Catching up with Lenny Cooke, the former can’t-miss kid

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So many things can happen to high-school phenoms. Kobe Bryant is a five-time NBA champion. LeBron James is a two-time MVP. Dwight Howard is the best center in basketball. Sebastian Telfair is a mediocre backup point guard who has bounced around the league. Jeremy Tyler is currently trying to pay his dues in the D-League. Greg Oden’s injuries may keep him from ever playing again.

Then there’s the sad, sad tale of Lenny Cooke, the can’t-miss kid whose rise and fall was chronicled in a very long and very good profile by the New York Times’ Harvey Araton today. Cooke, who was a hyper-athletic 6-6 swingman who could score at will and seemingly do anything on the court, considered himself a superstar long before he received his high school diploma. As a high school student at ABCD camp, he challenged Kobe Bryant to a game of one-on-one, confident he’d win. In high school, he often neglected to go to class, because he was sure he’d go straight to the NBA and achieve instant stardom. In a Sportscenter piece done on Cook a year or two after he declared for the draft out of high school, only to go undrafted, he confidently declared that he knew he was better than LeBron James, who was in the class behind him.

Araton’s piece includes a recap of Cook and James’ showdown at ABCD camp over a decade ago, which many consider a turning point in Cook’s career and life:

It was the summer of 2001, weeks before 9/11, and Cooke returned to the popular ABCD Camp for the nation’s most prominent high school players at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Teaneck, N.J., campus as the defending most valuable player, the presumed chosen one…

…[Carmelo] Anthony’s team was defeated by Cooke’s group. Cooke dazzled the packed gym and set up a showdown between him and a lesser-known player who was generating interest and who was one grade behind Cooke. His name was LeBron James, out of Akron, Ohio, a comparative basketball backwater…

Sitting in the stands with Debbie Bortner that day, Joakim Noah says he remembers Cooke’s climactic moment — crossing over James on the dribble several times before draining a midrange jumper. The gym erupted, but it was only the first half of a game that would go down to the last possession, a much leaner James with the ball and his team trailing by 2.

James had already outscored Cooke, 21-9, but he saved his best for last. Guarded by Cooke, he dribbled out of the backcourt, to his right. Just as he approached the 3-point line, with a step on Cooke, James went airborne, kicked his feet back and floated the ball toward the rim. He hit nothing but net — game over — while Cooke’s jaw dropped.

“How’d he make that?” he said to a friend afterward, mixing in profanity. “Oh my God.”

After that game, Cooke went undrafted (he expected to go in the late first round or early 2nd round), didn’t do well in the D-League in part because of his sense of entitlement, and spent time bouncing around lower-level professional leagues in the US, abroad, and one stint in the Vegas Summer League before a car accident destroyed Cooke’s athletic career and made him a permanent cautionary tale about the dangers of leaving school early in order to chase the fame and fortune that high-school prospects get promised to them. The entire article is too lengthy, far-reaching, and deep to be properly summarized here, so I encourage you to click the link and read the full story of Cooke’s sad fall from grace.

Report: NBA eying in mid-July 2021 NBA Finals in advance of Olympics

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The NBA plans to rush through the 2020 offseason and begin the 2020-21 season Dec. 1… just to rush through the 2020-21 season.

Frank Isola of The Athletic:

The NBA Finals normally begin 226 days after the regular-season opener with an 18-day window to play the best-of-seven series. So, based on a typical timeline, a Dec. 1 opener would mean the Finals would be held July 15 – Aug. 1., 2021.

The Tokyo Olympics are slated to begin July 23, 2021.

So, something must give.

It probably won’t be regular-season games. As much as the NBA would like its players to get exposure in the Olympics, owners will be extremely reluctant to surrender direct revenue. Likewise, the many NBA players not headed to the Olympics should share similar financial concerns.

More likely, the league will reduce the number of rest days during the 2020-21 season. That seems risky given the drastic disruptions already affecting conditioning entering the season.

It’s also possible players whose NBA teams advance deep enough in the playoffs just won’t be able to play in the Olympics (or Olympic Qualifying Tournaments, which are scheduled for June and July 2021).

Like with many things affected by coronavirus, there are no good answers – just hard decisions on what to compromise.

Details leak on life inside Orlando bubble: Daily testing, 1,600 people, 2K crowd noise at games

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Players do not report to the Walt Dinsey World campus in Orlando for another month to restart the NBA season — and it will be weeks after that before games start on July 31 — but we’re beginning to learn more about life inside that bubble.

A bubble the players from a couple of teams could be in for more than three months.

