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Clockwise: Lenny Cooke in 2001, Andrew Wiggins, Aubrey Coleman, Aquille Carr for GQ

2006 was the second to last year I truly got to enjoy sports on a local level.

Sounds like an era ago but at that time, everything seemed rather clear to me. The six months prior to me graduating high school involved tons of hype surrounding our football team, the basketball team that would climb as far as we thought and then some. Our souls got crushed the first weekend in November on some terrible defensive scheme matched with some shoddy officiating and the closest I got to seeing an NBA star would occur later in the spring, when a then HS kid from New Orleans D.J. Augustin was a one man show for Hightower, effectively mesmerizing a gym before packing his bags to to go Austin for two seasons.

I personally know of one guy that went to the league, the NFL that is. A lanky kid named Stephen Williams who was clocking in NFL checks from the Arizona Cardinals last I checked. He dominated the MAC, overtook all of Toledo’s receiving records and then some. We called him “Sticks” because he was a bean pole, goofy as hell off the field but serious as hell on it.

When I topped out at 5’7″ on a good day, playing on a basketball court became the furthest dream I’d ever have. Yet it’s the one game I find myself passioned with to a soul. I eat up stats, look up old hood legends such as “Hook” Mitchell, Len Bias, Pee-Wee Kirkland and became slightly obsessed with the stories of the kids who picked up a ball, got insanely good and then somehow – one break altered their entire path.

There’s one that personally came close in the spring of 2010, the same year I was supposed to be walking across a stage accepting a diploma. That year, my pseudo alma mater had made it to the NCAA Tournament after going nuts in the Conference USA tourney weeks prior. The coach would be fired weeks later despite posting 20 win seasons in each of his tours there but everybody I knew marveled at Aubrey Coleman – a guy I went to high school with and graduated with, only to see him spend his hoop dreams overseas trying to latch onto an NBA squad.

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It wasn’t as if Aubrey was a high school phenom or anything of that nature – far from it. Never did anybody at Thurgood Marshall High School truly settle on him being the guy closest to NBA stardom. He got into knucklehead situations, balled as hard as he could in a rotation where stars or berserk scorers don’t dwell and seemed average mostly. We didn’t speak often, only exchanging head nods such, almost like a spectator keeping close attention to someone that might blow.

He bounced to a JUCO following high school, me insisting to my father I had a bone of seriousness inside of me to go to college as opposed to the Navy. When I spotted him on campus two years after graduation, I’d noticed a little more about him. He had bulked up, covered himself in tattoos and the chip on his shoulder had reached epic proportions. Aubrey wouldn’t be deterred by anybody. I wish I said the same thing about my school life in Third Ward.

Life happened then. UH went on a miracle run in the Conference USA tournament and Aubrey was the key, leading that squad which probably should have been NIT bound upon first glance to a showdown with Greivis Vásquez’s Maryland squad in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Somehow, the tourney also came around my first trip to SXSW so watching the game at a house with four strangers whom became long time friends was surreal. They were UH grads, one even revealing he’d put UH all the way into the Elite Eight in his bracket. We bled red and white thanks to tuition costs and memories and my rooting interest grew even more because of Aubrey. He led the nation in scoring that year – but didn’t see his name called on Draft night. He’s bounced around the D-League and overseas, still looking for his first taste of NBA stardom.

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I bet Lenny Cooke felt that way back in 2001, back when guys like Joakim Noah were fawning over him and he was considered the absolute can’t miss prospect coming out of high school. A weekend at the ABCD Camp in New Jersey in 2001 pretty much changed Cooke’s life – for the worst maybe. It’s a show of how someone can be tricked into believing they’re better than what everyone else can predict. Sonny Vaccaro knows phenoms. He was the one who discovered Ben Wilson back in 1984 and tabbed him as the best in the country before tragic endings came for him. And the tag has become a gift and a curse for some. Cooke thought it was a gift, having owned that ABCD Camp the year prior and obtaining MVP honors. A New York City baller felt it was his birthright to be the chosen one.

Chosen.

Cooke never saw the end coming so soon for him as it did, embarrassed on Draft Night 2002 after publicly announcing his intent for the NBA inside of Juniors’ restaurant. He didn’t predict LeBron James coming from nowhere in 2001 to wow everyone at the camp – and then have the heralded high school and transcendant basketball career he once thought was gifted to him. As legend has it, Cooke has the early advantage on James, using his quick handles and 6’6″ frame to embarrass LeBron with a nifty crossover and jumper. But LeBron soldiered on, lifting his squad with a now “typical” LeBron stat line including outscoring Cooke 25-9, the last points coming on a cutthroat jumper to win the game over him.

And like that, spirit crushed. Soul defeated.

Chosen no longer.

What happened to Cooke is what somewhat scares me about guys like Andrew Wiggins, who if not for David Stern’s age limitations on the draft (which could be called The Lenny Cooke/Korleone Young Rule in hindsight) would be heading to the league in June and not some top flight university that is begging for his one-year of legit eligibility. It scares me in the same way that Aquille Carr, a kid who is my height but an infinite gift when it comes to handles is heading overseas at 19, a father of one already stricken with a record for a domestic dispute with the child’s mother. Everybody isn’t blessed with superhuman strength and determination like Nate Robinson is but for Carr, it might be his only shot at breaking through to a league that sees stories like his almost on a yearly basis – kids that are a byproduct of ESPN hype and prodigious nurturing.

For every LeBron, KG & Kobe, there’s the middeling guys like Jermaine O’Neal who took a while before he finally panned out and Sebastian Telfair, who had an ESPN documentary about him and an LOI all but set for him to be coached by Rick Pitino at Louisville until he thought the league was a better option for him. He’s now on his sixth NBA squad since he was drafted, never living up to his aspirations as a NYC point guard who stole the show on the brightest of stages.

When Justin showed off a video of Seventh Woods yesterday, not only did my jaw drop at the things a 14-year old kid did on the court, it also put this eerie calm over my neck. This was Cooke, Wiggins, LeBron and to an extent Aubrey rolled into one – a supernatural talent who in a few years will be the top name on ESPN recruiting shows believing he’s the best in the world at his position.

Each of them took their shot, all of them believing if they exhalted their gifts to the best of their abilities they’d be on top. It’s all they happen to know – 94 feet of hardwood, two baskets in between and the adulation of strangers, friends, scouts and potential gateways to money in the stands. A theory Big K.R.I.T. leans on somewhat on King Remembered In Time, shoot first, see the consequences later. They all keep firing, even when knocked down or told they couldn’t do it or see themselves in the big lights or hear their names called before 20,000 fans instead of 5,000.

Some of them still hold that gun.

Some made a change.

Some still hold onto the dream.

And I still watch, thinking one day somebody who I watched from a certain point will become great on a level I only dreamed about.

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