Kofi Cockburn, Illinois’ supersized BMOC, is a still-growing force that can’t be contained

Big body, big game, big heart, big smile … big future? The junior center just might have it all.

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Illinois v Indiana

Cockburn operates against Indiana in a 74-57 victory for the Illini.

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

How big is Kofi Cockburn? So big, there’s a simple solution to a typically rugged Big Ten double-team in the post, and that is either the 7-foot, 285-pound Illinois junior’s left shoulder or his right one.

On Wednesday at Rutgers, Cockburn turned left, used the shoulder to knock a pair of defenders off their heels, dunked one-handed and drew a foul for the Illini’s first three points. By the time the Scarlet Knights blinked, the best center in college basketball had scored twice more on the way to yet another 20-point, 10-rebound game — his school-record 42nd double-double, the most by any NCAA player over the last three seasons.

Alas, it’s hard to win when the rest of the team shoots 1-for-14 from the three-point line in the first half. The 12th-ranked -Illini’s 70-59 loss dropped them a half-game behind Purdue for first place in the league at 11-4 heading into Saturday’s monster game at Michigan State.

If the Illini are going to win their first Big Ten regular-season title since 2005 — and eventually reach the Sweet 16 and beyond — Cockburn will need far better support from Trent Frazier, Alfonso Plummer, Andre Curbelo and the rest of his teammates. The Illini can’t reasonably expect to squeeze any more out of Cockburn than what they’ve been getting all season. They lean on the 22-year-old Jamaican more than last year’s team did on Ayo Dosunmu — maybe more than any Illinois team has leaned on any one player — and certainly no one on any NCAA Tournament-bound squad is more valuable.

“It’s OK with me,” Cockburn says. “I’m living for right now and trying to win a championship.”

It’s sometimes hard to believe Cockburn found Champaign in the first place. He grew up in Kingston, attended high school in New York and Virginia and attracted recruiting offers from all over the ACC, SEC and Big East. On his official visit to Illinois, in late December 2018, he witnessed a loss to Florida Atlantic that dropped Brad Underwood’s second Illini team to 4-9.

But there has been so much winning since then, with the big man right in the middle of it all.

Good lord, is Illinois ever lucky to have him.

Maryland v Illinois

Cockburn says of the love from fans: “It’s beautiful. It’s wonderful.”

Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

HOW BIG IS COCKBURN? So big, he is the literal embodiment of the “BMOC” — the big man on campus. Has any other Illini athlete been so instantly recognizable? Any student, any teacher, any coach, ever? There’s no way of being 100% certain, but let’s go with “no” because it suits the narrative and, besides, is only common sense.

“Word,” he says. “It’s actually true.”

Underwood says Cockburn is met by “intrigue and awe” wherever he goes and is asked how tall he is “probably 25 times a day.” Fellow students and local fans mean well, of course, when they stop Cockburn everywhere he moves on or off campus, whether he’s walking to class, playing football or Spikeball on the Main Quad or behind the wheel of his GMC Yukon Denali. If he’s asked about his height 25 times, he’s asked for twice as many photos, easy.

“When you happen to be as good as Kofi is and as good a person as Kofi is,” Underwood says, “it magnifies all that.”

There are times Cockburn is too pressed for time to oblige — or just doesn’t feel like it — but it’s rare. He’s nice. He’s thoughtful. He’s huge. He’ll be an All-American. He might as well be carrying a giant sign saying, “Get over here. Yeah, you. Let’s have a moment.”

“People are showing me love,” he says, “and I’m accepting it and reciprocating it. … It’s beautiful. It’s wonderful.”

Enjoying it is in his nature.

“I have a special — I don’t know if it’s talent or skill — where I just know how to deal with people, whoever they are,” he says. “I don’t have a hard time talking to people and getting into a deep conversation with people. No matter who you are, you can walk up to me and have a conversation with me. I’ll share my life with you, and I have no problem doing that. It’s something deep inside of me. Not a lot of people can connect with other people like that.”

