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March 7, 2008

Kansas' Kaun nearing end of great journey

LAWRENCE, Kan. If only they'd given him more time to talk. Maybe then, Kansas forward Sasha Kaun would've told the rest of his story.

Perhaps he would've discussed that night 10 years ago, when his father was found dead murdered, some believe in the corner of a cold parking garage in Kaun's native Russia.

Kaun could've mentioned that emotional moment three years later when, at 16, he wrapped his arms around his mother at the airport, knowing that the hug would be the last they'd share for more than a year.

Or maybe Kaun could've explained how he blossomed into a top post player for one of the country's most storied programs just a few years after playing organized basketball for the first time.

"When you look at all the things that happened that led Sasha to this point it's an unbelievable story," KU coach Bill Self said.

Yet it's a story that can't be told in three minutes, which is the time Kaun was allotted for his Senior Day speech Monday at Allen Fieldhouse. Still, at least he got to say thanks.

Thanks to his coaches. Thanks to his teammates and fans. And thanks, most of all, to Olga, who waved to her son from Row 8 as he stood in the middle of the hardwood, clutching a microphone as a sellout crowd of 16,300 watched and listened.

"When I look at him running around the court during games," Olga said through an interpreter, "I see this grown-up boy this man!

"I can't believe this is all real."

No clues, no witnesses

Shortly before midnight as he raced through his neighborhood to comfort his mother 13-year-old Sasha Kaun could see the lights from the ambulance flickering against the dark sky.

Minutes earlier he'd answered the phone and heard Olga sobbing.

"It was terrible," he said. "She was in hysterics."

Kaun said his mother told him she'd become concerned when her husband, Oleg, failed to come home from work, and that her search for him had ended at the family's single-car garage a few blocks away.

Olga entered and found Sasha's father on his knees and unconscious. His body faced a wall, his torso sloped forward and his right hand was behind his back.

"A strange, awkward position," Sasha said.

Paramedics attempted to resuscitate him knowing there was little hope. On Jan. 16, 1998 in the biting, unforgiving cold of Tomsk, Russia Oleg Kaun was dead.

There were no clues, no witnesses. Instead of opening an investigation, Sasha said Russian authorities cited "gas poisoning" as the cause of his father's death and moved on.


People started talking about the different things he'd done in life. That's when it really hit me. There were a lot of things I didn't know. I was sad that I'd never get the chance to find those things out on my own.
- Sasha Kaun, Kansas senior

"We've never thought it was a suicide," said Sasha, now 23. "He was a happy person. He wouldn't have done that."

Instead Olga believes Oleg was killed, and that the murder was somehow related to his job as a computer programmer for one of the largest banks in Russia. Not only did he create the programs used by the bank and all of its branches, but it was also Oleg's responsibility to prevent hackers from getting into the system.

A few weeks before he died, Oleg told his wife that he was "having some problems" at work and that someone had broken into the program and was stealing money.

"Russia was very unstable during the 1990s especially the banking system," Olga said. "My friends and I have come to the same conclusion: Someone just got rid of Oleg so he wouldn't cause any problems.

"Oleg was a very good person, very goal-oriented. Everyone loved him. He was handsome and he was respected as an expert."

Throughout his college career, Kaun has chosen not to speak publicly about the death of his father, who he described as "very private."

But earlier this week, as he reflected on the tragedy during an interview at Kansas' Burge Union, Kaun was open and matter-of-fact when discussing Oleg's passing and the way it shaped his future.

"I didn't cry much when it happened," Kaun said. "But after the funeral, at the reception, all these people came up to me and paid their respects. People started talking about the different things he'd done in life. That's when it really hit me. There were a lot of things I didn't know."

One man told Sasha about the actions his father took to benefit the community. Another mentioned Oleg's impeccable reputation as a computer programmer, adding that he was regarded as one of the best in Russia.

"I was sad that I'd never get the chance to find those things out on my own," Sasha said.

