HE WAS BETTER than LeBron and Melo. That was the rap on Lenny Cooke. But that was more than a decade ago -- when high schoolers still reigned over the NBA lottery and the Brooklyn native was the top-ranked prep player in the country. Back then, Joakim Noah, a younger AAU teammate, watched from the bench as Cooke's star rose and then epically flamed out. Which is why, in part, the Bulls forward signed on as executive producer of "Lenny Cooke," a new documentary that shows the entire cautionary tale -- from Cooke's epic battles with future All-Stars to his quiet struggle to come to grips with reality. "Cooke" is showing in select cities nationwide.
Elena Bergeron: How did you get involved with the film?
Joakim Noah: I've known Lenny since I was 12 years old. We both played on the same basketball team. He got very good, very fast and became the No. 1 player in the country. I wasn't playing a lot, so I got to see it all from the bench. Adam [Shopkorn, producer of the doc] had been following Lenny around with cameras, and he asked me to be a part of it, to help Lenny out. It was a no-brainer.
Bergeron: Lenny is someone you know and had a personal relationship with. Do you see it as a cautionary tale?
Noah: It's a story about life. I want people to see that it's more than just a cautionary tale for basketball players, it's a cautionary tale about how you live your life. There are always going to be distractions, but your focus has to be on improvement, whatever you do in life. Growing up in New York City, you have to have a close-knit group, listen to the right people and have your mind right. As soon as you start getting caught up in the wrong things, that's when the hardships happen.
Bergeron: That really comes across in the last scene when adult Lenny is talking to the teenage Lenny, and he expresses all these regrets. Have you and Lenny ever talked about what's in the film and how hard it was for him to put that out there?
Noah: Yeah, and I'm really proud of the fact that he takes full responsibility for his actions. It takes a man to stand up and tell your story and tell your hardships for the world to see in a documentary. I don't think everybody can do that. It just shows what kind of person he is. He's very reflective about the situation. I think he's realizing that he can use this documentary to help kids, and that's a beautiful thing.
Bergeron: There are a lot of affecting scenes, some where you are actually watching him screw up and some where you see Lenny coming to grips with the fact that he's never going to be this NBA star. Is there any one that sticks out to you as the crux of what the film is about?
Noah: There's a lot of parts in the film that I feel are impactful. I thought the part where he was in Vegas, going to the clubs, having the girl on his lap and telling her, "I'm going to the NBA." You could just tell that he was caught up at a really young age. I'm sure he didn't see it that way, growing up. It's sad because I know the whole situation and I was there for the whole thing, but at the end of the day, as hard as it is to look back at what he could've done better, I think that there is a positive in the fact that he's still out there talking to kids about what he did wrong.
Bergeron: You screened this in Chicago. What was the audience's response like?
Noah: People were very emotional, and I felt like it made a big impact. It was interesting in the Q&A afterwards to see how many people had questions and wanted Lenny to do well for himself after it. It was great to see how engaged people were after the movie. You could tell that people were moved.
Bergeron: Lenny came up playing against all these NBA All-Stars who are actually in the movie. You see him going up against Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. Have any other NBA players seen it? And in general, do they know or talk about what happened to Lenny Cooke?
Noah: I don't know. You'd have to ask them. But I'll tell you what, everybody has a Lenny Cooke story. He was That Guy. I remember in high school he was the man. When Lenny walked into a room, he was the star. He was the star player. A lot of people looked up to him. I think it'd be interesting to hear people's Lenny Cooke story.
Bergeron: OK, so you said everyone has a Lenny Cooke story. What's yours?
Noah: I've seen him score 50. He played in a lot of streetball tournaments, and he was always the best player on the court, dunking on people, making them look stupid. He was just a freak, and he would always bring all his boys to the court. There were a lot of fights. He was just a wild dude. Lenny was in a class of his own.