Kofi Cockburn dreams of hearing NBA Commissioner Adam Silver call his name at next month’s NBA Draft in Brooklyn.
But more importantly, he says, he wants to get to the NBA so he has a bigger platform to provide opportunities like he had growing up in Jamaica to a new generation of children in his home country and the U.S.
In fact, he might trade hearing his name announced on June 23 at Barclays Center for the chance to help the next wave of kids.
“I think respectfully, I’ve always wanted to hear my name called on draft night but if I could sacrifice that for the better outcome of being able to provide for the younger generations I think I would make that sacrifice,” the 7-foot, 285-pound big man from Kingston, Jamaica said in a telephone interview as part of the Dove Men+Care Off Court Champs campaign, an initiative centered on challenging the limiting stereotypes imposed on Black men by celebrating the care and positive impact these men have off the court.
“Hearing your name called is fine and all, but I think it’s all about just putting in that work and basically standing on what you’re saying and going with how you feel and going with your gut and going with your feeling and basically making that step every day.”
Cockburn, the No. 89 prospect in the ESPN 100, was invited to next week’s NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, where he said he plans to take part in the scrimmages in front of all 30 NBA teams. A year ago, he was invited to the NBA G League Camp in Chicago, but is now ready to show NBA scouts how much his game has improved for the modern NBA.
“It’s definitely a step up,” he said of going to the Combine from the G League Camp. “It’s a bigger platform for me to show what I’m capable of and show that I belong in the league.”
He added: “I definitely [want to] show them I can play in the new NBA where bigs are doing dribble hand-offs, making decisions, whether it’s making the right pass, making the right drive, it’s definitely showing off my touch and my mid-range. Those are the main points that I’ve been working on.”
Cockburn, who averaged 20.9 points and 10.6 rebounds for the Ilini, was named first-team All-Big Ten for the second straight season. He was a finalist for several player of the year awards, including the Wooden and Naismith as well as the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award, presented to the nation’s best center. He’s currently working out in Los Angeles with Bryson Williams of Texas Tech, Adam Flagler of Baylor and Andrew Nembhard of Gonzaga, among others.
Still, Cockburn wants to make an impact in the world beyond basketball.
“We want to break the stereotype of black men just being athletes,” he said. “In my case, people see me and the first thing they think about is basketball. We’re trying to break that stereotype where people see the other Kofi, the Kofi outside of the court where I’m a voice in my community, somebody that people look up to, somebody that gives people hope, somebody that’s willing to go back to their community and do different stuff, whether it’s influence the kids, motivate them, give speeches, give them opportunities to come to the U.S. and basically pursue the same dreams that I did or choose their own path.”
As far as stereotypes, Cockburn said when he goes on the Internet, the first things that come up are his basketball statistics — and he wants to be known for more than that.
“Whenever I type my name in, whenever I go on my Instagram, it’s all about basketball,” he said. “I rarely see people speak about the stuff I do off the basketball court. It’s always about Kofi had this much points, or Kofi’s team won this game. It’s always basketball related.
“Even if it’s not a bad thing, it’s always that stereotype…And we need to make people aware of that other part where I’m speaking to churches, I’m going to high schools and speaking to athletes and trying to make them aware that school is important in their life.”
He pointed to talks he recently gave at a high school in Champaign-Urbana or at his old middle school in Jamaica.
“I was basically expressing to them to always believe in yourself and always believe in your dreams and using my story to encourage them and motivate them,” he said.
Cockburn, 22, first came to the U.S. from Jamaica when he was 16 thanks to the help of a Jamaican coach named Lamar Jackson.
“I never really played organized basketball in Jamaica,” he said. “Lamar Dixon, he kept believing in me, kept trusting in me, kept calling me out to practice to work on my game, eventually giving me the opportunity to come to the U.S.”
Jackson “had a connection” to Cockburn’s current American “mentors,” Steve Johnson and Karriem Memminger.
“They basically coordinated and gave me the opportunity to come to the U.S., and I was able to leave the life that I had back in Jamaica and come here and create a better life for myself and my family,” Cockburn said. “Am I really grateful for that.”
Cockburn landed at Christ the King High School in Queens, N.Y., under coach Joe Arbitello before spending his senior season at famed Oak Hill Academy (VA) under legendary coach Steve Smith.
In order to pay some of that back, Cockburn plans to start his own foundation to give back in Jamaica and in whatever NBA city he lands.
“Absolutely, man, Jamaica’s going to get everything from me,” he said. “I’m planning on doing so much as far as community centers, giving kids the opportunities to have a higher education by giving them the necessities like computers and stuff that I didn’t have growing up, giving them opportunities to come to the U.S., whether that’s to be an athlete or to go to school here. Either way, you get a good education and you get an opportunity to focus in and get a college degree or excel in whatever way you want.
“So I plan on doing so much when I get to the next level and I’m able to use my voice at the higher level and give back to the communities.”
He added: “I’m trying to get to the highest level possible so I can do as much as I can.”