In the last twenty years, the names Schea Cotton and Lenny Cooke carried much weight in AAU hoops.
The two shined in an era where the preps to pros culture was the norm. Manhattan was bumping and jumping on Friday (April 22) when the high school basketball legends came together for the first time in an exclusive and ‘UNEDITED’ panel at the Microsoft Flagship Store. There they discussed their journeys, after the stardom, starting over and telling the world, “what happened,” in a discussion moderated by Brandon “Scoop B” Robinson, host of CBS Sports Radio’s Brown and Scoop and a writer who has covered the two extensively.
Cotton, now 37, was the cream of the crop in the late 90s. Mentioned nationally among top players like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Baron Davis, Jermaine O’Neal and Stephen Jackson, the former high school All-American was a star at Saint John Bosco and Mater Dei. Cotton averaged 24 points and 10 rebounds, leading Mater Dei to a 36–1 record. After a myriad of red tape issues with the NCAA over questions of SAT testing, he was unable to play for Long Beach State where he’d have joined his brother, nor would he be able to play at UCLA where he’d have been teammates with Baron Davis.
Following that controversy, he had a prep school stint at St. Thomas Moore High School in Connecticut. Cotton, an explosive combo shooting guard/small forward would end up going to Alabama where he played out of position at power forward. Cotton declared for the 2000 NBA Draft where he went undrafted. After playing professionally overseas for 10 years, Cotton now trains the next generation of kids and also travels around the country speaking to the next generation about the importance of making good choices. “Basketball is something that I did, it’s not who I am,” Cotton told the crowd at the panel.
“For these kids today, I tell them to go to class. Take care of your books.”
In 2001, Lenny Cooke, a Brooklyn, NY native, was a man among boys. A 6’6 slasher who in high school scouts ranked ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James, New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony and Miami Heat’s Amar’e Stoudemire was a stats stuffer at Northern Valley High School in Old Tappan, NJ. Cooke averaged 25 points, 10 rebounds, two steals, and two blocks and looked primed to make a splash in the NBA. But just two years later, Cooke found himself playing ball not for an NBA team, but for the Shanghai Dongfang Sharks.
During an ABCD camp high school basketball tournament run by Sonny Vaccaro in Teaneck, NJ, Cooke’s AAU team went head to head with LeBron James’ team. Cooke’s team had the lead and possession of the basketball. James stole the ball, scored on a fast break and won the game, in a play that introduced the world to the Akron, Ohio born baller who was later featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the cover titled, “The Chosen One.” Many believed that that play was a turning point for Cooke’s career. “LeBron deserves all that he got because he worked at it,” said Cooke. “I didn’t. I went off of talent.”
Cooke, now 33 lives in Virginia and is involved with hoops in some capacity, coaching at high school camps. “My name is Leonard Cooke, not Lenny,” Cooke said at the panel. “I am more than basketball. I’m a dad and I want to travel the world and inspire kids.” Ironically enough, he enjoys cooking, a craft he picked up while playing overseas. He plans to go back to school, get a degree and coach basketball.
Currently, Cotton’s documentary, Manchild, The Schea Cotton Story: A Dream Deferred, has been making its rounds in screeners across the country. Cooke was the subject of a documentary directed by brothers Josh and Benjamin Safdie who travel back in time and takes you through the life of a guy who had it all at an early age. SLAM Magazine, Parade Magazine and ESPN specialty shows like “The Life” were where Cotton and Cooke would get their shine in an age that existed before platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube. Both think that things would be different had those things existed back then. “If there was social media when I played I’d be in a mansion overlooking the ocean,” said Cotton.
“If there was social media when I played I would have a million followers,” said Cooke.