By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Lenny Cooke, a New York City basketball legend who was ranked the No. 1 high school player in America in 2000 ahead of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, accepted a $350,000 jackpot from a sports agent and had the time of his life.
But life in the fast lane quickly disappeared as he went from top basketball prospect tantalizingly close to NBA millions to a hardcourt outsider struggling to make a living.
His story is chronicled in "Lenny Cooke," the debut feature documentary by brothers Josh and Benny Safdie ("The Black Balloon") that opened in selected U.S. theaters this month.
The life lessons of the film, a cautionary tale of squandered talent, have resonated for many years with its executive producer Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls.
"Lenny's story was a story I got to see firsthand from the bench," Noah, an NBA All-Star, told Reuters after a recent Bulls game at Madison Square Garden in New York.
"I was a little bit younger than him. We had just moved to New York from Paris, France, and that (Amateur Athletic Union) team in New York and I learned a lot from him."
Noah, the son of grand slam tennis champion Yannick Noah, said although it is a sad story, he is proud of Cooke, a gifted player who motivated him to demand more from himself.
"It's easy to talk about your successes in front of people but to talk about your hardships, your failures and to talk about what you could've done better takes a real man," he said.
The film follows Cooke, 31, from his schoolboy heyday 13 years ago to his modest home in southern Virginia, where he is still coming to terms with his life.
Cooke took a wrong turn at age 19 when he could not compete for his high school team because of an age limitation. Although he was advised to finish his studies so he would be eligible to play in college, he instead took the payday to sign with a sports agent.
"I had $350,000 in cold cash. It was a jackpot for me," the 6-foot-6, one-time flashy guard said in an interview. "I did a lot of things I'd never done or probably will get to do. I traveled, I bought anything I wanted. I had a lot of women, vehicles, jewelry, everything."
The next year he declared himself eligible for the 2002 NBA Draft and waited to be picked but his name was never called.
"Maybe they didn't want to take a chance on a kid they thought was unstable or was a head case or immature," Cooke said. "Maybe they saw me as out of control. I did everything that I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it."
Because he had taken the money from the agent, Cooke had lost his amateur status and could not play college ball. So he played in the NBA developmental D-League, overseas and in other lesser U.S. professional leagues and on NBA summer-camp teams but never made it to the big time.
After a game on a rainy night, his teammate drove into a street lamp, seriously hurting his passenger, Cooke, who fell into a coma and nearly had his left leg amputated.
He returned to the game, twice tore his Achilles heel and finally quit, overweight and out of shape.
The film combines early footage shot by producer Adam Shopkorn with later shots by the Safdies, who agreed to finish the long-shelved project started by their childhood friend.
Cooke is captured in candid moments at high school All-Star camps that foreshadowed the attitude that sabotaged his future and in glimpses of his enormous talent in tournaments that also featured the young James, Anthony and other future NBA players.
It is a film that Cooke and Noah believe should be shared.
"I didn't have a work ethic," said Cooke. "I didn't want to work out. I just played off of my potential. I didn't go to the gym every day, four or five hours a day like those guys did."
Earlier this month, Cooke and Noah, who runs a foundation to help children in the Chicago area, hosted a screening of the film and held a question-and-answer session. Other screenings and talks are planned.
The film will also be shown on the Showtime television network after its theatrical run.
"I know he watches it (NBA games), and he's like, 'Damn, I used to kill these dudes when I was younger' but I think that's what Lenny's story is about," Noah said.
"If your mindset isn't about progress, about getting better no matter how old you are, you're not going to make it."
(Reporting by Larry Fine, Editing by David Gregorio)