Sasha Kaun - The Fated Olympian
Former international basketball star Sasha Kaun has an NCAA championship, an Olympic bronze medal, and an NBA championship on his resume.
Can you guess which one means the most to him?
Most might assume the NBA championship he managed to win alongside LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers back in 2016 would top that list. What could possibly be better than sharing the court with arguably the greatest player that ever lived in the year that he finally delivered on his promise to bring a championship to the city of Cleveland?
Granted, Kaun rarely saw the floor in his short stint with the team, but he was there to share in one of the most iconic moments in NBA history.
If that isn’t his biggest moment, then surely it’s winning an Olympic medal with his home country, right? After losing a heartbreaker to Spain, he helped Russia knock off an Argentina team with legendary players like Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola to take home the bronze in London’s 2012 Summer Olympics.
The odds of reaching either one of those feats are minimal, even for the greatest players in the world.
And still, neither one of those accomplishments trump the NCAA title Kaun won with the University of Kansas back in 2008.
Without taking away significance from either of those two epic feats, it’s what he accomplished as a Jayhawk that the longtime center sees as the defining moment in his career. Without that chapter in his story, the others would cease to exist.
The start of something new
“I would probably have to say winning the NCAA championship is my favorite moment just because of how everything played out after that event,” said Kaun. “I had a chance to go on and have a great professional career on the national team and do many exciting things. If we hadn’t won that year, I don’t think any of this ever would have been possible. I don’t think I would have gone on and continued playing.”
You see, Kaun was already planning for life after basketball. He was content in finishing up his college career and moving on to a traditional job that didn’t involve playing the game he’s loved ever since he was a kid.
It was time to leave the fairy tale in the rearview and make the transition to life in the real world. And then it happened.
Kansas won the 2008 NCAA Division I championship.
Amid the pouring rain of streamers and confetti, Kaun’s life was forever changed by that moment. That one game served as his springboard to a professional career that might have otherwise never been made possible.
“After we won that game, the agents started coming in and saying I could do this or I could do that. I was going to get a job. I’m a computer science major,” Kaun said. “Then we won the championship, and I signed with an agent. That whole thing just kind of snowballed from there, and before I knew it, I was on the path to being a professional basketball player.”
Kaun frequented the international scene before ultimately signing with the Cavaliers in 2015. He nearly made the Russian Olympic team right out of college in 2008, but Russia opted to stick with their veteran players rather than taking a chance on the new guy.
Sure, Kaun was disappointed to get passed up when he felt like he was ready to contribute. You’d be hard-pressed to find a greater honor for an athlete than representing their home country on the Olympic stage.
Kaun had the talent, but he was still denied entry.
“I was kind of the young guy coming in. I couldn’t just leapfrog some of the guys. I had to kind of step back and make way for the veterans that came before me,” said Kaun. “It would have been unfair for those guys to just give up a spot for me. I understood that and it was fine. They already had their core group of guys.”
The Olympic dream
By 2012, however, Kaun would join the likes of basketball legend Andrei Kirilenko as one of Russia’s core players.
The road to being an Olympian wasn’t necessarily an aspired one when Kaun was a child, but as an adult, he knew the significance of having his country plastered across his jersey on the biggest stage in sports.
He was appreciative of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of sharing a venue with all-time great athletes from other sports like Usain Bolt and Novak Djokovic. Those are the moments you never forget as an athlete.
Do you want to know what else you never forget? Waking up for 6:30 AM games and seeing a McDonald’s in an Olympic dining hall.
“There were definitely some things pretty unique to the Olympic environment and how it’s all structured,” Kaun said. “You have games at 6:30 AM in the morning. So I’d be waking up at like 5:00 AM just to get breakfast and get ready to play. I also thought the dining hall experience was pretty cool. They had this big area where you could try different foods from other countries. For me, it was also always funny with McDonald’s being the official sponsor. You have all of this food and a McDonald’s in there, and of course, the majority of the athletes were eating McDonald’s. It was literally like an oxymoron. These are the best of the best in the world, eating at McDonald’s. Kinda funny!”
But what was on the menu didn’t matter nearly as much as what happened on the basketball court. Russia made an improbable run in the Olympic tournament and powered their way to a semifinals matchup with Spain. They came up short on a night when Pau Gasol’s double-double carried Spain to a 67-59 victory.
It was a heartbreaking loss with Russia being only one game away from challenging the United States for a gold medal. But they refused to let that loss break them. That disappointment fueled them in an epic 81-77 victory over Argentina to take the bronze medal—the first in the country’s history in men’s basketball.
“We kind of fell a bit short-handed because I thought we could have beaten Spain. They’re obviously a great basketball team, but I really think we could have pulled it off,” said Kaun. “But we did beat Argentina, which also had an unbelievable roster with Scola, Ginobili, and all of those guys. That medal is one of those things not a lot of athletes have an opportunity to compete for, much less win. It’s definitely something that’s very special to me, especially with the Olympics only being every four years. What we accomplished is a rare feat.”
And to think, Kaun may have not been present for any of it if Kansas didn’t beat Memphis in an overtime thriller in the 2008 NCAA championship game. There’s a better chance he would have been off somewhere making good on his computer science degree.
No NCAA title, no NBA title, and no Olympic medal—how different life could have been.