CHAMPAIGN — Kofi Cockburn had plenty to consider when making the decision about what was next.
Figuring out where he stood when it came to his NBA chances was first. Cockburn initially considered it a big step potentially moving on from college basketball. Getting into the process — going through workouts and the G League Elite Camp — proved to himself he belonged.
Cockburn didn’t rush into that opportunity, though. He checked his ego, opting for another season of college basketball and, ultimately, another at Illinois despite a venture into the transfer portal.
Making the decision to return to college basketball and eschew the financial gains of a professional contract easier was the adoption of name, image and likeness legislation — both in Illinois and on a national level by the NCAA.
The Kingston, Jamaica, native would be given the chance to not only add to his legacy at Illinois and end his Illini career on his own terms — and not on the low of an early exit in the NCAA tournament — but also benefit from the image and brand he’d already built.
“It had a really big impact,” Cockburn said of the role the changes in NIL made in finalizing his decision about the 2021-22 season. “That’s one of my main goals for working this hard is financial reasons. I want to help my family and put them in good situations. NIL really gave me a chance to take a deep breath like, ‘Relax now and make sure you’re making the right decision and not rushing it.’
“It definitely gave me that wakeup call that you could go back to college. A lot of guys that want to go pro early, this is going to give them a chance to say, ‘I don’t need to rush it.’ Keep them level-headed. I can stay here, develop my game and get better and give myself the best opportunity while making money.”
Cockburn hasn’t — and won’t — focus too much of his time and effort on the business side of his basketball career.
At least initially. His attention will be on improving his game and elevating Illinois basketball. People he trusts will handle potential endorsements and NIL opportunities.
How financially beneficial those opportunities could be is still to be determined. Illinois coach Brad Underwood referenced the numbers out of Alabama football. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said quarterback Bryce Young, who hasn’t taken a snap yet as the team’s presumptive starter, is nearing $1 million in deals.
“I think Kofi’s earning potential is high,” Underwood said. “Don’t ask me to put a number on that, because everybody’s definition of high could be different. I think you’re taking about a national player of the year. I think you’re talking about an Illini great.
“I think you’re talking about one of the largest alumni bases in the country. We’re extremely active on social media. I think you’re talking about a lot of positives for our athletes. That’s something that will be exciting to see how that all plays out.”
That Cockburn can potentially exploit multiple markets could increase his NIL value. He’s from Jamaica, broke out as a basketball player in New York City and now heads into the 2021-22 college basketball season as a likely preseason All-American on an Illinois team that has Final Four potential with him back on the roster.
“Jamaica, they support me a lot,” Cockburn said. “That’s my country. I’m representing them. I think I’m representing them well. That’s definitely going to open up opportunities for me back home.”
There’s already a mural in Kingston featuring multiple images of Cockburn playing for the Illini. The support from his home country means quite a bit. That’s particularly true given Cockburn only started playing basketball competitively when he arrived in the U.S. for high school.
“I cried when I saw that,” Cockburn said of the mural. “It was really incredible just knowing that my country is supporting me. They send me videos of them watching the game of how pumped they are. We celebrate differently back home. It’s a lot more banging and a lot more screaming and yelling. It’s a great feeling.
“I’m really aware of (the support). That’s keeping me level-headed, and that’s keeping me humble. I know how much better I got in such a short period of time, and I know how much better I can get. I always remember where I came from. That definitely has a huge part to play in who I am and what I stand for.”