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Illinois basketball career now entering the rearview, star big man Kofi Cockburn is eyeing his NBA future and perhaps a Fighting Illini reunion.
Kofi Cockburn wants to play basketball in the state of Illinois next year. Ideally, it will be in Chicago with the NBA Bulls alongside his former college teammate at Illinois, Ayo Dosunmu.
“I would love it, man,” Cockburn told FanSided. “I was just talking with Ayo Dosunmu yesterday on the phone and we basically spoke on that. I was just telling him that would be insane if we reunited in Chicago. I think that would be big time. I love Chicago, I love the state of Illinois.”
Cockburn led Illinois to a share of the Big Ten regular season title this past season and was the only player in college basketball to average over 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. Similar to Dosunmu when he was coming up the college ranks, few NBA scouts are high on Cockburn. He is expected to be a late second-round pick at best.
Dosunmu was drafted 38th overall. Cockburn is not letting his likely low draft position affect his confidence and is using Dosunmu’s success as proof anything is possible.
“I don’t care if I go un-drafted,” Cockburn said. “I know when I get my opportunity I am going to show people that I belong there. Ayo went out and he did it and people realize now that he was really a lottery pick. I have that spirit, I’m a real hard worker, I’m focused, I’m dedicated at the end of the day that is going to pay off, it’s gonna show.”
Hard work is one thing, but there is also the talent and skill to do multiple things on the court that is required in today’s NBA. Cockburn is hopeful to be invited to NBA pre-draft camps and show what his game looks like without the shackles of college basketball where he was asked to play on the low block nearly every time down the court.
“My coach (Brad Underwood) is not coaching me in college basketball to send me to the next level, he is coaching me to win basketball games here,” Cockburn said. “In the future I will have the opportunity to show people what I am capable of doing– that I am capable of playing at the next level.”
Cockburn has yet to decide when that future will be. He has another year of eligibility at Illinois and has been making money from NIL deals. Life as a college student is not too bad these days even for someone who came from a meager financial upbringing. Thankfully, there is no immediate pressure to make money now.
“A lot of kids like myself that came from having less, we try to strive to make a life for ourselves and our families,” Cockburn explained. “Being able to use NIL right now gave me an opportunity to relax and make a more steady decision instead of rushing just because we want to get to that level and start making money. It gives us a chance to evaluate our options come back to school advance in our academics and try to get better while making money. That definitely had a huge role to play in my decision. Just taking it day by day making sure I make the right decision making sure we know the pros and cons of coming back and leaving.”
Cockburn is from a large family in Jamaica. His mother made the difficult decision move to New York City without her family when Kofi was 10 years old to make more money.
“We knew what it was, it was definitely tough watching her leave and being away from here that long. It was really hard but we got through it together,” Cockburn said.
The experience of seeing his Mom leave and then eventually coming to New York himself without the language skills needed to immediately fit in impacted Cockburn. He yearns to be known for more than just being a basketball player that stands out because of his size and color.
“Black athletes are just athletes, or are just seen as entertainment,” Cockburn explained. “That is a huge stereotype, especially in America where if you an athlete and you are a black person people will see you as that. A person like me, for instance, my basketball career has been great but if you really know me you know that I am way more than just a great athlete. I have a great mind. I’m really inspiring to people back home regardless of my athletic stature. People look up to me because I overcame things that nobody thought I could.”
Whenever you see Cockburn outside of competition there is a great chance he has a smile on his face. His easy-going demeanor can be traced back to his Jamaican roots. He nearly leaned into the relaxed, chill, let’s hang out vibe too much when he was young with his other 11-year-old friends who were adult partying.
“I used to see it a lot and envy them,” Cockburn recalled. “I used to want to go out there and do all that stuff, but my brother made sure he kept me in line, he made sure I kept my head on straight.”
The work ethic Coburn’s brother helped instill in him has put Cockburn on the precipice of a pro career honed for nearly a decade. Most importantly to Cockburn will be striving to make a difference in the world both on and off the court. His heart is impossible to miss.
“I try to put a smile on my face, I try to create that good energy that good environment where people are happy,” Cockburn explained. “I think you bring out the best in people because they see that and they want to be that person they are seeing. It’s magnetic. Changing that stereotype making people know that we are not just athletes, but we are human beings too with goals off the court. We have feelings, we love like everybody else we have emotions. My ultimate achievement is to change lives and inspire people from back in my country especially.”
Cockburn’s NBA and giving back dreams should make all of us smile.