COCKBURN IS SO BIG, opponents connect with him a bit too much. He is hit and hacked so often — and so hard — that he sometimes wonders if players and coaches around the Big Ten actually believe he’s impervious to physical pain. For the record, he’s not.

“You commit the same fouls on 225-pound guys,” Underwood says, “and they break.”

It can go over the line, too many liberties taken.

“I’m a really big person and I’m a strong person, and I do feel like guys take advantage of that,” Cockburn says. “They get away with cheap shots because I don’t flinch or I don’t budge or don’t flop. I’m not a flopper, you know what I’m saying? That has a huge part to play with me not being officiated as I should.”

Refs complain to Underwood that Cockburn is hard to officiate.

“That’s not his fault,” Underwood says. “You can’t make it unfair for him just because he’s a guy who gets fouled every trip and they don’t want to call it every trip.”

A player as large and powerfully built as Cockburn is routinely objectified by broadcasters and media, too, including portrait photographers who tell him to squeeze a ball like he’s trying to pop it and scream into the lens even though a bright smile is more his natural speed. Cockburn is actually a friendly player who tends to treat opponents much the same as he treats everyone else. When he isn’t dunking on their heads, that is.

Asked if he has played against someone stronger than him while at Illinois, he could easily get away with a “no.” Instead, he thinks awhile and finally says, “[Michigan’s] Jon Teske. I was a freshman when he was a senior. I was less strong, starting to build. Other than that, I can’t remember anybody.”

Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament - Iowa v Illinois

Cockburn’s battles with Iowa’s Garza were of a must-see nature.

Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

And as for his highest-profile individual rivalry, the one with former Iowa star Luka Garza? Illini fans didn’t like Garza much and, of course, have zero use for the Hawkeyes in general. But Cockburn is gracious and mature — one might say big — enough to readily admit that Garza was the better player the first times they tangled.

“He doesn’t run fast, he doesn’t move well, but then you actually get into the game against him and this guy does not stop moving,” Cockburn says. “So skilled and versatile, can take it off the bounce, shoot the three really well, got an amazing post game. It was like, ‘Yeah, I have a long way to go.’ ”

Cockburn learned a thing or two from Garza, who would wish him a good game before clashes and offer up a “Good play, big fella” when it was warranted. They still text occasionally, and Cockburn is following Garza’s rookie season with the Pistons with great interest.

“He’s a really cool person,” Cockburn says.

It takes one to know one.

HOW BIG? MAYBE TOO BIG. Cockburn’s fit in the NBA has been widely puzzled over — and doubted — throughout his finest season. He is a back-to-the-basket center who may or may not have the athleticism at the defensive end to run out at shooters and pick up smaller, quicker players off screens. Garza was a second-round pick. Dosunmu was, too, by the way. Is that Cockburn’s destiny?

It’s a funny thing, utterly dominating at the college level but, according to some, having an expiration date on his viability as a basketball star in America.

“It definitely was harder before,” Cockburn says. “Now that I’m maturing as a person and a young man, I don’t let it bother me anymore. Now, it’s about just growing, working on my game, being the best version of myself I can be. At the end of the day, you can only do so much.”

Cockburn doesn’t buy into the presupposition that he’ll need to overhaul his game to make it in the NBA. He can score inside on anyone, but why not get even stronger? He can rebound all night, but why not become more explosive? He can haul his extra-large self up and down the court faster than most would think, but why not work harder than ever on his speed? He feels more than up for those challenges. But swapping this skill set for another?

“I don’t feel I need to,” he says. “I think when I get the chance — and I will — people will start realizing how important I am to the team I play for.”

At present, he is as important a player as Illinois has ever had. When he got to Champaign, you know, there were knocks on him. That he was too unskilled. That he didn’t work hard enough. That, in the end, he probably wouldn’t live up to all that size. Illini coaches heard all that.

“Wrong on all accounts,” Underwood says. “Kofi has continued to grow — and he’s still just knee-deep in his talent pool.”

Very big, if true.

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