Long before LeBron James was a three-time NBA champion and Los Angeles Lakers’ starting small forward, he was the king of his castle at Akron, Ohio’s St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School.
He got the world’s attention at ABCD Camp at Farleigh Dickinson High School in Teaneck, New Jersey when he went toe-to-toe with high school phenom, Lenny Cooke.
Cooke, now playing for the Camden Monarchs of the ABA League, wowed folks in high school with his on-court gifts.
For those keeping score at home: Cooke was heralded as a manchild and better than James, retired NBA forward Amare Stoudemire and Portland Trail Blazers forward, Carmelo Anthony, the NBA’s reigning Western Conference Player of the Week.
The NBA and college hoops were interested and the scouts had the Atlantic City, NJ native by way of Brooklyn, NY on their radar.
Rightly so. In his junior year of high school at Northern Valley High School in Old Tappan, NJ, Cooke averaged 25 points, 10 rebounds, two steals and two blocks. He looked primed to make a splash in the NBA — at a time when talented high school players often declared for the draft after graduation.
But it didn’t exactly happen that way.
Many believe that Cooke’s life changed in high school when he went head to head with LeBron James at the ABCD camp.
In the closing seconds of a game, Cooke’s team had the lead and possession of the basketball. James stole the ball, scored on a fast break and won the game. That play introduced the world to the Akron, Ohio baller who was later featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the cover titled, ‘The Chosen One.’
Things shifted. By 2003, Cooke found himself playing ball not for an NBA team, but for the Shanghai Dongfang Sharks after declaring for the 2002 NBA Draft and subsequently going undrafted.
Cooke fell on hard times. He faced realities of bad decisions, poor counsel, the effects of hangers on and a car accident that could have left him for dead.
After seeing his peers from high school make it to the next level, as well as a Joakim Noah produced documentary released in 2013 on his journey, Cooke decided that he needed to tell his story his way through mentoring kids.
He’s been on the right path.
In 2016, Cooke partnered with fellow high school basketball standout, Schea Cotton at Microsoft. The two conducted a panel series that shared their journeys. “I am more than basketball,” Cooke said back then.
“I’m a dad and I want to travel the world and inspire kids.”
Cooke continued his speaking journey. He was a commencement speaker tt Philadelphia’s Mount Olivet Tabernacle Baptist Church. Cooke joined Pastor Andre L. Price as their commencement cerememony speaker. He was later named an assistant coach of Atlantic City High School.
Fast forward to 2019, Cooke is in a new role. Back on the basketball court as the starting power forward of the Camden Monarchs, an expansion team of the ABA.
Cooke discussed his decision to join the Monarchs on a recent appearance on ESPN Radio along with the team’s CEO, Giovanni Thompson.
For those keeping score at home: The ABA was established in 1967 and merged with the National Basketball Association in 1976. The New Jersey Nets, San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers and the Denver Nuggets all originated from the ABA. Julius “Dr. J” Erving, George “The Iceman” Gervin, Ricky Barry and Moses Malone ran the ABA befor their merger.
The ABA was reformed in 2000 in partnership with the NBA and has been operating in harmony for the past 16 years.
Cooke, 37 is in a familiar place, on the basketball court.
While many have asked him the ‘what if’ question pertaining to he and LeBron James multiple times. He told me on this week’s episode of the Scoop B Radio Podcast that he’s got nothing but love for LBJ. “He’s 17 years in playing the best basketball in his career,” Cooke told me.
“So I mean, hell yeah! He’s the greatest basketball player to play the game to me, ever! It takes a lot for me to say that. I respect the game, I respect who he is, I respect how hard he worked. He dedicated himself to the craft and he’s shown it. He came, what? 33,000 points? Moved up the scoring needle. He will break the all time leading scoring record, I believe and he’s going to continue to win championships.”
Lenny Cooke is playing inspired basketball for the Camden Monarchs. He scored 18 points and hauled in 10 rebounds in Sunday’s win against the Harlem Underdogs.
“It is easy to tell stories about your success,” NBA free agent Joakim Noah told me. “But extremely courageous to do the same with your failures.”
Cooke is locked in, contributing to the Camden community and is still involved with the game that he loves: basketball.