most likely be a top choice, Cooke decides to just skip college altogether and go straight for the NBA where, he hopes, to be the #1 pick of the NBA. Involved with the same draft were players of names like Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwayne Wade, among many others, meaning that while it didn’t look totally terrible for Lenny, it also didn’t look too bright, either. Fast-forward nearly a decade later and yeah, Lenny’s life is a lot different than he could have ever imagined.
Lenny Cooke is probably one of the best sports documentaries ever made, but only because it doesn’t forget that in sports, just like in everyday life, there is above all else, failure. Most sports documentaries that we see talked about and constantly praised, have to do with the underdogs facing all the odds and winning the grand prize – or if not the grand-prize, at least something close to it. But in Lenny Cooke, the documentary, it’s less about achieving that grand-prize, or even working towards it, and more about just watching a person do whatever he can to avoid it, for no real reason other than, well, life.
And in that sense, Lenny Cooke can be a little frustrating.
Both the person, as well as the documentary. Then again, however, I feel as if that may be the point. After all, Lenny isn’t an easy guy to totally pin-point; he’s young, a little brash, and so incredibly talented, he almost doesn’t know what to do with himself. It’s actually hard to sit there and watch as he possibly squanders his future away, due to decisions that he’s just not fully equipped to make just yet. It almost makes you want to shake his head and tell him what to do, but it also has us grow a lot closer to him, as an athlete and as a person who could have possibly been one of the best.
But why didn’t Lenny become one of the best? There’s a lot of ideas and questions brought up about this, but really, there’s no clear answer. There’s a few – like how Lenny’s friends may have influenced his final decision – but not a whole lot to really nail down and have as the final say. In this sense, once again, the documentary can be a tad bit frustrating, while also making exact sense as to why it is frustrating.
Cause, after all, in life, there are no clear answers, or solutions. Just moments and certain choices that eventually lead to something happening. And such is the tragedy about life.
And a lot of the credit here deserves to go to the Safdie brothers and producer Adam Shopkorn, who gets a huge deal of footage from the early-aughts, when Lenny was the next best thing in basketball. This footage, while remain gritty and in-your-face, also puts us right there with Lenny, watching his life flash before his eyes, allowing us to see his skill, and just exactly who he was off of the court. The movie never tries to paint him as a hero, a saint, or even a terrible kid – mostly, they show that he’s a kid. Insecure and way-in-over-his-head, like all of us when we’re 18 or younger and, essentially, have the world at the base of fingers.
Which is why when the movie does abruptly shift into a final-act where we see Lenny, in present-day, it’s downright shocking. Not only is he bigger, but the life he lives, is pretty depressing. It’s hard to really say why this is, if you haven’t seen it, but what the Safdie’s are able to capture and get in this final-act, without ever passing judgement whatsoever, is a down-and-out tragedy. It shows you that time can pass you by and even the smallest, teeniest, tiniest decision, can affect the rest of your life for good. It doesn’t matter if you’re great at basketball or not, life is unfair and sometimes, it can bite you right back.
You know, general happy feelings that arise with sports.
Consensus: Smart, affecting, and absolutely tragic, Lenny Cooke is one of the rare sports documentaries that views its failure with an unblinking view and never shying away from getting even deeper.
9 / 10