Could Kofi Cockburn return for fourth season? NIL collective is ‘ready to rock’ for the possibility
By Jeremy Werner, Illini Inquirer, March 12, 2022
Photo Courtesy of Joe Clark, IlliniGuys
CHAMPAIGN, IL — As Kofi Cockburn reached the peak of a ladder that shook under his mass, Illinois fans swarming the net-cutting ceremony on Sunday night at State Farm Center began chanting a phrase that throughout the recent history of college basketball would seem an unrealistic hope. “One more year! One more year!” the orange-clad contingent pleaded to its two-time All-American center.
During the last two decades, few who have dominated college basketball like Cockburn for multiple seasons would even consider returning to college basketball for a fourth year. But this, of course, is a new era of college basketball — one in which student-athletes are actually allowed to earn money for endorsements and one in which program boosters can openly talk about efforts to funnel funds to players, which now is fully and publicly embraced by the university — as long as the new rules are followed, of course.
Cockburn, on his way to becoming a consensus First Team All-American this season, made clear to Illini Inquirer this week that he wants to make the leap to the NBA this year, just as he did last summer. But the reality is that despite Cockburn’s NCAA dominance (21.0 points, 10.6 rebounds this season), he is not a certain NBA Draft pick, and playing one more year in college basketball could potentially be as profitable or more profitable for Cockburn than playing in the G League or overseas next year.
And, yes, there already is an effort underway among the Illini’s alumni-based NIL collective to be prepared to make Cockburn seriously consider a fourth, likely record-breaking season at Illinois. And Cockburn, who went through Senior Day festivities last week in Champaign, is open to listening.
“I think all things are possible,” Cockburn told Illini Inquirer last week. “Like I said, I’m not in a rush. I want to be in the NBA. I want to be a professional basketball player, but I’m not in a rush. Right now, as of right now, I think that I’m ready. But you know anything can happen in the foreseeable future. I’m not going to take that option away from myself just yet.”
Cockburn likely wouldn’t have returned to Illinois for a third season had it not been for name, image and likeness laws passing in the state of Illinois and throughout the country last summer, allowing student-athletes to make money off endorsement deals. He actually served an NCAA suspension for three games to start the season because last June he sold team-issued gear — an NCAA violation at the time — just a month before NIL laws took effect because he thought he was sticking in the NBA Draft.
While it’s unknown how much Cockburn has made from NIL opportunities this season, most expect he has made north of six figures. Comparatively, most G League players make about $37,000, according to The New York Times, though two-way players — those contracted with NBA teams — make north of $400,000 with players of Cockburn’s caliber making six figures overseas. The NBA rookie minimum salary, meanwhile, is about $925,000.
But for borderline draft prospects who are marketable college stars like Cockburn — whom ESPN ranks the No. 89 overall prospect in the 2022 NBA Draft, which includes 60 selections — or Kentucky center Oscar Tshiebwe, NIL now makes returning to college a potentially profitable and logical option.
“Now we have a way that maybe enhances their situation as a college student-athlete through NIL that can be a much better option than potentially the G-League or the European model,” Brad Underwood told Illini Inquirer. “Along the way, that enhances guys’ opportunities. Kofi, in his situation, is very, very close to graduating. It continues to enhance those situations for the student-athlete and not just in a dollars and cents way but also an academic way. That’s been very positive. Any time we’ve got something out there that helps keep student-athletes in school, it’s a really good thing.
There are other potential benefits for Cockburn, including completing his bachelor’s degree and enhancing his legacy at Illinois by becoming the all-time leading scorer and rebounder in school history, all but certainties if he were to stay healthy for a fourth season.
“I think it’s a different experience just knowing that you could come back to school and … you have more options,” Cockburn said. “You could come back to school and you could enhance your education, you can play college basketball for another year and not have to worry about the outside world and paying bills and stuff like that and you get to make money. I think it’s just those things collectively definitely made the decisions a little bit easier for you. But I don’t think that NIL part of it, I don’t think the money part of it is any reason for anybody to come back to college. I think it’s all those collective reasons.”
The newly formed NIL collective Illini Guardians — a third-party organization founded by Illinois alums created in January to raise and disperse NIL funds to Illini athletes — already is putting together plans in case Cockburn seriously considers a return for a fourth year of college.
The group prides itself on setting up NIL opportunities for athletes that serve philanthropic opportunities and has run a few events already, including an event with two Illini football players participating in former Illini guard Tracy Abrams’ Chicago Positive Impact group.
Of course, the Illini Guardians group was created to help facilitate money-making opportunities for Illinois student-athletes that in turn can help Illinois in the recruitment of and retention of great talent. And Cockburn is the greatest talent in the athletic department and one of the greatest talents in Illinois basketball history, so the Illini Guardians are prepared to make him a priority. “That’s part of the reason we’re in place,” Illini Guardians member Tom DiSanto told Illini Inquirer.
