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.