Lenny Cooke should have been a contender. But instead, this one-time top-ranked pro basketball prospect ended up benched in the game of life, the victim of his own naivete and the predatory tactics of the sports recruitment machine. A penetrating and ultimately heartbreaking inventory of hard lessons learned on and off the court, this first feature docu for New York indie-film poster boys Josh and Benny Safdie may at first seem a sharp departure from the antic comedy-cum-street theater of their previous narrative features (“The Pleasure of Being Robbed” and “Daddy Longlegs”), but is perfectly of a piece with their interest in flawed, painfully human characters swimming upstream. A ready-made special event for sports-minded broadcasters like ESPN and HBO, “Lenny Cooke” should also ride strong critical buzz to wide fest play and small but appreciative theatrical auds.
Docu reps an unusual collaboration between the sibling helmers and producer Adam Shopkorn, who began filming Cooke in the early 2000s (when the Safdies were still in high school), but lost touch with his subject several years later and never made use of his voluminous footage, which includes inimitable glimpses of Cooke — at the time, the No. 1 high-school basketball player in the country — squaring off against such equally prodigal contemporaries as Carmelo Anthony, Lebron James and Amar’e Stoudemire. After a chance meeting with Shopkorn, the Safdies revived the project in 2009 and saw it through to completion.
The Cooke of the film’s early episodes is a towering, boisterous and somewhat arrogant figure, riding high on his own publicity (including an ESPN profile) and living relatively large. In contrast to the subjects of seminal high-school basketball docu “Hoop Dreams” (to which “Lenny Cooke” will inevitably be compared), Cooke doesn’t have to contend with the day-to-day realities of poverty-line life in the ghetto thanks to the “Blind Side”-esque patronage of a white New Jersey woman who offers him a refuge from the mean streets of Bushwick. But as fiercely talented as he is on the court, he can be lazy and immature off it, showing up late for the first day of an elite summer basketball camp and flatly refusing to cop to it.
Then again, Cooke is only 18 at this point, ready to take on the world in some respects but clearly not in others — a quandary that reaches a crisis point when he must decide whether to pursue college or enter himself directly into the NBA draft. The year is 2002, one year after the NBA made headlines by drafting an unprecedented number of players straight out of high school, a controversial practice that has since been ended, but not before catching Cooke up in its wake. But severely lacking in his academic performance and pressured by a huckster manager, Cooke decides to bet it all on an NBA berth. When his name isn’t called on draft day, his seemingly surefire career abruptly hits the skids.
Over the ensuing years, Cooke manages to eke out a living playing ball overseas (he is briefly a star in the Philippines) and in lesser leagues like the USBL — the sorts of games that solicit spectators with promotions like “free ticket upon presentation of your cable bill.” When the Safdies pick up Cooke’s trail, they find a sadder, wiser man, his athletic physique now heavy and slow. Living in rural Virginia with his wife and 11-year-old son (an avowed Lebron fan), he sometimes watches videos of himself in his glory days, reaching into the past like Gatsby toward his blinking green beacon. He talks of sharing his story with young people as a kind of cautionary tale, and in the film’s most poignant moment, the Safdies, through the magic of CGI, allow Cooke to do just that with a particularly impressionable teen: his own younger self.
Despite the stop-and-go production history, the Safdies have created a seamless end product, even as it evolves from the crude analog video of the early scenes to the more polished HD look of later ones. Cooke’s story calls out for the music of longing and melancholy, with nonagenarian jazz legend Yusef Lateef’s plaintive “Like It Is” ably filling the bill.