Kaun reaches into his backpack and pulls out his billfold. Inside is a black-and-white picture of Oleg taken from an old passport. He's wearing a sport coat and has mangy, black hair. Once or twice a week, Kaun looks at the photo says hello to his father through prayer.

Just like Oleg, Sasha has plans to become a computer programmer when his basketball career is finished. Despite the Jayhawks' rigorous schedule, Kaun has managed to earn Academic All-Big 12 honors three times and will graduate in May.

Kaun puts away his dad's picture and smiles.

"I definitely think I'm making him proud," he said.

Growing up fast

As painful as Oleg's death was emotionally, it also caused a change in lifestyle for Sasha and Olga, who was left alone to raise her only son.

"All of a sudden," Sasha said, "it was just the two of us."

Olga, though, was confident they would persevere because of a comment Sasha made moments after he arrived outside the garage on that dreadful January night.

On that cold winter evening, his first words to me were 'Mom, don't worry. From now on I'm going to help you with everything," Olga said. "That was the end of his childhood. He became very serious, very grown up."

On nights when he used to hang out in the streets playing soccer, Kaun now found himself shopping for groceries. He'd clean the apartment between homework assignments and often cooked dinner for his mother, who had to work extra hours to pay the tuition fees of Sasha's private school.

The routine worked well until high school, when Sasha fell into the trap that threatens so many children in single-parent homes. With so much freedom, Sasha said he became lazy and blew off homework assignments. His grades begin to slip right along with his work ethic. Luckily, the problems didn't last long.

The summer before his sophomore year, Sasha received a call from a friend who'd just graduated from a high school called the Florida Air Academy.

Located in Melbourne, Fla., the boarding school had long been lauded for its efforts in attracting foreign students. Kaun's friend said the school wanted to add more Russians to its student body and suggested he enroll.

"I looked at the situation and realized I could be doing a lot better in school," Kaun said. "Going to the states was like a wake-up call. It was like, 'Hey, you have this chance. Take it.'"

The only problem was that the situation would pull Kaun away from the mother with whom he'd experienced so much. But Olga Kaun knew an American education had more value than one obtained in Russia, where diplomas can be purchased off the street.

So she borrowed about $2,000 from her parents for a plane ticket and a Visa. Just like that without knowing a word of English Sasha was on a plane bound for Florida.

Years later, Kaun couldn't be more appreciative of Olga's decision. It's one thing for a parent to send a child to a new high school on the other side of town or even a college in a different state.

But for a mother to allow a 16-year-old son to enroll at a school in another country shows how eager she is for him to succeed.

"It wasn't all that tough for me," Kaun said. "I liked challenges and experiencing new things. But it was difficult for my mother. I kept telling her that, if I didn't like it after a year, I'd come home."

But that never happened.

Kaun went 18 months before returning to Russia. Instead he and Olga talked twice a week on the Internet. In the meantime he was earning good grades in school he aced Calculus as a sophomore while continuing to learn more and more about computers.

"He was chasing his dream just like his daddy," said Aubin Goporo, a faculty member at Florida Air Academy. "The first time I met him I asked him what he wanted to be and he said, 'A computer engineer.' I asked him what else he may want to do and he said, 'I don't know, maybe own my own business.'"

Goporo pauses and chuckles. There was another reason he'd called Sasha into his office that day.

"Did you ever think about making a living playing basketball?" Goporo asked Kaun.

No, Sasha said. Never.

Standing out

From the day he arrived on campus, everyone at Florida Air Academy knew Sasha Kaun. At 6-foot-10, he was easily the tallest student at the school and the ironic thing was that he had never played organized basketball.

Kaun's inexperience was glaring during his first few weeks on the court. He said he felt "lost" when the team tried to run plays, and the fact that he spoke little English made it impossible for him to understand Goporo, who is also the school's coach.

Physically, Kaun didn't have the strength to match up against anyone in the paint. One day in the weight room, he said he attempted to squat 135 pounds but fell over as soon he lifted the bar from the rack.

Kansas assistant Joe Dooley remembers watching one of Kaun's practices during his sophomore season.