“There’s a lot of reasons, but let’s not sugarcoat it: Kofi is a very important part of the Illinois basketball puzzle. We all would love for have him come back for another year. This young man is going to have tremendous opportunities, whether they’re in the NBA or whether they’re overseas. He’s going to have an opportunity to make a lot of money, hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions [in the pros]. We understand that. I think the athletic department understands that. We’d all love to have him back. I think there’s going to be a pretty big push. We’re going to have a push for Kofi specifically at some point.”
So what does that process look like? Well, that could change — the Guardians hope — with changes to the Illinois state NIL law. Currently, the Illini athletics department is prohibited from facilitating NIL deals for student-athletes, which makes it more difficult for the Illini Guardians — compared to an athletics department, Illini Guardians is a small not-for-profit organization run by a few successful professionals who volunteer their time — to quickly execute NIL deals. There is a push to change the law to loosen the prohibition on in-state universities’ abilities to facilitate NIL deals student-athletes, which is already allowed in other states. The Illini Guardians are hopeful those changes could happen as soon as this spring.
But a potential pitch to Cockburn to return to Illinois would be an early test of the Guardians’ capacity and potential. DiSanto said the NIL collective already has a few big donors highly interested in donating significant amounts to Illinois basketball and specifically for Cockburn.
Adam Fleischer, a founder of the Illini Guardians and a Chicago-based lawyer, said the group is fully prepared for a campaign to attract large and small donors to keep Cockburn. The Guardians take donations on their website.
But Fleischer said the group can’t get too far ahead of itself considering Cockburn’s consideration of returning for another year of college depends in large part on feedback from the NBA. Given that the NBA Draft withdrawal date for the NCAA is June 1, that could take some time. Still, the Illini Guardians will be prepared to show Cockburn and his representatives that a return to college could be as good of a choice — or better — than going pro.
“We’re starting to collect the money and put the infrastructure in place,” Fleischer said. “But you don’t want to get too far ahead in the game by saying, ‘Here’s all this money we have to keep Kofi’ on the assumption that he won’t have any other opportunities. Obviously, we want him to play out his options and only be ready to jump into the game in case there’s a close call.
“We are definitely positioned to do that, and we have so many people to reach out to under the campaign of ‘Keep Kofi.’ We could bring that money in from small donations to large donations. I think we’re perfectly suited to do that and ready to rock. …We have so many opportunities to have a guy like Kofi do appearances and give speeches and lend his name and do things that really leverage his market power that such the NIL funds that would get to him would totally be commercially reasonable and philanthropically admirable.”
Like most college basketball stars, Cockburn wants to play in the NBA. He wished to make the jump after his freshman season and then again his sophomore season. But he decided the move was too risky and the upside of returning to the college too high — especially with NIL this year — to make the leap. He has no second thoughts about returning to Illinois, furthering his legacy in Champaign and making some really good money in the process.
“It’s been wonderful, man. I have no regrets,” Cockburn said. “…At the beginning, you start thinking, ’Is this really what I need to do?’ You have doubts. But every year I’ve come back the past two years, I’ve been really happy with my choice. …I want to do whatever I can to be successful. I’m gonna do whatever I can to make it where I want to get. But if I need to come back for another year, I’m not in any rush to go anywhere. I’m going through it. I’m just gonna ride the wave and be where my feet are at.”
Fleischer and DiSanto eventually want to see Cockburn make the leap to the NBA and thrive, just as former Illini star Ayo Dosunmu is doing now as a Chicago Bulls rookie. If Cockburn were given feedback that he’d be a certain NBA Draft pick, they’d happily see Cockburn give the Illini two representatives in the NBA. Not a bad recruiting tool for the Illini program, after all.
But if Cockburn has any doubts about making that leap this summer and has any openness to returning to Illinois for a fourth season, the Guardians want to make the Illini option even more appealing.
“Look, if he ends up a high draft pick in the NBA one day, which we all hope, there’s no way an NIL collective is gonna compete with that,” Fleischer said. “So the question becomes where would he be drafted and how close would it be to usurping or exceeding the opportunities he’d otherwise have at U of I. We can’t control that. But we have to be totally ready to jump if that becomes an issue.”
In a new age of college athletics, boosters raising money to help retain players is now allowed — and potentially very beneficial for both parties. Cockburn’s return would be immensely valuable for Illinois, which has gone a conference-best 44-16 in Big Ten play during Cockburn’s three seasons in orange and blue. And nowadays, Cockburn can be fairly compensated in the marketplace for that value.
“I believe that [Cockburn is] going to command hundreds of thousands of dollars [in NIL if he returned],” DiSanto said. “I got to give the kid credit. It’s a lot of money, and I think a lot of people will look at that and think, ‘Oh my God, why are we giving a student-athlete all this money?!’ Well, you go to college to hone a craft, and he’s honed his craft very well. He’s going to have great opportunities playing basketball somewhere, so why shouldn’t it be next year at the University of Illinois?”