LeBron James actor Mookie Cook takes his talents to Oregon

When Chris Robinson signed on to direct LeBron James’ biopic in 2019, one of the initial challenges was finding an actor who would fit the lead role. “Shooting Stars,” slated for release in 2023, is based on James’ high school days in Akron, Ohio. There were a lot of basketball scenes in the script, and it wasn’t exactly easy to find a 6-foot-9 athlete who even looked like James or his game. “It just wasn’t working,” Robinson said. Athleticism. “I was like, I think we’re barking up the wrong tree.”

Robinson reached out to an old friend, Jerome Hipps, who played college basketball at Lehigh and had a son who played for years on the local scene. Robinson and Hipps began traveling the country, entering tournaments and looking for their young LeBron. Robinson says it seemed Hipps knew every young prospect in the country; at midnight one night, Hipps sent Robinson a photo of Mookie Cook, a 6-foot-7 five-star winger in the Class of 2023 who re-committed to Oregon on Friday afternoon.

“Does he feel a little LeBron-ish for you?” asked Hipps.

Robinson agreed but was not totally sold. After considering more leads, Robinson finally hopped on a Zoom with Cook last winter. Cook had just finished practice for his AZ Compass prep school in Chandler, Arizona, and was about 10 minutes late as he rushed to find a place with sufficient Wi-Fi, making do with a resonating locker room . Bad acoustics didn’t matter.

“As soon as I saw him,” Robinson said, “I was like, this is the guy. This is him.”

Shortly after, when Robinson brought Cook to Los Angeles to read lines, he was completely sold.

“He was so charismatic,” Robinson said. “And having never really acted before, he just sort of took on the script.”

When Cook’s dad called to tell him he’d gotten the part, “I freaked out,” Cook said. “I just started jumping for joy.”

It would have been easy to feel overwhelmed by having to play James, but Cook was generally unfazed. It may have helped that Cook had a history with James, spending time with him when he was in eighth grade when he played alongside James’ son Bronny on a team called Blue Chips. That summer, the team stayed with James at an AirBnB house in Las Vegas for a tournament. Cook talks about spending time with James quite nonchalantly, as if it were just a common childhood experience.

Acting in a film without any acting experience? He seemed indifferent to that too. Just like in basketball, preparation was key. In May, Cook went to Ohio for a two-week prep period where he worked with an acting coach and then began filming. The only downside was that he had to ditch his dreads and get a haircut that resembled James’ style at the time. “At the time, they had no line upsaid her mother, Chantel. “He said, ‘Mom, look how they cut my hair!'”

Cook was locked in to nail all the other parts of being James. He tried to mimic the way James dribbles. “Straight up,” he said, straightening his posture to illustrate.

The hardest parts, he said, were making sure he spoke his lines naturally and deepening his voice to the baritone superstar of the Los Angeles Lakers. Robinson also had to remind Cook not to smile so much. Cook is a smile; James often kept a straight face, especially on the floor.

“I always reminded him, you’re LeBron James,” Robinson said. “Play like him.”

This meant that Cook had to master the patented one-handed, cocked James dunk. It took a few takes, but then… “When he got it, the whole place blew up,” Robinson said. “When you see it, you know it.”

Robinson took pride in making sure the basketball scenes looked authentic. The cast would practice parts that James’ high school, St. Vincent-St. Mary, used to run. While most basketball scenes were choreographed, he occasionally allowed free play.

“I would say to guys, ‘Yo, this is a LeBron James movie. So Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is going to watch this. And Ja Morant is going to watch this, and anybody who’s played basketball at the YMCA or the NBA is going to watch that and review that and they’re going to watch your game,” Robinson said.

Robinson would ask the opposing team not to let Cook’s team score. “You have to win this game,” he would tell his St. Vincent-St. Mary’s crew. “Because everyone is watching.” That’s when he would see Cook really transform into James, make extra passes and have a real presence on the floor.

“There’s a great scene when he dives the ball and goes down, and he did the LeBron walk. You know, when LeBron comes back on defense, he’s just kind of a big dog coming back on the court,” said Robinson: “And it’s one of those times when you’re sitting there staring at the monitor, and you’re like, wow, he just became LeBron James.”

Robinson said Cook was also a natural actor. His childlike curiosity made him even better, as he wanted to learn more about the process and would hang around after his scenes looking at storyboards and asking the crew questions. “I watched his movie IQ grow during production,” Robinson said.

Robinson thinks the film also works because the cast that played James’ group of best friends became instantly close. “It was like a family,” Cook said.

“You hear these stories about classic movies like ‘The Lost Boys’, movies where there’s a lot of young people around and it becomes a certain camaraderie which is that kind of magic that’s hard to expect,” said Robinson. “But when things are going well and the situation is conducive to success and support, people do what they naturally do. And if you connect, you connect. If you don’t, you don’t. But this group of guys is super tight.

Actors who have played the St. Vincent-St. Mary’s team has stayed in touch and remains close, Cook said. He regularly sends text messages to the other four. A highlight for him was becoming friends with Caleb McLaughlin, who plays Dr. Joyce III and is known for his role as Lucas in the Netflix series “Stranger Things.”

“He’s super cool. He’s my boy,” Cook said.

During production, Cook brought his basketball coach with him and made sure to work on his game. The Portland, Oregon native is ranked as the No. 4 prospect and No. 2 small forward in the class 2023, according to the 247Sports Composite. He signed with Dana Altman and the Ducks in March but reopened his recruiting in late June, sending elite programs like Gonzaga, Arizona and Kentucky to pursue his services. But Cook ended up back at his home public school.

The Ducks land a smooth operator who, like James, has a striker’s bodyguard skills. He wanted to play in a rhythm system where guys his size aren’t just relegated to the position. Oregon now has two big all-around wings in him and fellow five-star Kwame Evans Jr. who are more modern forwards.

Cook is focused on basketball, but at the end of the grassroots season, he started thinking about playing again and said he had already sparked some interest.

He will still be known as James once the movie is released. He’s already experiencing what it’s like to be known as the guy who played king. Last month, at a Nike EYBL tournament in Kansas City, Cook reenacted a scene from a game that day in his hotel room with a teammate.

“Remember when I missed the lay-up to tie the game?” said Cook. “The dude was like, ‘LeBron missed the layup! LeBron missed the layup!’

Robinson is working on the final cuts of “Shooting Stars” and says he’s two weeks away from turning in the director’s cut. He does not know how it will be published. He heard different possibilities – straight to the theater or IMAX or streaming on Peacock.

The movie could air during Cook’s first season, which would only increase the hype around him and his college career. Fans shouldn’t expect him to play like James on the pitch. He doesn’t quite have the power or explosiveness of LeBron – who does? But Cook added one more thing to his arsenal after playing the King.

“The fadeaway,” he said, flashing his big smile. “It definitely works.”

(Photo: Gregory Payan/Associated Press)

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