Science Careers Blog

April 3, 2008

Final Four Matchup: Kansas's Sasha Kaun and Computer Science

For basketball fans in the U.S., the Final Four -- the semifinals and finals of the collegiate basketball championship, which start on Saturday -- is one of the year's top attractions. Among this year's contenders is the University of Kansas, a perennial basketball power.  Its center, Sasha Kaun, is an imposing figure in the computer lab as well as the basketball court.

At the start of the season, Kaun, at 6'11" and 250 lbs (2.108 meters and 113.398 kilograms), was the Jayhawks ' starting center, but now he comes off the bench where he, as MSNBC notes, "contributes points, rebounds and blocked shots, but also does a lot of little things that don’t show up in the box score."

In a sport where fewer star players are getting their bachelors degrees and the term student-athlete is a running joke, Kaun is a senior studying computer science, not your typical jock major. He excels in the classroom; Kaun was one of two Kansas players named to this year's Big-12 all-academic team.

The story of how Kaun got to Kansas to play for one of college basketball's top teams is quite a tale in itself. Kaun's family lived in the Siberian town of Tomsk, where his father worked as a computer programmer in a bank. Some 10 years ago, the 13 year-old Sasha Kaun came home to learn that his father was found dead in a parking garage under mysterious circumstances (Russian authorities call the death a suicide, which the family disputes). Kaun still carries his late father's picture in his wallet and credits his father with the inspiration to study computer science.

Three years later, Kaun heard from a friend who just graduated from the Florida Air Academy, a private boarding school in Melbourne, Florida.  The school was recruiting students from Russia;  Kaun jumped at the opportunity to come to the United States. The school's basketball coach recruited Kaun, who at 6'10" was the school's tallest student. Up to then, however, Kaun had never played more than informal pick-up games, and did not know a word of English.

Kaun had to learn not just English but also the basics of basketball, and then the finer points, where size by itself means little. His hard work and long hours in the classroom, weight room, and on the court, transformed him into a leading college prospect, recruited by Duke and Michigan State as well as Kansas. This season, he had to work through injuries suffered in his junior year that lowered his point production, but Kaun still leads the team this year in field goal percentage.

While Kaun's immediate goal may be the national championship, his career can take any number of routes, and computer science is high among the options.

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