How a brother’s devotion pushed Kofi Cockburn from Jamaica to the U.S., where he’s an Illini basketball freshman sensation

How a brother’s devotion pushed Kofi Cockburn from Jamaica to the U.S., where he’s an Illini basketball freshman sensation

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Kofi Cockburn file

Illinois center Kofi Cockburn (21) celebrates after a slam against Nicholls State in the first half on Nov. 5 at the State Farm Center. 

No matter where Nagash Cockburn went in Jamaica, little brother Kofi was his shadow.

When he played cards or video games with friends, when he ran an errand, when he watched “Pokemon” in his room — there was Kofi, 12 years younger but nearly as tall, hanging out with his brother.

Kofi wasn’t just a tagalong. Nagash invited him.

“He loved me so much,” Kofi recalled. “He would rather me be around him than go outside and be with the wrong crowd. Whenever I was around, he’d be so happy. He’d say, ‘OK, come along.’ ”

It seemed inevitable that Kofi Cockburn (pronounced CO-burn) would eventually follow Nagash onto Kingston’s basketball courts. By 14, he was already eye to eye with his 6-foot-7 big brother.

Kofi watched Nagash from the sideline, but he was more taken with soccer and track, both popular in Jamaica. Nagash was exasperated. Enough. Get on the court, Kofi.

“I’m like, ‘Yo, how many tall soccer players do you know? And you’re not Usain Bolt,’ ” Nagash said. “I wasn’t trying to discourage him, but I had to be real. I saw a future he could create for himself.”

Nagash didn’t begin playing basketball until age 20, having devoted his youth to cadet training. He was skilled enough to compete on Jamaica’s national team, but he imagined what might have been if he had taken up hoops as a youngster.

He wanted that for his brother.

“I’d be damned if none of us made it and did something with our life,” Nagash said.

Kofi quickly grew to share Nagash’s passion for basketball. And unlike Nagash, he had time to truly pursue the sport.

“I realized right away, this is really a beautiful sport,” Kofi said. “If you give your best, good things can happen.”

Five years after arriving in the U.S. and seven games into his college career, Kofi Cockburn’s basketball karma seems to be flowing back to him.

The 7-foot Illinois center broke a school record for rebounds by a freshman with 17 on Nov. 20 against The Citadel, surpassing Deon Thomas’ 28-year-old mark. Averaging 15.3 points and 12 rebounds, he’s on pace to blast the Illinois freshman record of 6.9 rebounds per game that Efrem Winters set in 1982-83.

Kofi Cockburn file

Illinois center Kofi Cockburn (21) blocks a shot in overtime against Nicholls State on Nov. 5 at the State Farm Center.

Cockburn has five double-doubles in seven games for the Illini (6-1) entering Monday night’s Big Ten-ACC Challenge meeting with Miami at the State Farm Center. At a muscular 290 pounds, there’s no plodding in this big man’s game; he’s surprisingly agile. He and 6-9 sophomore forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili have shown flashes of how they can blend on the court.

“There are very few guys who truly impact the game,” said Illinois coach Brad Underwood, who considers Cockburn’s ears his greatest asset. “It’s very rare where young guys come in and actually listen and put it into play immediately. He wants to be coached and know when he’s wrong. He doesn’t want to hear just the positives.”

‘We don’t raise babies’

Nagash Cockburn isn’t one to sugarcoat. In Kingston, that doesn’t happen much anyway.

“We don’t raise babies,” he said.

Lively reggae and dancehall music plays in Bob Marley’s former home city. Olympic track star Bolt has opened a restaurant there. Music, sports and the “one love” vibe are infused in the culture.

“It’s basically the New York City of Jamaica,” Kofi Cockburn said.

There’s also crime, driven by gangs, and poverty in the southeastern Jamaican city, outside the path of plush tourist resorts on the northern coast. Kofi, 20, learned street smarts early.

“There’s a lot of distractions in Jamaica,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it was safe. It felt safe because you grew up there.”

Nagash, 32, filled the roles of tough-love brother, doting parent and thoughtful mentor to guide Kofi.

