April 21, 2017
A BASKETBALL PLAYER’s success relies on unflinching confidence. A player who believes he will miss a shot usually misses it. If he hesitates after making one errant shot, that mind-set will infect his next attempts. The best players are confident to the point of cockiness. Basketball players from New York City exemplify that mentality. They don’t just want to win. They have to, as though their masculinity is on the line each time they step onto a court. The city is touted as the mecca of basketball, where outsiders make pilgrimages to see if they can play with the best at famed parks like Rucker and West Fourth Street. The city once clutched that title and reputation rightfully. In its day, it produced some of the finest players ever to play the game, those like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Cousy, and Tiny Archibald. In later years, the standing turned ceremonial and reverential. The Knicks last celebrated an NBA championship in 1973. The number of New York schoolyard prodigies who rose from the playground to the NBA likewise dwindled. False prophets came along often. The lights shone brightly and early on any player who developed young in New York. Nearly all stumbled, slipped, and collapsed on their path to greatness. Brooklyn’s Stephon Marbury was the most recent to veer from that path. He flashed signs of dominance as a quick, powerful point guard who could hoist a long jumper with the same ease with which he shot a layup. But that same mentality and conviction that had aided him in his rise to the NBA afflicted him as a professional. He became a malcontent, part of the new class of players seeking to be catered to by organizations and awarded huge contracts before proving worthy of them. Marbury became an All-Star, but also a sizable headache for teams as he ping-ponged around the league. A few years later, Sebastian Telfair, Marbury’s cousin, earned similar acclaim. Telfair was a ballyhooed Brooklyn point guard who signed a large contract with Adidas and became the focal point of a front page New York Times article before ever stepping onto an NBA court. He declared for the 2004 draft out of high school, passing on a commitment to the University of Louisville. The Portland Trail Blazers selected Telfair with the 13th overall selection. But Telfair’s career fell well short of the predicted stardom and he became little more than a journeyman throughout his NBA career. When Portland GM John Nash drafted Telfair, he recalled telling him that because of his diminutive size, he would have to pressure the other point guards on defense and push the ball on offense in order to be successful. Instead, Nash said, Telfair preferred playing in a stationary offense. “He learned pretty quickly he was getting his shot blocked a lot because of his size,” Nash said. “He just wasn’t big enough to go to the basket and deal with big guys. His confidence took a hit after a while.”
Lenny Cooke was sandwiched between Marbury and Telfair as New York’s next hyped and talented phenom. In the summer of 2000, Cooke arrived at the ABCD camp ranked among high school’s best players. He wanted to depart as the best. “I’m leaving with MVP,” he boasted to Debbie Bortner as he climbed out of her truck at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Players made reputations in New York. They became legends at ABCD. A strong couple of days at the camp could propel a high school player to the same echelon among NBA scouts as two or three solid years playing at a major university, like Duke or North Carolina. The successes among camp graduates, like Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, increased the camp’s mass appeal. If you wanted to be the best, you played against the best and the best came to the ABCD camp. Through the years, the roster did not drastically overshadow the talent Nike lured to its camp. Yet, Nike no longer featured Sonny Vaccaro, who was a siren to the young players as he built relationships and established bonds. “Sonny had a braggadocio about him like he was a prizefighter,” Chris Rivers recalled fondly. “Sonny had no problem telling you what was about to happen. He was a promoter.” Rivers aligned himself with Vaccaro in 1997 after coaching the Oakland Soldiers, one of the premier AAU teams on the West Coast. His job evolved into forging relationships with players and their families and staying in contact with them throughout the course of the year. Of course, the relationship would be mutual, and the beginning of a link with Adidas would form. Every year, it seemed, the camp featured an epic showdown between prospects who would be in the NBA within a year or two. Shortly after Cooke had made his declaration to Bortner, the camp buzzed about the on-court confrontation between Kwame Brown and Eddy Curry. Only, Rivers could not find Curry the day of the matchup. He banged on hotel door after hotel door, amazed that somehow a teenager as large as Curry could disappear. He finally found Curry, who had overslept in the room of a friend. Curry shrugged off his drowsiness and he and Brown put on the advertised show. “It was the game of the week,” Rivers remembered. “He and Kwame went at it and everybody knew they were going to be some of the top picks in the draft.” Still, Rivers provided a disclaimer to those who came to the camp. “If you’ve got a guy and you think he’s that guy, I will give him the stage to prove it. But the bright lights are too bright for a lot of people.”
Not for Lenny Cooke. He walked on the courts as though he owned them. At 18, he was older than most of his classmates because of years lost to academic trouble. He was a svelte, 6-foot-6-inch player, stronger, more athletic, and brasher than his opponents. He could attack a defender any way he chose, dropping back to shoot, blowing past him, or simply going through him. He was from New York and played like it at the camp under the watchful eyes of many NBA scouts. The NBA, by then, had dipped a toe into the camp. Not only did the league allow its employees to attend, some assistants and personnel coached at the camp as well. It almost served as a white flag, the league saying, If these high schoolers are going to be in our league soon, we may as well get to know them as early as we can.
Bill Willoughby knew of Cooke. He was Cooke in a different era, when the expectations to produce, placed on prodigy ballplayers, were not as immediate. His career over, Willoughby still lived nearby in 2000. He enjoyed talking to kids and wanted to provide them with more guidance than he himself had received. He worried that trouble loomed beneath Cooke’s hard exterior. One day at the camp, Willoughby pulled Cooke aside. Already, rumors were circulating that Cooke would jump to the NBA, even though he had a year of high school remaining—two if he attended prep school for a year. “Look, go to St. John’s for a year or two,” Willoughby advised. “Do it like Ron Artest and then come out like that because you’re giving the wrong impression.” Cooke nodded his head. They exchanged phone numbers. Neither remained in frequent contact with the other. Cooke set the camp ablaze, finishing near the top of the 200-plus players, which, for a New York native, meant he was somewhere on his way to being the next Jordan or Dr. J. He was the top player for the first couple of days before striking his right hand on the backboard, an injury that limited him the rest of the way. Cooke even had time to test Kobe Bryant’s restraint. Bryant talked to the kids and, during the session, Cooke confidentially challenged him to a one-on-one game. “When you get to the league, I’ll beat you in various ways,” Bryant answered. “What can you say to a champion and MVP at the time?” Cooke remembered. “There is nothing you can say. After the lecture was over, he knew my name. That made me even more bigheaded, like Kobe knows me. How you know me?” Willoughby called Cooke after still hearing that Cooke wanted to jump straight to the NBA. A man answered and said he was Cooke’s brother and Cooke was not available. Willoughby knew he had the right number. “It was him,” Willoughby said. “He didn’t want to talk to me. He didn’t want to listen.”
He did not have to. Cooke was the best, and he was ticketed for stardom. He dominated future NBA All- Stars like Amar’e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, and Joakim Noah, his onetime AAU teammate. They emulated Cooke, wanting to be him.
Cooke would never play a second in the NBA.
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Reprinted from Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution. Copyright © 2017 by Jonathan Abrams. Published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.