Illini great Kofi Cockburn heads to Japan without shame, his fire for the NBA still burning

“The world is not a fair place,” Cockburn said. “Sometimes, you have to take what life gives you.”

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Kofi Cockburn during a game last season at Illinois.

Kofi Cockburn during a game last season at Illinois.

Michael Allio/AP

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois came out shooting every which way but straight last Friday against Kansas City, missing on its first 12 attempts from long range. It sure was an effective way to kill the mood after raising a banner in celebration of last season’s Big Ten regular-season co-championship. Lowering 15,000 blindfolds to protect onlookers from the unsightly display might have been a better idea.

It was the kind of game against a minor opponent that an old-school, back-to-the-basket, 7-foot true center could have easily dominated. Kofi Cockburn, in town for the banner ceremony and watching from a seat behind the basket in blue jeans and a hoodie, likely had the same thought a time or two.

“I know I could still be out there,” he said beforehand, gesturing at the court from a State Farm Center tunnel.

But Cockburn — the third two-time All-American in school history — had other plans. By Wednesday evening, he expected to be on the ground in Nagaoka, a Japanese city of a little over a quarter-million, where his new professional team, Niigata Albirex BB, plays in a building with roughly one-third the capacity of his alma mater’s arena.

Cockburn — his NBA dream on hold — is on a one-year contract.

“I still think I’m the best of the best,” he said, “so I expect myself to be in the best [league]. That’s the desire that I have, to be in the NBA, and one day I will be. One day. But right now, it’s just a slow grind.”

And kind of a cruel one, if we’re being honest. Cockburn was a great college player, not a good one. The Illini rode on his massive shoulders to a three-season Big Ten record of 44-16. In an era better suited to his talent, the NBA draft lottery would have been waiting for him. At the Draft Combine at Wintrust Arena in May, a former coach and general manager told the Sun-Times Cockburn “easily” would have been a top-five pick a generation ago. Alas, he was not picked in the first round or the second, and a free-agent opportunity with the Jazz simply didn’t go well enough.

If Cockburn tunes into an NBA game now, he’s bound to see at least one of his college contemporaries out there living the dream. Three of his fellow first-team All-Americans were selected in the top 14 of the draft. Four second-teamers went in the top six. Two third-teamers were taken in the first round, including No. 1 overall pick Paolo Banchero. Star post players Oscar Tshiebwe of Kentucky and Drew Timme of Gonzaga stayed in school and are raking in NIL dough.

Maybe Cockburn should have stuck around for another year — or even two — himself and been the ultimate Big Man on Campus. A star nicknamed “King Kofi” would have lined his pockets nicely via endorsements, there’s no doubt, and many an Illini fan has made it clear on social media that Cockburn made a big mistake by turning pro. But Cockburn never saw the sense in projecting the message that he, of all people, was unwilling to bet on himself.

“I made my choice,” he said. “It was a tough choice, and it was a long process, but I ultimately made it and I feel good with it. So it is what it is.”

No regrets?

“I never have regrets,” he said.

No pangs of envy — or of “FOMO,” the fear of missing out — as he watches guys whose butts he kicked just last season paying their NBA dues with eight-figure contracts?

“Not at all,” he said. “The world is not a fair place, but I’ve learned to accept that from a young age. My mom always told me, ‘Sometimes coffee and sometimes tea.’ Things aren’t always going to go your way. Sometimes, you have to take what life gives you. Life gives you lemons, you make lemonade, right? That’s my position right now. I’m going to make the best of it. I’m going to try and succeed. Whatever obstacles I have, whatever challenges I have, I’m going to try to overcome them.

“I look at these [NBA] guys and I’m happy for them. They’re doing well. I’ll be doing well, too, whenever I get there and start playing.”

As we spoke, Illini Coach Brad Underwood walked up behind Cockburn in the tunnel, put his arms around the 23-year-old and — smiling up at him — scratched his belly. Everybody was happy to have the King back in town. Maybe a bit sad or apprehensive, too, given the NBA’s cold shoulder to one of the school’s all-time greats.

Japan, eh? That’s a little bit different. It’s awfully far away.

“I’ll be OK,” Cockburn said. “It’s going to be an adjustment because I’ve never been to Asia, but I think I’ll enjoy it.”

And he isn’t giving up.

“Never,” he said. “This is my life, and I love it. If I have to fight for my dream, I will love doing it.”

Attitude? It’s king.

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