“I don’t think they’re evaluated and drafted because they’re ready. They’re evaluated and drafted because of their potential […] also: They’re cheap. You can buy them,” explains Mike Jarvis. At the time of the interview, Jarvis was the basketball coach of St. John’s University. The “them” he’s referring to are the young basketball prodigies who put their dreams on the line the moment they enter the NBA draft. Most of the time, these talented young athletes have a couple of college years under their belt, which lifts the veil on alternate career possibilities, in the event that their future bid in the draft falls through–but in 2001, the NBA made an unprecedented move by drafting Glynn Academy high school’s Kwame Brown as the first overall pick; Brown would later be joined by Tyson Chandler (Dominguez High School) and Eddy Curry (Thornwood High School) in the first round as well. That 2001 NBA Draft not only made history, it changed the entire climate of talent-seeking and cultivation in professional basketball. It stripped back the rite of passage of continuing education (i.e. college) as an option for these young men and tempted them with the opportunity of instant fame and “cash money.” It also left a taste of cynicism among the higher-ups in the industry. According to Jarvis, “In its own way, it’s not a whole lot different than slavery. You buy the best-looking person. If they make it, fine. If they don’t, you go out and buy somebody else.” At the time of the 2001 NBA Draft, Lenny Cooke was ranked the number one high school basketball player in the country, beating out fellow youthful players like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudamire.
Cooke’s decision to enter the 2002 NBA Draft, as a 19-year-old talent fresh out of high school, is what is at the center of Ben and Joshua Safdie’s new cinema verite-style documentary Lenny Cooke. Using handheld cameras that often zoom in and out on their subjects, while chasing a moment or fleeting thought, the Safdie Brothers have unusual access to Cooke’s day-to-day activities in the months leading up to the 2002 Draft; Cooke sometimes busies himself with basketball practice, but mostly hangs out with his New York-based friends and Virginia-based family. Because of the immediacy of this kind of filmmaking, we watch the red tape and gym court-politics surrounding the young basketball star from a remove, like flies on a wall. Particularly, there’s a bleak but insightful scene of a former NBA coach breaking down how little money the players stand to earn, once they’re actually drafted into the NBA, to a room of full of teenage basketball players; as they listen to the coach crunch the numbers (e.g. paying federal taxes, health insurance, taking care of the innumerable amount of family members that will come out of the woodwork, etc.) into a real, bottom line scenario, and their faces get more pensive and quiet, we get a glimpse at how fooled these young men have been by the faux rock-star appeal of the professional athlete’s life.
And through it all, Cooke seems like a generally nice young kid. Sure he’s tall, more physically developed than your average teenage male, but he has a wonder in his eyes—almost like a childlike sense of discovery—when all of these new life opportunities are presented to him. He is in a tailspin, due to all the attention from the media, from sports agents, and from his status as the neighborhood hero. Still, Cooke is a teenage father: he’d rather play an arcade video game than deal with his tireless baby. He also falls victim to the attention of his early high school stardom (a trip to Las Vegas, the temptation of other women, and access to walking-around money). And when the documentary reaches the pivotal night of the 2002 NBA Draft, neither the people in the film or members of the audience can anticipate what will happen.
The fallout and denouement after that fateful draft night makes up the final third of the film. The results are equally surprising and sometimes satisfying. And the last third of Lenny Cooke is exceptionally moving: in this section, the film emerges as a life lesson, not just a basketball documentary: Cooke was constantly surrounded by people who wanted to help him—and those who wanted to exploit him. At the end of the day, neither Cooke nor his closest of friends could put the blame on any one industry move-maker or organization. The Lenny Cooke of this film was always in control of his own life decisions. Early on in the documentary, a mentor who really did care for Cooke’s future put it plainly: “It’s easy to be responsible--if you’re responsible all the time. It’s difficult when you pick and choose the times you want to be responsible. Ain’t nobody gonna teach you how to be a better basketball player until you learn how to be a better person.”Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.