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Monday, December 2, 2013
Dream another dream

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Back when Lenny Cooke was Lenny Cooke, Joakim Noah was his biggest fan.

Cooke was just a teenager, but to a young, gawky French kid who had just moved to New York City, he was Noah's Michael Jordan.

"This guy was my hero," Noah said.

As that skinny benchwarmer on Cooke's AAU team, Noah had the best seat in the house for a truly American story. He watched the story again Sunday night with more than 200 other people at a viewing of the long-delayed "Lenny Cooke" documentary at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

If you're a basketball fan of a certain age, you remember that back in the early 2000s, the wiry, 6-foot-6 Cooke was hyped to be something like the next Kobe Bryant.

After going undrafted in 2002, he wound up being New York City's successor to Chicago's Ronnie Fields, the fallen Farragut Academy star; a "Where Are They Now?" candidate with no happy ending.

Now that his movie is out, Cooke is a bleak update to Fly Williams in Rick Telander's "Heaven is a Playground" and Arthur Agee and William Gates in the immortal film "Hoop Dreams."

 Lenny Cooke
Joakim Noah, Lenny Cooke and Jahlil Okafor attended a screening of a documentary about Cooke's life at the Gene Siskel Film Center Sunday night.

The movie is a sobering look at the life of Cooke, from his teens to his 30s. It is occasionally funny, often infuriating. Movie producer Adam Shopkorn and his camera followed Cooke early on as he became famous, and then after a long hiatus, caught back up with him as an unemployed adult full of ruminations.

As Hemingway once wrote, Cooke's dream died, "gradually and then suddenly."

Noah's basketball dream was realized much the same way.

Noah, the benchwarmer, is now an NBA All-Star for the Chicago Bulls and a millionaire. He is listed as the "executive producer" of the documentary, a long-delayed inside look at Cooke's preps-to-pro basketball nightmare.

"I'm proud to be a part of this," Noah said. "Lenny is like a brother to me. I don't think he realizes the impact he had on me."

Noah agreed to have his name attached to the film -- he didn't help finance it -- because he cared about the story. "I think it's very hard to put your story out there, not just your good times, but your hardships," Noah said.

"I think Lenny's doing that. I hope that he can use this documentary as a tool to help young kids."

Noah sat with Cooke during the screening and stood on stage with him for an audience question-and-answer session. Shopkorn remembers a young Noah emulating Cooke. He wanted him involved in the project, even if it's just his name on the credits.

"I think Joakim is, in every way, the antithesis of Lenny Cooke," Shopkorn said. "Lenny comes from the streets of Bushwick. Joakim comes from a privileged background. Jo grew up idolizing Lenny Cooke. Jo used to tell me he would lie down in traffic for Lenny Cooke or if Lenny said 'Yo, get me a soda' at one of those summer basketball camps, he would have."

Noah has matured significantly in his time in the NBA and is very active in Chicago and New York with his Noah's Arc Foundation and its mission to empower youth. He volunteers at Chicago gang basketball tournaments. Watching the story of his hero, dredging up old memories and seeing new failures, was tough to watch.

"He found the film the first time he saw it to be exceptionally sad, really sad," Shopkorn said. "It's a little awkward for him, I think, right? Because Lenny is his idol and Jo won two national championships and is an NBA All-Star and starting for the Chicago Bulls. Now it's kind of more, a little bit of role reversal."

After the Q&A session ended, Noah was besieged by fans asking for autographs and pictures. Cooke lingered around the edges.

There is an uncomfortable part of the documentary where Cooke confronts his lifelong friends in New York and notes that Noah, who wasn't part of his inner circle during the salad days, is the only one who visited him living in Virginia.

"It's an honor for me to have my friend to want to be involved with a story," Cooke told me later. "If he sees it can help people and people are looking up to him, then he can influence people to watch it as well."

Cooke wants to use this movie, which he once abandoned, as a tool to become a motivational speaker.

While Cooke, the erstwhile No. 1 player of the Class of 2002, watched the story of his life on one side of the theater, Whitney Young center Jahlil Okafor, the No. 1 player in the Class of 2014, watched on the other side.

"I loved the film," Okafor said. "It's heartbreaking to see how amazing he was. That moment when he was in the garage crying, it was heartbreaking to me. It's really humbling with him being in the same position I'm in right now, with him saying everybody wanted to be his friend. It's very eye-opening."

After the film, Cooke, Noah and Okafor posed for a picture together, a convergence of temporal basketball stars.

Okafor, who recently committed to Duke, has had a much different experience than Cooke. He is the latest Chicago star from the Derrick Rose Generation, a seemingly organized succession of supertalented city stars who are ensconced in familial bubbles. These are kids who grew up around the streets, but are not of them.

Rose, Anthony Davis, Jabari Parker and Okafor -- all four of whom could wind up No. 1 NBA draft picks -- have one thing in common: They're extremely nice, well-mannered stars.

"You know what the difference is between [Rose] and Lenny, Derrick's circle is so tight," Noah said. "From the beginning, nobody was getting through that circle. To this day, nobody is getting through Derrick's circle. It's pretty incredible. Not everybody has that."

Okafor said, "I know it can be difficult. But luckily I have a great dad, a great family. Everybody watches out for me, including my coaches. I'm blessed to have great people in my circle, so it hasn't been that bad for me."

Cooke's parents moved to Virginia when he was a teen and the sponsor of his AAU team took him in. Cooke left her before his senior year of high school, took money from an agency (he said it was $350,000 in a lump sum) and finished high school in Flint, Mich.

"There's so much more to it that you don't see," Noah said. "It's tough because a lot of kids are seeing those dollar signs and I think [Cooke] had people telling him the right things, but when you come from the city, Chicago, New York and L.A. and these big cities, there's so many more distractions, I think some people don't talk about that."

In the movie, Cooke is shown to be arrogant and lazy, which makes him, well, a teenager. Noah said he saw the downfall coming, if only in retrospect. He described the people around Cooke as "a lot of Iagos" whispering dangerous advice into his ear.

With the Bulls reeling from the loss of Rose for another season, Noah said watching this movie "puts a lot in perspective."

"There is always adversity in basketball," Noah told the crowd. "We're going through it right now. We just had our best player go out. I'm not going to lie, it's tough. But where do we go from here? We can give up or we can keep fighting."

As he said that, someone in the audience yelled, "Tell them to sign Lenny."

Noah smiled. For now, he can just help tell Cooke's story and hope it makes a difference to someone.