Think it’s hard being LeBron James right now? Try being Lenny Cooke, 29, one of the most-hyped high school basketball players in history. However, Cooke never played a minute of college or NBA basketball. We look at what went wrong and where he is now.
In fairness, Lenny Cooke probably never could have lived up to the hype surrounding him from his days growing up in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, NY.
He started out at Franklin K. Lane High School in his home borough, where his legend was born. He was named Freshman of the Year but eventually flunked out of school and moved on to LaSalle Academy in Manhattan.
There, he furthered his star turn leading LaSalle into the city playoffs. He averaged 25.0 points and 10.0 rebounds in his junior year and was hailed as the next great New York City star.
Cooke was already the MVP of the famed ABCD Camp in 2000. He was widely believed to be the best high school player in the Class of 2002 ahead of the likes of guys named Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire. After all, Cooke was a 6-foot-6 man-child like James who also wore No. 23.
That’s when the Cooke and the future King finally came face-to-face at the 2001 ABCD Camp, where Cooke was the star attraction and James was a rising junior that Cooke said he’d never heard of.
“It was like an Old West duel,” recruiting guru Tom Konchalski told the New York Daily News. “It was a young gunslinger coming into town, trying to make his reputation.”
Unfortunately for Cooke, he was dominated by James, who scored 25 points, including a running 3-pointer at the buzzer that gave his team an 85-83 victory. Cooke finished with nine points and was hounded by James on defense.
That game catapulted James into the stratosphere and was the start of Cooke’s descent.
He eventually moved to a suburban New Jersey town when his parents left for Virginia. He transferred to Northern Valley Regional High in Demarest, NJ, and then Northern Valley Regional High School in Old Tappan. Cooke averaged 31.5 points in the first eight games of his senior season but inadvertently used up all of his high school eligibility.
In a bizarre move, Cooke then moved to Flint, MI, to attend Mott Adult School and prepare for the draft despite still being wildly recruited by colleges. St. John’s fans dreamed of him becoming the latest New York City phenom to land in Queens following in the foot steps of Felipe Lopez, Ron Artest and Omar Cook. Then-North Carolina coach Matt Doherty talked to Cooke about joining the Tar Heels’ heralded 2002 freshman class that included Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Sean May.
Cooke still felt he was talented enough to jump straight to the NBA and declared for the 2002 NBA draft. Injuring his right big toe during a pre-draft camp, Cooke went unselected while Stoudemire was selected ninth overall and Anthony was picked third overall in the 2003 draft.
The slick Brooklyn kid that packed gym bleachers and outdoor parks alike took terrible advice and would pay for it.
“Lenny Cooke has all the talent in the world,” Queens basketball consultant Rob Johnson told the Daily News. “But his head wasn’t screwed on right, and NBA people knew that.”
As a result, Cooke’s pro career never got off the ground.
He started out playing for the USBL’s Brooklyn franchise and plied his trade in minor-league outposts that at one time seemed too small for his large talent. Cooke averaged 28.8 points in 15 USBL games. He then moved all the way across the world to play in the Philippines.
Then Cooke was in a horrific car wreck in 2003 that required a pin to be inserted to his leg.
When he returned to the court with China’s Shanghai Sharks, Cooke averaged just 16.7 PPG. He then bounced around the CBA and ABA before tearing his Achilles tendon on New Year’s Eve 2006. Still just 24, the injury forced Cooke to sit out for a prolonged period and put on weight; he never played pro basketball again.
So what is Cooke up to now?
Currently, the 29-year old – a father of three – is trying to help kids avoid the mistakes he made. He recently spoke to a group of 100 in Atlantic City, where he was born, and told them that his biggest mistake was spurning college scholarship offers.
“If I could do it over again, I would have gone to college,” Cooke told the Press of Atlantic City. “My advice to all the kids now would be to go to college for at least a year. In the real world, they will need something to fall back on.
“I had one kid say to me, ‘If I go to college, I’m going there just to play ball and get to the NBA. So I might as well just make the jump now.’ I told him, ‘You don’t know what you will experience in college.’”
Too bad there was no one around to tell Cooke that advice nearly a decade ago.