Before you feel too badly about Derrick Rose in the wake of his season-ending knee injury, just know that it could be worse.
Rose, a former top high-school prospect, has had bad luck over the past few years when it comes to injuries. But Lenny Cooke, another player who was once in his position never even got a chance to sniff the same professional success. Cooke, a former New York City high school phenomenon ranked above the likes of Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire in the class of 2002, skipped college during the prep-to-pros era and never made it to the NBA.
Bulls All-Star center Joakim Noah grew up admiring Cooke and called him his “hero,” as AAU teammates in New York. Noah was a lightly-regarded prospect himself before hitting a growth spurt, blossoming as a talent and ending up at Florida, where he won two NCAA national championships. But before that occurred, he got a firsthand look at the highs and lows one could experience in the game, courtesy of witnessing Cooke's journey.
“I grew up with Lenny before all the hype. He was my first teammate when I moved from France to New York and it just happened really fast. I started playing basketball with him in New York. He just started playing [organized] basketball and it just really happened really fast, where he was a beast. He got so good so fast and the hype was crazy,” Noah explained to CSNChicago.com. “Not just the hype, the distractions, the people who were attracted to him because of the potential he had to make a lot of money. It was ridiculous and I got to see it from the bench. I saw the whole thing.
Cooke was a 6-foot-6 strong, athletic and flashy swingman whose downward spiral began back in the summer of 2001, where he faced off with an emerging underclassman from Ohio by the name of LeBron James at the adidas ABCD camp. The pair engaged in a memorable duel, won by James both figuratively and literally, and Cooke began to make a number of bad decisions, most significantly signing with an agent and turning pro, culminating with him not getting drafted.
Noah’s Bulls teammate and fellow All-Star Luol Deng was the No. 2-ranked player in James’ class and after moving from London to New Jersey, where he attended prep school, he quickly became an admirer of Cooke’s game.
“When I first pleased against Lenny, I was 14 years old, maybe 15. I had just come over from England and I had heard a lot about him. I remember in IS8 in New York, I didn’t play much. The coach didn’t play me, so as a young kid, I was watching him and I was so impressed. I think the game that I watched, he had 40-something [points] and I was so impressed at his intensity, and coming over from European basketball, I was so used to a lot of fundamentals, pick-and-pop, stuff like that. It’s just what I saw and when I came over, and I saw how aggressive he was, it’s really something that I will always remember. I haven’t seen a lot of guys who play the same way as him. He was just attacking the whole game and I always kind of looked at that, and appreciated it,” Deng recounted to CSNChicago.com. “There’s a lot of us who make mistakes. I think sometimes, you just get lucky. In his case, he made a lot of stupid and bad mistakes, but at the same time, he had bad luck. I think we all make mistakes in the past and sometimes, it could be one mistake that could really end everything you have. Unfortunately for him, he made a lot of mistakes and getting in that car accident was just bad luck.”
Yet another Bulls player, Taj Gibson, is also well aware of Cooke’s saga. Like Cooke, Gibson is a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., so as an under-the-radar prospect himself, he watched the talented wing build a reputation all over New York City and has fond memories of his exploits.
“Lenny was a phenomenal basketball player. Phenomenal, a great talent. It’s just one of those stories where a great talent doesn’t get a chance to shine,” Gibson explained. “I remember watching him play. I remember ABCD, I remember watching him play with the Gauchos, just all throughout the city. His buzz was unreal. It was like LeBron, but in New York.
“Guys tend to lose focus. You’ve got a lot of people pulling at you. You just tend to hang and do the wrong things, get caught up in the NBA, leaving for school early,” continued Gibson, who had a winding journey that included a stint at a prep school in California, before making it to basketball’s highest level. “Me, I was just focused on school, one thing at a time and over time, it just came to me.”
Cooke’s entire saga was chronicled in a documentary, of which Noah is the executive producer, currently screening nationwide. Noah attended a recent showing in Chicago and afterwards, did a question-and-answer session alongside Cooke, coincidentally with the nation’s top high-school prospect, Whitney Young senior center Jahlil Okafor, in attendance.
“Just to be a part of this documentary, I’m really proud to be a part of it and I’m really proud of him because that’s not easy. It’s a lot easier to just talk about your success in front of people, but to talk about your failures and talk about your hardships in front of everybody is something that you’ve got to respect,” Noah said. “I don’t think a lot of people can do that.”
Deng chimed in: “A lot of stuff just didn’t go his way, but it’s just such a positive thing to see him because the documentary is not really a positive thing. It’s not like a positive Lenny Cooke documentary, but he’s doing it and he’s doing it for the youngsters, which is really cool because he understands that a lot of other people can go through that and he’s willing to share that with everybody.”