“His brother was the one who pushed him,” their mother, Dorothy Wray, said. “I knew I was going to migrate to America. That’s how I grew them up, to be loving. I let my children take care of one another.”

Kofi Cockburn file

Illinois center Kofi Cockburn drives to the basket against Lewis defender Dre Bell (22) during their game Friday, Nov. 1, 2019, at State Farm Center in Champaign. 

Wray left for the U.S. when Kofi was 11 to work as a certified nursing assistant, sending money home. Kofi said he clung to her the entire day before she departed, and he didn’t see her for almost a year.

“I needed to come here for them,” Wray said.

“My mom heard about the American dream,” Kofi said. “She wanted to do great things. We all knew she could.”

His dad, Laffette Cockburn, worked long hours as owner of a cleaning supplies store. He died of a heart attack at 61 a year after Kofi left for New York.

“They maintained us,” Kofi said. “My dad worked hard. My mom worked hard. We had a simple lifestyle. Nothing too extra.”

Kofi absorbed his parents’ love and appreciated their sacrifices. But it wasn’t easy.

Always a sharp learner, his grades suddenly plummeted after his mom left Jamaica. He started to cut classes.

“Personally, it wasn’t the right timing. I needed her support,” he said. “I was slipping up. She came for Christmas. In that span, my grades went all the way up, getting 95s and 100s. I started doing really good in school. I accepted the fact my mom loves me and is doing the right thing for me, and I wanted to make sure I do my best to repay her.”

Nagash also intervened. He played for Kofi motivational speakers such as Les Brown and had him read “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

“Every time I did something wrong, he’d get me back in shape,” Kofi said. “He’d remind me: ‘Be humble. Be good to people.’ ”

Basketball also was a motivator.

Nagash had encouraged Kofi to join him on the court. His shots didn’t go uncontested just because he was a kid playing against men in their 20s.

“He would foul me, and I wouldn’t be allowed to call it,” Kofi said. “I think that’s why I’m so aggressive (on the court) because they’d beat me up all the time.”

He tried out for his school’s team as an eighth-grader but missed the cut. Coaches later noticed him and allowed him to join midseason.

“I had to learn a lot that year, being in an actual system,” he said. “It’s not one on one anymore, learning plays, abiding by the rules. It wasn’t smooth.”

In less than a year, he would be playing for one of the United States’ elite high school programs.

Locking in

Cockburn had only two days to pack after he received a scholarship through a Jamaican organization to attend Christ the King High School in Queens, N.Y. His mother quickly purchased his plane ticket.

“That’s my baby,” Wray said of her youngest — and largest — of five children. Kofi was 13 pounds at birth. Everyone always assumed he was older, even bus drivers who tried to overcharge him.

She had seen him only during winter vacations the previous five years. When Cockburn arrived in the U.S. in September 2015, his favorite meal — his grandmother’s French-fried chicken — was waiting. His mom had bought him three winter coats.

In New York, he adjusted to American life with the cozy reminders of Jamaica at home.

Kofi Cockburn file

Illinois center Kofi Cockburn (21) celebrates in an exhibition win against Lewis University on Nov. 1. 

At Christ the King, though, he felt overwhelmed, noticing photographs of alumni such as Lamar Odom and Khalid Reeves.

“The players were really different than Jamaica, really athletic and fast,” he said. “They had played forever. This is what I have to compete with every day? I have to lock in and get better every single second.”

A year after arriving in New York, he received a devastating call from his brother. Nagash delivered the news of their father’s death.

“I literally dropped the phone,” Kofi said. “It was so heartbreaking. I (had been) ready to go home and share all the good things happening to me.”

His dad had bragged often at his shop, joking with friends, “You wish you had a son like mine.” Cockburn savors the memory of seeing a tear roll from his dad’s eye when they hugged before he left Jamaica.

“At least I knew he’s crying for the right reason: He loved me and he was going to miss me,” he said.

Cockburn’s resolve to succeed grew stronger.

Bottom to the top

A newcomer to organized basketball, Cockburn expected struggles on the court.

