CHAMPAIGN — His head coach is among the 25,000-plus who’ve seen the “SportsCenter”-inspired viral video starring Illini basketball star — and new Stephens Family YMCA pitchman — Coleman Hawkins.
Brad Underwood’s review?
“He better work on his jump shot,” the Illinois coach joked. “You start to see a little bit of Coleman’s personality, but he’s definitely not in line to be the next Maverick in ‘Top Gun,’ that’s for sure.”
If you haven’t seen it, the two-minute, 39-second spoof on the ESPN ads starring big-name athletes shows Hawkins in a variety of roles — front-desk receptionist, lifeguard, fitness-class leader. It ends with “The Big Decision,” a mock press conference, where the junior-to-be from Sacramento, Calif., must choose between playing for Underwood or working at the Y.
The idea was hatched by Evan Scott, part of his spring internship at the Y. Little did he know then how it would take off.
“Looking back to when I first thought of the idea to seeing it actually manifest in the community — wow, it’s been cool,” he said.
Scott doesn’t claim to be a marketing expert. In fact, the recent University of Illinois-Springfield graduate, Mahomet native and son of Stephens Family YMCA CEO Jeff Scott wants to pursue a career in sports recreation. (“I love helping kids develop and grow,” he said.)
But during his internship, Scott couldn’t help but notice the number of Illini athletes — including standout center Kofi Cockburn — who were using the facility to film material for promotions tied to name, image, and likeness deals they’d struck with businesses.
It begged the question: Why couldn’t The Y do the same?
“I knew we couldn’t necessarily pay for those guys, like (Trent Frazier) and Kofi, because they had agents,” Scott said. “But I knew there was definitely an opportunity for us.”
A diehard Illini basketball fan, Scott realized Hawkins’ potential to play major minutes in Underwood’s rotation this fall. Scott said he seemed like “the perfect dude” to pull off an idea that blended elements of ESPN’s “This is SportsCenter” campaign with “The Office,” both for his potential to be a major player on next year’s team and his playful personality.
After the Y’s leadership team green-lit the idea, Scott and marketing director Renae Cory met with Kam Cox, who helps coordinate NIL deals for Illini athletes. Cox liked the pitch and figured Hawkins would be interested.
He figured right.
“I thought it was a brilliant idea,” Hawkins said. “I shared some thoughts that I had and we were able to work it out perfectly.”
The project was conceived during the crux of the Illini’s season — Scott emailed Hawkins just before the team departed for the NCAA Tournament in Pittsburgh and didn’t hear back until a few days after their return.
It took three separate two-hour shoots over the course of three weeks to pull off, with Champaign’s Sam Ambler serving as producer.
Hawkins “worked as hard as he could,” Scott said. “We would tell him what our vision was for a scene and he would try his hardest to execute that. I’m not asking for Oscar performances; I just want you to try hard. And he did every single time. He was a delight.”
It wasn’t Hawkins’ first time on camera — he’d taken part in a YouTube documentary series during his high school days at Prolific Prep — but acting isn’t exactly a skill the native Californian is known for.
“I was kind of nervous because my girlfriend happened to be there for the shoots,” Hawkins said. “It was a lot more pressure when you have some eyes on you … I’ve played in front of 15,000 people at State Farm Center, but three people in the background of the video shoot had me a little nervous.”
Not every scene made the final cut, including one in which Hawkins appears terrified on the Y’s rock climbing wall before the camera zooms out to reveal he’s just a foot or two off the ground.
Others, including a scene showing Hawkins blowing his whistle and chiding a group of kids for running by the pool, clicked with the audience.
But Hawkins’ favorite scene took place in the facility’s day care area.
“We had to shoot that one a lot because in the first couple of scenes, it was just too loud,” Hawkins said. “It was kind of short, but the kids did a really good job of screaming and I think I should have done a better job with my reaction. I should have just been even more confused.”
Hawkins was known to the YMCA staff long before filming started. In the summer of 2021, he frequented the facility to keep his basketball skills sharp while Illinois’ Ubben Basketball Complex was under construction.
After this experience, he’s welcome back anytime.
“He was super easygoing, great to work with, really responsive, just a lot of fun,” Jeff Scott said. “He actually decided to have some fun with it, which was cool.”