"Anyone who says they saw him as a sophomore and knew he was going to be a good player is lying," said Dooley, an assistant with New Mexico at the time. "But with big kids you can never tell. You never know how they're going to develop."

Still, even the ones who improve rarely do so as rapidly as Kaun, who began logging extra hours in the weight room and gym. Kaun might have had an advantage when it came to size but, even today, he credits hard work and not natural ability as the main reason for his success.

"He's one of the most disciplined kids I've ever coached," said Goporo, who counts Florida's Walter Hodge among his proteges. "He doesn't say much, but he pays attention to everything that goes on around him. You won't find many players smarter than Sasha."

After just two years of organized basketball, Kaun began excelling on the summer AAU circuit. A standout performance at the Boo Williams Invitational catapulted him near the top of college want-lists across the country. In the end, Kaun named Kansas, Duke and Michigan State as the finalists for his services.

Not that the Blue Devils and Spartans ever stood much of a chance.

Goporo, who had become Kaun's mentor, had long been infatuated with KU coach Bill Self when Self was coaching at Illinois. Goporo traveled to Chicago to listen to Self speak at clinics. He had an Illini backpack and subscribed to the school's newsletter. When Self came to Florida to visit Kaun he noticed Goporo had a picture of him on his screensaver.

"I tried to hide it but it was too late," said Goporo, laughing. "College basketball has become such a business. It's hard to find someone who's going to put his career aside and take care of you as a human being. But I knew that's what Sasha would have with Coach Self."

Kaun averaged 8.2 points while starting all but four games as a sophomore. His scoring average dipped to 5.9 a year ago, when nagging injuries stymied his progress.

Still, Kaun, at 250 pounds, has developed a reputation as one of the Big 12's strongest players in the paint. Rarely does he get outmuscled, and right now he's on pace to achieve season-highs in both points and blocks despite losing his starting job to Darnell Jackson.

Self said Kaun is having his best season ever for the 27-3 Jayhawks, who can clinch their fourth straight Big 12 title with a win Saturday against Texas A&M.

"This is the healthiest he's been," Self said. "He's was prepared to come in and have a good year. He hasn't had lower body problems like he's had in the past. There were two summers in a row where he couldn't work out because of health reasons.

"In my mind he's a starter. Since he hasn't been starting he's playing at a higher level and Darnell has been playing at a higher level. So in the long run the move has helped our entire team."

What next?

Back at Allen Fieldhouse, Kaun is standing at center court, still clutching that microphone. He begins to address his mother and then cuts a joke.

"She probably won't understand half of what I say," Kaun said, "because she doesn't speak much English."

Olga doesn't mind. She and Sasha have spent plenty of time together the past few months. Because she wanted to be present for all the big events during her son's final semester of college Senior Day, the NCAA tournament and graduation Olga has been living in Lawrence since December.

Each and every night she sleeps on the couch in Sasha's living room. He also doesn't mind that she cleans his dishes, does his laundry and occasionally cooks pelemeni, a Russian ravioli.

"I am proud that my son did not fail," Olga said. "I'm proud that he showed manhood and patience and is getting an education here just like his dad. I think the tragedy that occurred in our family helped form my son's character and helped him fight against everything to reach great accomplishments."

Kaun will graduate May 18 with a degree in computer science. Beyond that, he's not sure what's next.

An NBA scout said last week that Kaun because of his size, strength and intellect might be selected in the second round of this summer's NBA Draft. If that doesn't happen, he could almost certainly earn solid money playing basketball overseas.

Kaun isn't thinking that far ahead. On Tuesday, he couldn't stop talking about the Big 12 title race, the NCAA tournament and Kansas' chances of winning the national championship.

But most of all he kept bringing up the emotions of Senior Night, the ovation he received and the sense of love he and his mother felt inside Allen Fieldhouse.

Lawrence may be thousands of miles from Russia. Still, now more than ever, Sasha Kaun couldn't feel more at home.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.



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