PHOENIX, Ariz.– It is hard to miss Gonzaga’s fifth-year senior center Przemek Karnowski. He is 7-1 and a 300 pound giant who has become the face of the NCAA Final Four because of his beard which drops a good five inches from his chin.
And he has suddenly become must see TV for basketball fans in his native Poland, who will watch him when the Zags play South Carolina in the national semi-finals at a sold out University of Phoenix Stadium Saturday. “I don’t think they would have shown it if I wasn’t in it,” he said. “But the Polish national team, the Polish Federation came to the conclusion it would be beneficial to show it. It will actually be on at midnight, so it wouldn’t be super, super late.
“I think it will be great to play basketball on the biggest of stages. I don’t think people in my country are aware of how big the Final Four is. Poland has only had one guy– (center Jacek Duda of Providence in 1987)– who played in the Final Four before and that was 25-30 years ago. I think more and more people have been following the tournament since we started winning. At the same time, I’ve been here so long, going to the Final Four, I think it’s very special.”
Karnowski watched his first Final Four in 2006 when Florida won the first of its back to back national championships. “The games were on at 2-3 in in the morning,” he recalled. “My parents would tell me to go to sleep but I tried to stream it so I could watch it. I would turn off the lights in my room, turn on the computer and hope my parents were asleep. I used to dream of playing in the NCAA.”
Karnowski found his way to Gonzaga after deciding to play American college basketball instead of signing with a European pro basketball league out of high school. He chose the Zags over Cal-Berkeley because of the success Mark Few and his staff had coaching international big men like Ronnie Turiaf of Turkey, Kelly Olynyk and Robert Sacre of Canada and Domantas Sabonis, the son of Olympic star Arvydas Sabonis, who won a gold medal playing for the Soviet Union in 1988 and a pair of bronze medals playing for Lithuania in 1992 and 1996. “They didn’t have a lot of one and dones,” he said. “It was a great place for me to be because it allowed me to work on my skills.”
In his first three years, he impressed NBA scouts with his size and strength, his old school back to the basket power game and his ability to pass out of double teams.
But he almost disappeared for good last year when suffered a back injury that nearly cost him his career.
“There was a very high probability that he was not probably going to play basketball again,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “I think all of us coaches, players, coaches’ wives, were huge in this process, going over and kind of giving him a little TLC with his parents not being around. And we were really truly hoping, probably, December, January, February, for just a normal active life. I mean, he couldn’t even get in or out of a car, or really walk, or even just kind of getting in and out of bed. And then I was really worried about depression and things like that. Emotionally he wasn’t in a great place. So the fact that from going from those dark days to like right now, it literally is miraculous, and I’m not using the term lightly.”
Karnowski, who is averaging 12.1 points and 5.8 rebounds while splitting time with 7-0 freshman Zach Collins, is one of the biggest reasons the 36-1 Zags are here. But he had to work hard to get to this point.
In the winter of 2016, he could hardly walk. It was a challenge just to get out of bed in his Spokane apartment. He couldn’t bring his upper body up so he would roll off the mattress, drag himself across the carpet. Then he would grab one of his crutches with one hand, grip the door nob with the other and pull himself off the ground. The ordeal took close to an hour. the pain became so great the coaches shut him down after five games. Karnowski went ot a chiroprator, even tried acupuncture. Eventually, he had to undergo surgery New Year’s Eve.
His parents Bonifacy and Wieslawa made the trip from Poland and stayed three weeks, helping Karnowski maneuver. Guard Rem Bakamus carried Karnowski’s books to class and his teammates helped him get around campus. Karnowski lost 60 pounds and dropped to 238-pounds when he started rehab. He began growing his beard during convalescence. “Last year was a tough year for me,” he said. “I was lucky I had the support system I had at Gonzaga. It helped me. At first I had to get back to daily activities, like walking, getting out of bed. Then, when I was cleared to do more, it kept me going.”
Karnowski, who graduated last year, was granted a medical red shirt, but he briefly considered declaring for the draft. But he had missed out on the Zags run to the Sweet 16 in 2016 and felt another year would help him completely recover and enjoy his final season.
“He’s such an entity, man,” Few said. “There’s not many like him in college basketball. He’s big, but he can pass and he can deliver. He’s a big mountain of a man who is hard to move and he’s a pretty good rim protector.”