“I had that mindset: I’ll do it for my family. I’ll do it for my mom,” he said. “It motivated me to get past anything.”

Instead, progress came quickly.

He joined the NY Rens, a premier AAU program. He received invitations to prestigious showcases and camps, where college coaches flocked.

“It was really intense,” he said. “I never knew that setting. I was like, ‘Wow, this is mind-blowing.’ ”

Before his senior year, Cockburn transferred to another high school basketball powerhouse, Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. He had mixed feelings.

“I grew up as a basketball player at Christ the King,” he said. “To leave them so suddenly was tough for me. There were so many distractions in New York, I felt like I needed to go where I could focus on basketball and school.”

Kofi Cockburn file

Illinois center Kofi Cockburn (21) goes to the basket Nov. 1. 

Cockburn averaged a double-double at Oak Hill and was ranked among the nation’s top 50 recruits.

“When there’s a player his size, you want to keep tabs on him,” said Illinois assistant coach Orlando Antigua, who began recruiting Cockburn when he was a sophomore. “You’re tracking him, not knowing when he’s a senior he’d have grown and developed to this point.”

Antigua said Cockburn’s “size and explosiveness” were unique. He chose to play in Champaign over offers from Kansas, Connecticut, Pittsburgh and St. John’s.

“I like the idea of getting better and going from the bottom to the top,” Cockburn said. “I thought about the idea of turning it around. I knew what they were capable of, and I could be one piece of it.”

‘The sky isn’t the limit’

Cockburn remembers Jamaica’s joyous eruption when Bolt sprinted to the first of his eight Olympic gold medals in 2008.

His brother Nagash ran outside, clanging a pot. Kofi, of course, followed. All of Kingston streamed into the streets, smashing lids together like cymbals and waving branches.

“I never saw anything like that,” Cockburn said. “That was big for us. I picked something up and started banging it. I was out of breath. I think I ran at least 2 miles.”

Cockburn dreams of Jamaicans one day celebrating his basketball feats.

Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing is the country’s most famous native to find NBA success. Cockburn idolized Shaquille O’Neal via YouTube clips, and he hopes young Jamaicans someday emulate him.

“I know they’ll show me love,” Cockburn said. “I think I’m better than anyone if I put in the work because of what I’ve seen my people accomplish. When I’m on the court, I’m not just representing myself or my family; I’m representing the whole nation.”

Around his Kingston neighborhood, Cockburn’s exploits already are the subject of conversation.

“Trust me, right now he’s like a hero in the community,” said Nagash, who recently coached the Jamaican Special Olympics team to a gold medal. He works as an assistant high school basketball coach while earning a college degree in fitness management. “People come up to me that I don’t know: ‘Are you Kofi’s brother?’ ‘No, Kofi is my brother!’ ”

Kofi Cockburn file

Illinois center Kofi Cockburn (21) shoots over Nicholls State guard Andre Jones (13) in the first half on Nov. 5 at the State Farm Center.

Praise for Kofi is sparse from Nagash. He cautioned during an interview with the Tribune not to make him sound too effusive about his baby brother.

Kofi called him after recording 23 points and 14 rebounds at Grand Canyon in his second college game.

“He says: ‘You think I’m pleased? You think I’m laughing and jumping with you? You can do way more,’ ” Kofi recalled.

But it’s clear Nagash is bursting with pride.

“Not to sound cocky, the sky isn’t the limit,” Nagash said. “The sky is another step to pass.”

Nagash credits Kofi’s American coaches for his development. But for Kofi, they’re making this journey together.

Their favorite basketball memories are similar. Back in Jamaica for the summer after a season in the U.S., Kofi met Nagash on the court.

“The first move, he made one dribble to the right, did a spin move and went past me (to score),” Nagash recalled. “Everyone was like, ‘Whoa!’ I just stood there. I was a laughingstock. … I didn’t mind.”

Cockburn smiled, remembering besting his big brother with a dunk that same summer.

“I said, ‘Are you mad?’ ” Cockburn said. “He said: ‘No, I’m happy. You’re better than me now.’ ”


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