OMAHA, Neb. (AP)—Sasha Kaun carries a picture of his dad, a black-and-white passport photo that he talks to quietly once or twice a week, when no one else is around.
Darnell Jackson uses a different outlet to cope with all the tragedy he’s been through. Every time he makes a free throw, he pounds his chest three times with his fist, a tribute to three of the most important people in a life filled with death and despair.
These two Kansas big men, so instrumental in the Jayhawks’ run to a top seed in the NCAA tournament, hardly have traveled the same road.
One’s a Russian who came to America speaking little English, who didn’t really start playing organized basketball until high school. The other grew up on the rugged streets of Oklahoma City, watching friends and family die, always wondering if he’d be next.
But, for all their differences, Kaun and Jackson have followed a similar path to get to this place.
“We hear all the stories about guys who score the most points and get the most rebounds,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said Friday. “But to me, (Jackson) and Sasha are two prime examples of how college athletics save guys and provide the springboard to their entire future.”
In Kansas’ first-round rout of Portland State, the 6-foot-8 Jackson scored 10 points (including a couple of rim-rattling dunks), grabbed four rebounds, dished out two assists and came up with two steals. The 6-11 Kaun, coming off the bench, tied for the team lead with seven rebounds in just 12 minutes on the court.
They figure to play a major role when the Jayhawks face No. 8 seed UNLV in the second round Saturday, both looking to take advantage of the undersized Runnin’ Rebels.
“It’s definitely going to be a battle all night,” said UNLV guard Rene Rougeau, one of his team’s taller players at 6-6. “We definitely knew coming into the tournament that if we want to go farther, we’re going to have to play someone big.”
Of course, there’s more to Kaun and Jackson than just stats and matchups.
A whole lot more.
Kaun was born in the Siberian city of Tomsk in 1985, when the Soviet Union was in the midst of startling, dramatic changes that eventually would lead to its downfall. In the post-Communist world, his father worked as a computer programmer for one of the country’s largest banks.
But Oleg Kaun never got to see his son grow up. When Sasha was 13, his father was found slumped in the family garage, killed by what the authorities vaguely referred to as “gas poisoning.” A grieving widow and her only son still suspect that more sinister forces were at work, that Oleg was killed because he uncovered wrongdoing at work and had to be silenced.
A decade later, the questions linger.
“I wish I could know what happened,” Kaun said, standing just inside the Kansas locker room after an off-day practice. “But there’s really no way to find out now. It happened so long ago.”
Jackson knows all too well what happened to so many important people in his life.
The father who was shot and killed by Oklahoma City police while allegedly attacking a jogger. The high school classmate who was murdered. The close friend who was gunned down by gang members. The uncle who was beaten to death with a hammer. The grandmother who was killed in a car wreck. The mother who was seriously injured in the same collision with a drunken driver.
“He watched his family suffer,” Self said. “And through that, he almost became depressed, or obsessed about not being there for his family, to the point where he tried to quit and go home and say, ‘Hey, if they’re going to be unhappy and struggle, then I should be right there in the middle struggling with them.”’
Compounding his problems, a Kansas booster who befriended Jackson was found to have violated NCAA rules by giving him $5,000 worth of benefits, including transportation, gifts and a personal loan. The player was suspended for the first nine games of his sophomore year and required to pay back the money.
“The guy came here and he didn’t catch a break,” Self said.
Jackson put the NCAA case behind him, but all the personal tragedies were another matter. Midway through his junior season, he watched Lawrence, Kan., fade into the rearview mirror as he headed for home, just wanting to be closer to what remained of his family.
“I came close to quitting,” Jackson said, staring at the floor as he sat at his locker in the Qwest Center. “Real close.”
Fortunately, his coaches and family talked him into returning. As a senior, Jackson emerged as one of the team’s top players after three up-and-down seasons spent mostly on the bench. Interestingly, he claimed Kaun’s starting role early in the year and went on to lead the team in rebounding (6.7 a game) and give the Jayhawks a fourth double-figure scorer (11.6).
Jackson insists he’s not using his personal turmoil as a motivational tool, even though the chest thumps he does are for his mother (who could be heard cheering loudly from the stands in Thursday’s win), his grandmother and the friend who ran afoul of the NCAA.
“I don’t want to use those things as a crutch,” he said. “I just want to be there for my teammates.”
He shares an unspoken bond with Kaun, who was sent to America by his mother to attend a Florida school that catered to foreign-born students. Speaking little English and having only a rudimentary knowledge of basketball, the big Russian naturally was steered toward the sport because of his size, which finally settled at just under 7 feet.
“I only weighed 185 pounds,” said Kaun, who has put on 65 pounds and now speaks English with only a tinge of an accent. “Everyone pushed me around. It was terrible.”
He looked across the room toward Jackson, who knows a thing or two about hardship.
“We haven’t really talked. Darnell is kind of a quiet guy,” Kaun said. “But we both know that we’ve been through a lot.”