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Chicago JK
06-18-2003, 11:13 PM
So Many Lennys Are Trying to Make It
By HARVEY ARATON


ENNY COOKE had the ball on the left side of the floor, a hop in his step, a gleam in his eye. No. 33 in the home whites of the Brooklyn Kings, he turned on the defender and began to back his way in.

"O.K., right here, he should be turning, facing, faking, going right around his man,'' said a courtside observer, the original King from Brooklyn, the Knicks' legend named Bernard. "You don't get the ball 20 feet from the basket and back your man in, at least not at the next level."



Cooke, continuing to use his posterior as a power drill, pounded the ball, as the defender gave ground. Tim Duncan was not coming to help; nor was anyone else. Inevitably, Cooke was deep into the paint, perfectly positioned to force a foul.

Bernard King, unimpressed, noted Cooke's shooting guard's size, a muscular 6 feet 6 inches, and said: "In the N.B.A., he's not going to be able to do that. He's going to have to make a quick move to the basket or create separation to get off his jumper.''

The basket did account for 2 of Cooke's 47 points in the Kings' 126-120 victory over the Brevard Blue Ducks on Tuesday night at the Schwartz Center on the Long Island University campus in downtown Brooklyn. Forty-seven points in a professional basketball game - even in the United States Basketball League - must mean something, but what?

Did they suggest that Cooke is still the prospect he was heralded as when he went one on one with LeBron James a couple of years ago at one of those meat-market camps for high school studs?

James recently signed with Nike for a reported $90 million and will be anointed next week as the Chosen One, the first pick of the 2003 N.B.A. draft, by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Cooke declared himself eligible last year after a transient scholastic life and wound up unemployed, until landing this spring with the Kings, in the borough he grew up in, for paychecks of a few hundred dollars.

Just turned 21, he is averaging about 30 points a game in a budget-challenged league that has, nonetheless, graduated dozens to the aforementioned next level. The competition, an assortment of former college players, some of whom tasted the big time, most of whom are passing time, represents the best Cooke has faced. Yet if it is possible to score 47 points and grab 17 rebounds and not answer the most pertinent questions regarding his future, this is the place.

"What you're looking for is the ability to shoot the jumper, put the ball on the floor, draw double teams, kick it to the open man," King said. "You're looking for the fundamentals, the conditioning, the ability to not play down to the competition."

In downtown Brooklyn as part of a promotion, King, whose unique post-up game and explosive turnaround jump shot made him, at 6-7, virtually impossible to guard straight up during his prime, was responding less to Cooke's results than to the rudiments of his game.

Of course King was familiar with LeBron but no, he had not heard of Lenny. How could it be, King asked, that Cooke was rated so high and veered so far off course? He listened to the story, with all the modern trappings: the academic woes, the high school hopping, the circle of sycophants, the bad advice to turn pro despite no evidence he was high on any team's list.

"So many of these young kids think it's all about talent," King said. "That's what I told these guys before the game: be honest with yourself when you ask, did I work as hard as I could, harder than I did last time."

He noticed Cooke trailing too much in defensive transition and bending over, hands on his knees, when play was stopped. But he liked his nose for the ball, his willingness to pass, his jump-shot range when Cooke hit a 3-pointer from the left wing, albeit his only perimeter basket of 18 shots made.

"In fairness, he's playing out of position," King said, a situation Cooke would later explain as life in a league with few quality big men.

After a year and a half out of organized ball, Cooke is playing again, and that, ultimately, is what those 47 points most meant. He said he had rid himself of his posse and reconnected with Debbie Bortner, the New Jersey woman whose family Cooke lived with for a year and who cheered him on Tuesday night. He has an agent - a former Bronx prosecutor, Ken Glassman - who doesn't tell him he is LeBron, or the next best thing.

"The phone is ringing," Glassman said. "There's interest for N.B.A. summer league teams."

Seattle has called and Boston, too, but every year now the odds get worse as the N.B.A. talent pool has widened to welcome the world.

Too few LeBrons, so many Lennys, young men who embody an American system churning out players who are, sadly, overindulged and underprepared.

"I got bigheaded a little bit," Cooke said. "Now I'm just working on my game, four hours a day.

"Maybe," he decided, "last year wasn't my time."

In time, so long as he keeps playing, keeps working, who knows? Far away from courtside, taken from a box score, 47 points represent more than half of what the Nets mustered per game against the Spurs. Thirty a night on average, in any league, should earn Cooke the chance at least to prove he can take his game outside the paint and the county of Kings.