NBA legend Joakim Noah calls former PBA import Lenny Cooke 'real legend'

NBA legend Joakim Noah calls former Magnolia star Lenny Cooke his idol, and Noah hopes the younger generation will learn a lot about how Cooke's career went. NBA Philippines
By Ivan Saldajeno

MANILA--Lenny Cooke became an infamous example of a high school basketball standout who never got to translate his stellar play to the NBA.

However, for Joakim Noah, Cooke was his inspiration to strive in his basketball career.

"Lenny is a real legend to a lot of people. He's inspired a lot of people, especially in New York City. He was somebody that I knew since I was 12 years old, being able to play with him," said Noah, who visited the Philippines for a series of events organized by Hennessy and NBA Philippines.

The 6-foot-11 center was the special guest of a Jr. NBA clinic that took place at the Gatorade Hoops Center in Mandaluyong on Sunday to cap his Philippine tour.

Lenny Cooke, Joakim Noah's idol, in retrospect

Cooke had a stellar 2001-2002 campaign with the Long Island Panthers in the Amateur Athletic Union, and Noah, then a high school freshman, witnessed it first-hand as his teammate.

Already touted as a sensation to the point that he was even being compared to contemporaries like LeBron James, Amar'e Stoudemire, and Carmelo Anthony, Cooke, ranked the number one high school player at that time, decided to declare for the 2002 NBA Draft, skipping college all along.

It turned out to be a very risky move as the six-foot-six wingman never got drafted to the NBA, an early sign that there was already concern about how his career was being handled.

"Unfortunately, there's a lot of distractions in New York City, and he wasn't able to play at the level that he did. But at the end of the day, I know that sometimes, it's what not to do, and Lenny was in a position where a lot was thrown at him very young. Sometimes, that's tough," Noah continued.

Cooke found himself throwing his name into the 2002 NBDL, now known as the NBA G-League, Draft, but he was drafted in the 11th round by the Columbus Riverdragons.

After the franchise now known as the Austin Spurs waived him, he found himself playing in the defunct USBL for the Brooklyn Kings, becoming the 2003 Rookie of the Year and scoring leader.

Coach Ryan Gregorio then took a chance on Cooke and recruited him to the Purefoods franchise in a bid to stay alive in the 2003 PBA Reinforced Conference.

In just eight games as a replacement for Harold Arceneaux, Cooke took the PBA by storm and averaged barely under 38 points per game alongside a tad above 17 rebounds.

Despite the jaw-dropping stats, the TJ Hotdogs still missed the quarterfinals, losing to Alaska in the wildcard game.

After starring for the Shanghai Sharks in the CBA, Cooke found himself returning to the TJ Hotdogs for the 2004 PBA Fiesta Conference.

However, his second stint with the Purefoods franchise currently going by the name Magnolia Hotshots was cut short with an Achilles tendon injury that effectively sidelined him for the rest of the conference.

Worst, he met another career-altering event, this time a car accident, in December of that year that ultimately sidelined him for the rest of the 2004-2005 pro basketball circuit.

Cooke, then playing for the Long Beach Jam in the revived ABA, suffered fractures in his left shin and femur and was relegated to a wheelchair for months.

Cooke tried one more crack at a successful pro career in Kuwait in 2008, but with the pain still lingering in his leg, that stint was also cut short.

After a long while, Cooke returned to club basketball with the ABA's Camden Monarchs, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he had to call it a career without once again finishing a season.

He was last known to have taken a role as a general manager at another ABA club and has been a motivational speaker as well.

Citing Cooke's career as one of the examples, the NBA made its draft eligibility rules a bit stringent, requiring applicants to be at least 19 years old with one full year removed from high school graduation, basically preventing high school stars from jumping straight to the league.

Initially interpreted by many that high school standouts must at least finish one season of college ball before entering the NBA, it paved the way for the rise of what has often been known as one-and-done players.

Recently, though, alternatives surfaced like the NBA G-League Ignite and Overtime Elite, and there is also the option of playing pro ball overseas first before declaring for the NBA Draft.

Cooke's sudden rise and eventual drastic fall became the subject of a 2013 documentary film with Noah, who became a two-time All-Star and an All-NBA First Team member, listed as an executive producer.

The documentary, which was meant to deliver a message to student-athletes to be already careful with their career decisions while still young, was met with raves from film critics.

Meanwhile, during the Jr. NBA basketball clinic, Noah told the young hoopers to improve their work ethic, citing how he made his way up from being a benchwarmer during Cooke's heydays to becoming a key player for the Chicago Bulls during the early 2010s.

Noah also cited how James, who is turning 40 this December and is set to team up with his son Bronny with the Los Angeles Lakers, continues to be in peak condition as if he is still in his prime.

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