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STONY CREEK, Va. On an otherwise lazy Sunday, dinner took hours to prepare, filling the small one story house on a remote and wooded street with the aromatic smell of chicken, ribs and all the trimmings. The extended family would soon be arriving, in full, hungry force.

Standing tall but cramped in the narrow kitchen at 6 feet 6 inches and not much less than 300 pounds, Lenny Cooke suddenly looked up from his culinary masterpiece. star.

“No matter who it was against, where we were at, once I got rolling, I just felt I couldn’t be stopped,” he said.

Scant as it was, evidence of that other life was on display in a corner of the living room of the house Cooke shares with his girlfriend, Anita Solomon, and their young daughter, Nyvaeh. The handful of trophies was only a sampling, he said, of the many he had stored away at his mother’s house in Emporia, a nearby town close to Virginia’s border with North Carolina.

But on the wall of Cooke’s celebrity corner was his photographic treasure, proof that he had once walked among the most gifted and talented, and still could.

There was one shot of much younger Lenny, his thinner face partly hidden under a low slung cap, posing with Magic Johnson. And there was contemporary Lenny, bloated in the years after injuries ended a career already marginalized, in the separate company of Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire at a Knicks game last season.

“When I see them, I get the most respect,” he said. draft only to go undrafted, never advancing beyond the summer league teams of the Boston Celtics and the Seattle SuperSonics.

What went wrong? How did he miss by so much?

Stretched on the couch, glancing at a big screen television, he shrugged and said, “You had a devil on one shoulder and an angel on another.”

After arriving with a phalanx of relatives, Cooke’s mother, Alfreda Hendrix, explained that her son had heeded the wrong calling and had mistaken what was given to him as something he had earned.

Yet there remains a restless side to Cooke, a meandering and moody soul, the father of three (a son lives in Brooklyn and another daughter in Maryland) who will wander off for weeks at a time to Atlantic City, where he was born, or back to Brooklyn, where he lived during his early high school years.

This is where the story, still at its crossroads, becomes more complicated. Nobody seems to know what Cooke is looking for closure from basketball and the key to his future,
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or the perpetuation of a legend that was never quite written.

Eclipsed Early On

The first time Adam Shopkorn read about Lenny Cooke, he could not shake the feeling that Cooke’s story had a big screen, sequel like quality, “Hoop Dreams” for the 21st century. gold. In that regard, the cinematic appeal was more “The Blind Side” than “Hoop Dreams.”

Four years earlier, Cooke had befriended a teammate, Brian Raimondi, on an Amateur Athletic Union team called the Panthers. Raimondi’s mother, Debbie Bortner, helped manage the squad. Cooke had only recently begun playing organized ball but was already more than 6 feet tall and quickly became the talk of the circuit. multimillionaire on their roster, but Joakim Noah, now of the Chicago Bulls, was only 5 9 on the way to 6 11 and completely in awe of Cooke.

“I was a 13 year old French kid from Paris, and all of a sudden, I met Lenny and was watching him play in all of these tournaments,” said Noah, the son of the French tennis star Yannick Noah, whose mother had moved him to Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. “He was really my hero because the way he could dominate a game was unbelievable to me.”

Cooke began high school at Franklin K. Lane in Brooklyn and transferred to La Salle Academy in Manhattan to play with Raimondi. By junior year, with Cooke struggling academically, they hatched a plan to become teammates in Old Tappan.

While Raimondi nursed a broken wrist, Cooke was dominating the suburban competition when Shopkorn arrived to make his documentary pitch.

“I wasn’t there just to get a quick story, but as someone who wanted to be there for the whole process let’s call it a two year process,” Shopkorn said. “It took a little time, but Lenny understood what I wanted to do. He began to trust me.”

Shopkorn turned his video camera on Cooke at Bortner’s home, where Cooke and Raimondi had adjoining rooms; at Cooke’s games for Old Tappan, where he averaged 31 points but fell short of a state championship; on Cooke’s visits to his old Bushwick neighborhood the frequency of which concerned Bortner even after his family had left Brooklyn for Virginia.

Most significantly, and symbolically, Shopkorn was in perfect position to record a moment that would become the most unforgettable, and haunting, of Cooke’s basketball life.

“He was coming from being the No. 1 player in the country, and we all looked at Lenny like that,” said Anthony, who was born in Brooklyn but relocated to Baltimore. “It was his size, how strong he was, how he could pass the ball and play the point, kind of like Magic, I guess. He was really explosive.”

During the camp, a person in the James entourage noticed Shopkorn’s shadowing Cooke and wanted to know why. When Shopkorn told him, the James ally said: “You should come up to Akron and shoot LeBron. He’s the real deal.”
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