CHAMPAIGN — Kofi Cockburn grew up in Jamaica wanting to play basketball. Mostly because his older brother, Nagash, played. Everything his brother did, Cockburn wanted to follow.
Cockburn ultimately didn’t play organized basketball until he moved from Jamaica to New York City. It was the epitome of a zero to 60 moment because not only had he travelled more than 1,500 miles from home, but his introduction to that level of basketball was playing at New York City powerhouse Christ the King.
Still, Cockburn brought with him an innate love of the game developed first in Jamaica and watching what he called the “old school” NBA. Jamaican legend Patrick Ewing, of course. Shaquille O’Neal, too. Makes sense for a now Illinois freshman center that checks in at 7-foot and 286 pounds.
Cockburn’s underlying love for the game dissipated during his junior and senior year of high school, though, as his recruitment picked up as a top-50 national prospect. He lost the sense of what drew him to the game in the first place. But he managed to rediscover the idea that basketball is supposed to be fun in Champaign in the form of teammate Giorgi Bezhanishvili.
“It’s a lot of pressure in high school when you’re supposed to be ‘really good,’” Cockburn said Friday morning, supplying the air quotes around really good. “(Basketball) just started looking like business to me. I started looking at it as business, and I realized I lost my way. That wasn’t the right way to look at it.
“Giorgi kind of reminded me of that. On my visit when I came here and saw how happy he was just to be here — he was here working and listening to music and so happy — I was like, ‘That’s what I need to be. That’s what I need to get back.’”
Cockburn and Bezhanishvili developed an easy bond this summer when the former arrived on campus. They knew each other in high school — Giorgi at The Patrick School in New Jersey and Cockburn in the city — and followed a somewhat similar path to get to Illinois as international players.
They both like to crack jokes, have fun. It simply clicked.
That Bezhanishvili could help Cockburn rediscover what he loved about basketball is something the Illini sophomore forward appreciates.
“That’s so cool to hear,” Bezhanishvili said during the team’s media day on Friday morning at the Ubben Basketball Complex. “Sometimes you just get lost in the process. We’re coming in every single day (at) 6 a.m. Then we go lift and have practice and go, go go. Coach is screaming. We’re trying to get better. You make some mistakes and get down on yourself and then you get better. You just get lost in the process and forget how you started this, and it’s just having fun.
“Just grab the ball and go have fun. That’s what it’s about. This game is about having fun when you play. What’s the point if you play and don’t have fun? I’m so happy Kof said that. He probably was lost in the process of proving this or doing this. Now he’s just having fun on the court and playing basketball.”
Cockburn had plenty of options before picking Illinois. The consensus four-star center saw his recruitment blow up after he moved to the United States. Not hard considering that move coincided with a six-inch growth spurt the summer before he turned 15 that got him to 6-11 by the time he began his freshman year at Christ the King.
“To be honest, I always knew it was going to happen,” Cockburn said. “It was a matter of when it was going to happen. My whole family is big. My dad is 6-7. My mom is 6-3. My brother is really big. When it happened I was like, ‘Oh, there it is.’”
Cockburn ultimately had nearly two dozen high-major offers as he starred at Christ the King and then finished his high school career last season at prep powerhouse Oak Hill Academy (Va.). But Illinois was the choice — the next step in his already lengthy journey.
“A lot of things could have happened in the couple years (before) I came here, but I’m just grateful I’m in this position where I can become better every day,” Cockburn said. “I’m around great people. It’s a blessing.
“It happened out of nowhere. I didn’t know what to expect. My mentors are great. My brother is great. He calls me every single day. I’m not really lost. I have people that grabbed me and said, ‘Look, this is what you need me to do. This is the right thing to do.’ I’m just happy I have great people around me.”
Illinois coach Brad Underwood is pretty happy, too. Working in a player of Cockburn’s size and caliber simply allows Underwood to do even more in his system. Still, the third-year Illini coach is, at least for now, tempering what Cockburn’s impact might be this season.
“He’s impressive, but he’s also a freshman,” Underwood said. “He has not played a game yet. There is going to be a huge learning curve. When you’re that big and that athletic you’ve pretty much had your way up until this point because you don’t see like size.
“There’s going to be some adjustment, but he has been very good. He’s an exceptional listener. He’s a young man that really wants to be coached and wants to become great. We’ve seen him get better every single day in every aspect.”