On a Friday conference call, representatives of the National Basketball Players Association backed the 22-team return-to-play format.  Out of that call, we learned some more details about what life will be like in the bubble, courtesy Shams Charania of The Athletic. Among his notes:

– 1,600 maximum people on campus
– Coronavirus testing every day; minimum seven days of quarantine for a player who tests positive
– There could be crowd noise via NBA 2K video game sounds, but the NBA and NBPA is still discussing creative opportunities

That 1,600 people in the bubble/campus includes players and staffs from teams (about 770 people) plus referees, league personnel, broadcasters, and more. It fills up quickly, which is why family members — likely just three per player — will not be allowed until after at least the second round of the playoffs when a number of teams have cleared out (an issue for players).

Players were asked once in the bubble not to leave, and the same applied to their families when they arrive. This is not a summer vacation at Disney World. While there are no armed guards or security to keep players and staff on the campus, the goal was to create a safe environment and people heading out into greater Orlando, for whatever reason, sets that goal back.

The daily testing will be done by the NBPA and will involve mouth or light nasal swabs, not the invasive ones. Also, there will be no antibody testing, and no blood tests.

Teams will get a three-hour practice window during training camp and on off-days, which will include time in the provided wight room. After that, the equipment will be sanitized before the next team uses the courts.

Crowd noise — as seen on the Bundesliga soccer broadcasts from Germany seen here in the USA — is controversial. While the league is talking to the makers of the NBA 2K video game about piped-in crowd noise, that is definitely a topic still up for discussion.

As Keith Smith discussed on the ProBasketballTalk Podcast this week, games in Orlando are expected to be played sort of like at Summer League, with some starting at noon (or early afternoon) and alternating on courts all day. East Coast teams will likely have the earlier slots while there could be some 10 p.m. Eastern start times for a couple of West Coast teams (where it would still be just 7 p.m.).

We previously knew players would be allowed to golf and eat at outdoor restaurants at the Disney resort, so long as they followed social distancing guidelines.

For everything we know about life in the bubble, there are far more questions left unanswered. In the next month we will learn a lot more.

 

NBA players’ union approves 22-team format restart of season

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It’s not perfect and there are still details to be worked out — including exactly when next season will start — but the NBA players are on board with 22-team restart plan for the NBA season in Orlando.

Friday the National Basketball Players Association, with 28 team representatives on the conference call, voted to approve the 22-team plan. Here is the official statement from the union:

“The Board of Player Representatives of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) has approved further negotiations with the NBA on a 22-team return to play scenario to restart the 2019-20 NBA season. Various details remain to be negotiated and the acceptance of the scenario would still require that all parties reach agreement on all issues relevant to resuming play.”

This was expected. NBA Commissioner has worked closely with players union president Chris Paul of the Thunder and executive director Michelle Roberts throughout the process. There were no big surprises in the plan by the time it came up for a vote. Nobody got everything they wanted but everyone got a plan they could live with.

The issues still to be negotiated include some of the health and safety procedures — although players were informed on Friday’s call there will be daily testing and were asked not to leave the Orlando bubble — as well as the timing of the off-season and the start date of next season.

The biggest issue to be figured out still, of course, will be money.

It’s money that ultimately got owners and players to come together behind the 22-team format. It plays regular-season games — called “seeding games” — that can be broadcast on regional sports networks (helping those teams) plus a full playoffs with seven-game series broadcast on ESPN/ABC and TNT. Exactly what the financial picture for the league will be next season is still murky, but the sides are talking.

In terms of pure player safety, the league could have done better going straight to the 16-game postseason, but this was the balance of risk and financial reward the league settled upon.

The details of the format continue to leak out, and some of that is still to be negotiated, but with the player vote all sides have come together behind a plan.

The question becomes, can they pull it off?

Michael Jordan, Jordan Brand pledge $100 million to racial equality

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Black lives matter. This isn’t a controversial statement.

It isn’t. But for the legendarily apolitical Michael Jordan, it is a departure.

Jordan and the Jordan Brand jumped into the ongoing and intense national discussion of race and systemic racism Friday by announcing a $100 million donation over the next 10 years to racial equality and social justice causes. And Jordan linked himself to the black lives matter movement.

Jordan, during his playing career and after, has been cautious politically, rarely commenting on social issues. The “Republicans buy shoes, too” comment stuck to him, but as Roland Lazenby points out in his biography “Michael Jordan: The Life,” Jordan’s “keep your head down and don’t draw attention” political outlook was passed down as a family demeanor used to survive in rural North Carolina. It was how his parents, grandparents, and great grandparents viewed the world.

Jordan had already made a personal statement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.

Now Jordan has put his money where his mouth is.