The Rise and Fall of Lenny Cooke: Learning the Lessons of Lenny

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Hope deferred maketh the heart sick: but when the desire cometh, it is a tree of life. Proverbs 13:12, KJV

High hopes, if not reached and realized, can unfortunately be followed by deep despair and dark desolation. The Bible says that “hope deferred makes the heart sick.” The Message Bible says that “unrelenting disappointment leaves you heartsick, but a sudden good break can turn life around.”  Amen to that.  For rising high school basketball star Leonard “Lenny” Cooke, his future was all but certain and his ticket was all but punched; as a high school phenom, his name was mentioned in the same breath with LeBron James as he was seemingly on his way to a life of fame and fortune in the NBA. But it was not meant to be.

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Hope is a spiritual force, a supernatural faculty that is only activated when associated with faith and love. We hold on to hope for it is one of the three main elements of Christian character.  Hope is the anchor of the soul, for in it the whole glory of the Christian vocation is centered. Hope is the wind beneath our wings, for our hope is carried on the Spirit and the Wind of truth.  We are prisoners of hope, and believe that one day the time we’ve served in this life will translate into time off for good behavior. Our hope is that one day our faith will be sight. Unbelievers, unfortunately, are without this hope.

Hope deferred, for the believer, is not hope denied. In the hymn Solid Rock, Edward Mote wrote “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus name. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand; all other ground is sinking sand.”  The third verse gives us this comfort: “His oath, His covenant, His blood, support me in the whelming flood; when all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay.”

Lenny Cooke put his hope in and on “other ground;” he put his hope in  “the whelming flood” of the 2002 NBA Draft. He bet the house and mortgaged the farm on the hope that he would be drafted by an NBA team and play in the “N.B.A. – No Boys Allowed” Club. All of his eggs were in one basket: he would get-rich-quick, rise to stardom, and live happily ever after.  He would stand with standouts such as Carmelo Anthony, Amare  Stoudemire and Joakim Noah, join with professional basketball’s elite, and acquire rock-star-status. But it was not meant to be. Regrettably, his boyish character and his sophomoric work ethic reinforced his rise and facilitated his fall. Fifty-eight players were drafted, but not Cooke. 

The hopes of Lenny Cooke are chronicled in the 2013 documentary bearing his name. In the film, one scene is as telling as any. At a basketball camp, Lenny is seen with dozens of other basketball hopefuls. They all are told to do 25 push-ups. Lenny is shown getting on his hands in preparation to do his push-ups, but he in fact only does two – just two. 

Hope has a foundation. Unfortunately, Cooke was gifted but not grounded; he was granted ability but it was garnished by his audacity. He was enticed and entangled and entitled; yet he was destined but not determined. He had physical agility but lacked moral stability. His flair was eclipsed by his fickleness, and his lack of character could not protect him where his poor decisions had carried him.  Sounds a lot like Samson.

The hope of Israel lay in the strength of the judge miraculously born to Manoah and his barren wife. Yet Samson’s life was rife with dubious decisions and licentious living. His hope was in his strength and his strength was in his Nazarite vow not to cut his hair. Instead of trusting in the Lord, Samson made his gift his god.  And so did Lenny Cooke.

And so, let’s not rise to that level of pride or fall to that level of failure. Lenny now gives advice to young ballers who, as he did, want to get rich quick by building all of their hopes on a pipe dream. And one silver lining in Cooke’s commentary is that his friend, Joakim Noah, produced the documentary. Lenny learned the hard way that misplaced and misguided hope makes the heart sick. Let’s learn the lesson of Lenny. Let’s trust in God alone. 

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