Kofi Cockburn plops down on the leather folded chairs inside of the visitor’s locker room at Mackey Arena and stares blankly at the adjoining wall as Illinois head coach Brad Underwood addresses Cockburn and his teammates following an 84–68 drubbing at No. 3 Purdue on Feb. 8.
Naturally, Cockburn is mad, but it’s less just give him a second mad and more I want to snap this chair in two with my bare hands—a viable option for the 7-foot, 285-pounder.
He settles on suppression, fighting back angry tears and biting the walls inside his mouth as sweat pools under him on the cold floor. The irony?
This is precisely the scenario Cockburn wanted when he announced his intentions last July to return to Illinois for his junior season.
Cockburn initially declared for the NBA draft, only to remove his name and enter the transfer portal. He flirted with Florida State and Kentucky before ultimately deciding to return to Champaign.
“I came back to cement my legacy,” Cockburn says. “I wanted to lead. I wanted it to be on me. I wanted all of that.”
Truth is, though he’s built like a bulldozer with similar transport abilities, Cockburn had previously never had to carry the weight of a team’s successes and failures predominantly on his shoulders.
In high school, Cockburn played at national hoops powerhouse Oak Hill Academy alongside ball-dominant snipers like current Orlando Magic point guard Cole Anthony and Brooklyn Nets guard Cam Thomas. Then, over the past two seasons, Cockburn played “Robin” to Ayo Dosunmu’s “Batman” before the star guard got drafted by the Chicago Bulls last summer.
So, while he’s downright livid following the loss to the Boilermakers, he embraces it the same way he did following his 37-point, 12-rebound performance in a win over Wisconsin six days prior.
“At some point, you have to find the right perspective,” Cockburn says. “Purdue is a great team, they’re at home, they’re No. 3. We didn’t do what we had to do to win. Next, I just smile and appreciate the process because it’s preparing us for our main goal. I always remember that the other guys are watching me, so it’s always about learning and moving on.”
He kept the same approach when he was sidelined the first three games of the season due to an NCAA suspension and even recently when he sat out two games under concussion protocol.
“Kofi’s never had a bad day,” Underwood says. “His leadership comes in a different form than Ayo, but it’s very effective. He’s so unselfish and he’s a great teammate and that permeates through our team. He’s done an amazing job as Batman.”
Cockburn says his leadership style is a combination of his "smile early and often" personality and small pieces of each of his former leaders.
“Just watching guys like Jose Alvarado when I was at Christ the King, then Cole, then, of course, Ayo, I picked up things from all of them,” Cockburn said. “I feel like my strength as a leader is my charisma. I know how to talk to each guy. My mom always taught me to lead with respect and people will give it back. I demand respect because I’m the first to give it. Mostly, I just talk to God about how to lead. He directs my path.”
Cockburn’s faith was the go-to formula he used this past summer when mulling over his next steps on the hardwood. “God definitely told me to come back,” the junior says. “This is where he’s always wanted me, and I’m slowly seeing His plan come to light. I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a person in this role, and on the court being Batman has made me a better player in every way.”
The numbers certainly backup the claim: Cockburn is up substantially in virtually every stat this season, averaging 21.6 points on 60% shooting from the field and grabbing 11.2 rebounds a game for the Fighting Illini, who are currently in a tie for first in the Big Ten with Wisconsin.
Cockburn’s free-throw shooting has also vastly improved, up to 66% this year from 55% last season.
Still, of all the hikes in numbers, Cockburn is most proud of his work on the glass, where he’s up two rebounds a game year-over-year.
“This is the toughest league to get boards,” Cockburn explains. “Every team really focuses on that, so to be able to keep my numbers up on that is something I’m really proud of. My mentality on the court is that no one can stop me but me. I know that I’m the only one that can stop me. It’s me against myself at all times. My teammates have put a lot of faith in me, and I love challenging myself to constantly rise to the occasion.”
It certainly helps the trust factor to have the guy Underwood calls “potentially the most beloved person in the state of Illinois” at the controls. Cockburn personifies the phrase to know me is to love me.
“He’s always got a smile on his face and he’s the most jovial player I’ve ever had,” Underwood says. “He puts a smile on everybody’s face when they see him without trying. He genuinely cares about people; you can feel it. It’s second nature to him.”
In August, Cockburn learned that Jim Cotter, a longtime local reporter who covered the Illini, passed away and had a son, Austin, who was a senior on the nearby St. Joseph-Ogden High School football team.
The news struck Cockburn, who could relate to the pain after losing his father Laffette at 16. As a result, he felt an instant connection with Austin, and without hesitation, Cockburn rounded up a few teammates and stood on the sideline at his next game to show support.
“I wanted to be there for him,” Cockburn says. “Seeing someone that not only cares about your pain but can relate to it makes all the difference in these situations. Trust me. He was so happy that we were there, and that made my whole week.”
With less than a month to go until the Big Ten tournament, Cockburn is out to try and make his whole year, and he’s convinced that there’s only one way to attain that goal.
“I want to win it all,” he says. “I know that we can.”
To bring said knowledge to fruition, Cockburn says the Illini will have to take their focus to a level they have yet to reach this season.
“We have to lock in mentally in every aspect more than ever,” he says. “We can score and we’re a really sound team defensively, but we have to take it all up a notch. The biggest thing is our attention to detail, limiting mistakes and things like that. I’ll push guys when I need to and praise them when it’s time to do that. I know it starts with me, so as the leader I’ll even have to lead better.”
And, as always, with a smile.
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