The 9 films in this year’s Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival featured 5 new titles and 4 selections from ESPN Films’ upcoming series ‘Nine for IX.’ Jane Rosenthal, Katarina Witt, Willie Geist and Libby Geist celebrated the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Nine for IX at the official after-party on Saturday, April 20th. Guests toasted to the film with specialty CIROC Vodka cocktails at The Cabanas at The Maritime Hotel.
One of our favorite films was “Lenny Cooke.” Professional sports are known as a true meritocracy, a field in which the cream really does rise to the top, as there’s simply too much money at stake to operate in any other fashion. In uncommon instances, however, inefficiencies can occur and gifted players may fall through the cracks. Such is the story of Lenny Cooke. In 2001, Cooke was the number-one ranked high school basketball player in America, with future NBA greats LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony listed beneath him. Yet after declaring himself eligible for the 2002 NBA draft, Cooke, shockingly, ended up going undrafted, and became a journeyman playing in little-known leagues across the world. Today he lives in southern Virginia, a should-have-been-great who simply did not quite make it. The first documentary feature from American independent film scene fixtures Josh & Benny Safdie (Daddy Longlegs, The Pleasure of Being Robbed), the film explores the fascinating question of how, exactly, Cooke’s seemingly assured future could go so awry.
Check out our interviews with Lenny and the filmmakers below:
Adam Shopkorn: I was fresh out of University in Boston working for a fellow producer. Didn’t really see much upside at the job I was at. And Harvey Araton, New York Times sports journalist, wrote a piece about high school basketball players making the leap into the NBA. This was around 2000. So, the floodgates were sort of opening and I left the job, hooked up with a couple of sports agents, and found Lenny up at Fordham University in 2001. And 72 hours later, I had cameras on him and I was his documentarian. And, you know, I was running with him while Carmelo was coming up, Chris Bosh, Raymond Felton, Deron Williams, Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler. And I spent the summer watching the 2001 NBA Draft when the first three—from the three of the first four basketball players drafted came out of high school. So, it was Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry. Floodgates open, Lenny…was googly-eyed and everyone thought that it could be done. And then 2002 was a totally different thing. It was all these European kids and all these kids coming from college that played three or four years of basketball. Was it the wrong year? I don’t know. You know, Lenny has a very complicated story, one of which is that basketball came very, very, very easy to him—so easy that I don’t think he really thought he had to work for it, and eventually, like, a lot of people caught up to him and he made some poor decisions. And I’m really hoping—especially me more than anyone, because I’ve been around Lenny for years, you know, and a lot of people have just left them in the dust and I want him to use this as a platform to get out and become a motivational speaker, talk to kids, replace the old white guys, you know, sitting at the camps, talking like young black kids, in the bleachers, and throw on the film.
How did you connect with Directors Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie?
Adam Shopkorn: You know, I knew these guys when I was like 17, 18 and these guys were like 11 and 12. And they sort of watched what I did and we were pals and we used to hang out ’cause we were family friends, stuff like that. And then they grew up and then they took a liking to filmmaking and I knew they were making a lot of films. And they made a film that was at the IFC Center. I took my wife to see it, thought it was great. They were doing their thing. I invited Josh over to see some footage of Lenny Cooke. He fell in love with Lenny so much that he invited his brother, Benny, over to watch the footage. And three months later, they were on the film with me.
What did you guys take away from Lenny’s story?
Josh Safdie & Benny Safdie: That everyone’s life has a purpose, whether you’re being rained on or you’re being sunned on. We’re all Greek gods and we’re just all trying to learn, you know, what our purpose is here on this planet.
And every situation is precious. You gotta treat life for the moment, because Lenny really speaks to that. If you look at where he was at the time he—if he focused on the basketball and he wanted to play it, he could’ve really succeeded. But what you can also take from that is that because…maybe he didn’t really want to play basketball and he didn’t do it—that also is something to look up to, the fact that he knew what he wanted to do. And it’s kind of a conundrum of life that you can look at. You know, it’s a tough situation.
What’s coming up next for you guys after this amazing film?
Josh Safdie & Benny Safdie: We’re doing a film on the Diamond District that’s also tied in with basketball.
Tell us about your documentary?
Lenny Cooke: I just feel like it’s a deep story. Since my career ended, basically because of the way I was brought up as far as my injuries, the ups and downs I went through in basketball, and me not being able to play and coming back and then people saying “You’ll never play again” after my car accident and stuff like that, and I was able to come back and play. It’s just bad decisions that I made. I got a story that need to be told to the next generation that’s coming up as far as student athletes because I want these kids to know that—to use me as an example of how to be more successful in life as an athlete and not make the decisions I made.
How do you see yourself being involved in basketball later in life?
Lenny Cooke: Well, hopefully one day I’ll be coaching at a collegiate level or high school level. I’m certainly trying to get my associate’s degree, because I didn’t go to college, but I have to get that in order to become a coach. And I do a lot of motivational speaking as far as talking to the kids and stuff like that. I want to continue to do that for the rest of my life because I got kids that’s athletes and I don’t want ‘em to make the mistakes I’ve made as well.
So, how do your kids compare? You see a future in the NBA for your kids?
Lenny Cooke: I hope so, one day. My son, he plays and he’s good to be 13 and hopefully he can take it to the next level.
Lenny Cooke: Shooting guard like I did.
How do you feel about your former counterparts like LeBron etc?
Lenny Cooke: I’m proud of ‘em. You know what I’m saying? I’m proud of all them guys that I played with. Carmelo Anthony, Joakim Noah, Raymond Felton—the list goes on as far as the talent that’s playing in the NBA right now, the guys that I played with in high school. And I’m proud of all of them because they work hard for where they at and it paid off. It shows that it pays off when you work hard.
What would you say to them now?
Lenny Cooke: There’s not much that I can say to them because they made it and I didn’t, but I would just let them know that I’m proud of ‘em and I hope that their career continues to go on.