MANILA, NOVEMBER 7, 2003 (STAR) By Joaquin Henson - It’s do or die for purefoods import lenny cooke tonight. And he’s determined to survive his biggest test as a pro.

The Tender Juicy Hotdogs battle Alaska in a playoff for the last Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) Reinforced Conference quarterfinals ticket at the Cuneta Astrodome. If the Hot Dogs win, they advance to face Sta. Lucia Realty in a best-of-3 series. If they lose, Cooke packs up and goes home.

In PBA history, there hasn’t been a younger import. Cooke, 21, never went to college and applied for the 2002 National Basketball Association (NBA) draft as an early entry candidate. He was ignored in the draft and as a free agent, attended training camps of at least five NBA clubs. Cooke just couldn’t turn the corner.

Unable to break into the NBA, Cooke took his sneakers to the United States Basketball League (USBL) this past season and won Rookie of the Year honors. He was the USBL’s leader in average points (28.8), offensive rebounds (4.7) and steals (2.8). Cooke led the Brooklyn Knights to the USBL quarterfinals. It was far cry from the NBA. Cooke earned about $400 a week and took bus rides–not flights–to small gyms to play for the Knights.

Three years ago, Cooke was considered the top high school prospect in the US, rating higher than LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. But he couldn’t keep his focus, drifting from one high school to another until his resume listed five prep stops in five years.

Cooke, a New York playground legend who broke four glass backboards in high school, was once described by pro scouts as a Jerry Stackhouse play-alike. Lack of game maturity, however, hampered his progress. Cooke was in a hurry to play for pay and his haste turned to waste.

Now, Cooke is paying his dues. He’s gaining precious experience in his first overseas contract. He’s hoping to use the PBA as a springboard to make it to the NBA like Ansu Sesay, Richie Frahm and Tremaine Fowlkes–former imports now playing in the majors.

"All I need is one foot in the door," said Cooke, quoted by Mike Hutchinson. "I’ll take care of the rest. I can play a lot of different roles like Kobe (Bryant) or (Tracy) McGrady can. I can get my team involved all the time. Stephon (Marbury) told me that most of basketball is mental to be successful. Kobe told me that it’s a business and to go at everybody, no matter who it is."

Unlike Bryant or James who went straight from high school to the NBA, Cooke is struggling for an identity as a hoopster. His dream is to eventually join Bryant and James in the big leagues. He has a 3-year-old son Anahijae and he’d like nothing better than to guarantee a bright future for him. But for the moment, Cooke’s only goal is to bring Purefoods to the next level.

Cooke had an auspicious PBA debut, compiling 49 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists in 37 minutes against FedEx but alas, Purefoods lost a 121-105 decision last Oct. 3. Purefoods has won three of its last four games and Cooke is credited for fueling the reversal of fortunes. In a survival game against Shell last Sunday, Cooke delivered 42 points, 26 rebounds and nine assists as Purefoods carved out a 92-83 victory.

In seven games so far, Cooke has averaged a whopping 39.1 points.

Alaska is bannered by Ike Fontaine who played briefly for the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2001-02 campaign. Fontaine led the National Basketball Development League (NBDL) in three-point shooting last season–he hit .442 from beyond the arc for the champion Mobile Revelers.

Either Purefoods or Alaska will be Sta. Lucia’s opponent in the quarters. Realtors coach Alfrancis Chua isn’t taking any chances and recruited former Red Bull import Ray Tutt to replace ailing Damian Owens. Tutt arrived from Los Angeles yesterday morning.

"We’re lucky to pick up Ray," said Chua. "He’s a go-to guy and a big scorer. He’s the import who can bring us to the Finals. We’re also lucky that Ginebra beat Alaska last Wednesday because it postponed the start of the quarterfinals and gave us a chance to practice a few extra days with Ray."

Los Angeles-based Filipino import recruiter Mike Gonzalez took four days to convince Tutt to decline an offer to play in Europe and return here.

Tutt, 28, played for Red Bull in the 2000 and 2001 seasons. Then he saw action for Columbus in the NBDL and averaged 21 points for Jesi in the Italian league this past season. Tutt was plucked out of a Nike league in Miami to play for the Realtors.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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