After Painful Detour, Przemek Karnowski Still Has Storybook Ending in Sight

Jason KingSenior Writer, B/R MagApril 3, 2017

Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski (24) celebrates in the closing minutes of a win over Xavier during an NCAA Tournament college basketball regional final game Saturday, March 25, 2017, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Ben Margot/Associated Press

GLENDALE, Arizona — He's one victory away from sparking Gonzaga to its first national championship, but a year ago, Przemek Karnowski couldn't tie his own shoes.

Rem Bakamus handled the chore most days. He'd take a knee in the middle of campus and double-knot his teammate's laces as the 7'1", 300-pound Karnowski clutched an IV bag and balanced on crutches.

Bakamus' kind deeds didn't end there. For nearly two months last winter, the fifth-year senior guard carried Przemek's (pronounced "SHEM-eck's") books to class. He assisted him in and out of his Ford Taurus and often ran his errands and fetched him food.

"Thank God," Bakamus said, "I didn't have to help him wipe or anything like that."

Bakamus chuckles as he recalls the story Sunday afternoon, a little more than 24 hours before Monday's showdown against North Carolina for the NCAA title.

The Zags wouldn't be here if not for Karnowski—the fifth-year senior with a beard so long and ginger that it has its own Twitter account. While his teammates reveal entertaining stories about him in the University of Phoenix Stadium locker room, Karnowski holds court with other reporters outside of it. Apparently, "Shemmy" was quite the three-point shooter as a teenage guard back in Poland.

"I used to be launching it!" he bellows in a Polish accent. "I'm serious, bro!"

Anyone who has followed Karnowski's past year knows how refreshing it is to see the behemoth center beaming again—and, even more so, to hear the booming, energizing cackle that was long missing from the Zags' huddle.

For a time, some feared it would never return.

GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 01: Przemek Karnowski #24 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs huddles with teammates at the start of their game against the South Carolina Gamecocks during the 2017 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 1, 2017
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

"There was a very high probability," head coach Mark Few said, "that he was not going to play basketball again."

Indeed, after spending three weeks virtually bedridden in his Spokane townhome, Karnowski underwent surgery to repair a bulging disk in his back on Dec. 31, 2015.

A few days later, when the meds had worn off and Karnowski was lucid, he asked his surgeon when he'd be able to return to the court. Basketball, he was told, should be the furthest thing from his mind.

"My goal right now," the doctor said to Karnowski, "is to help you lead a normal life. My goal is to make sure you can walk again."

Clearly, the journey would be long and arduous.

Much like the one he'd already traveled.


He wore running shoes with jean shorts and button-up plaid shirts during his first few months on campus. And more often than not, his teammates said, Karnowski put on one splash too many of offensive cologne.

He attempted to play Polish rap music in the Gonzaga locker room, which wasn't well-received. And Karnowski despised the greasy burgers, tacos and fried chicken the players purchased late at night from fast-food joints, which were never a part of his diet growing up in Torun, Poland.

"It's safe to say that Shem didn't have a ton of swag when he first came over here," Bakamus said.

Still, the Zags loved their new teammate.

And Karnowski loved them.

Never a huge college basketball fan as a teenager, Karnowski had heard of tradition-rich schools such as Kentucky and Duke and Kansas. But he was unfamiliar with the Gonzaga until the staff started sending him recruiting letters before his final season of high school.

At the time, Karnowski was considering skipping college altogether and signing with a European pro basketball league. But the more he began researching the Zags, the more he realized how much potential he had to develop under Few.

Karnowski was particularly impressed with Gonzaga's history of success with bigs from other countries. Domantas Sabonis, J.P. Batista, Ronny Turiaf, Robert Sacre and Kelly Olynyk are among the foreign-born post players who have flourished in Spokane.

Przemek Karnowski was convinced to leave Poland for Gonzaga after seeing how coach Mark Few had helped other big men develop at the school.
Przemek Karnowski was convinced to leave Poland for Gonzaga after seeing how coach Mark Few had helped other big men develop at the school.Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

"The more I read about it, the more it seemed like the perfect place for me," said Karnowski, who was also heavily recruited by Cal. "Once I left my official visit, I knew that's where I wanted to go."

Just as they did on him, Karnowski made quite the impression on people at Gonzaga during his first trip to campus in the spring of 2012. And not just folks in the athletic realm.

Jolanta Weber, the university's associate academic vice president, met with Karnowski during his trip. She said he was clearly jet-lagged from the 22-hour flight from his native country but was polite enough to fight back a yawn as she was briefing him on the school's academic principles. But something Karnowski said in that meeting stuck with Weber the most.

When she asked him to name his No. 1 concern about moving to the United States, Karnowski's reply had nothing to do with basketball. Instead, he told Weber that he wanted to make sure he could excel in the classroom. As soon as Karnowski left the room, Weber phoned her husband, Gary, who is an accounting professor at the school.

"We've got to get this kid to Gonzaga," she said. "He personifies everything this school stands for."

Weber also had a keen interest in Karnowski because she, too, was born and raised in Poland. So for the next four-plus years, she and her family did everything they could within NCAA rules to help ease Karnowski's transition to American life.

Some evenings, that meant inviting Karnowski over for a Polish dinner of breaded and flash-fried pork cutlets with potatoes, soup and maybe a piroshki. Other times, it involved a text to encourage him before a test or game, or a phone call to his parents back in Poland to comfort them when they missed their son.

"People don't take the time to understand how much of a life change it is for someone from another country to come and live here," Weber said. "It's so much more of an undertaking than anyone realizes."

While Karnowski adjusted to his new life away from the court—he was so insecure about his broken English that he waited until his junior year to take a required speech course—it didn't take long to realize that he would achieve success on it.

Karnowski backed up Olynyk, an NBA lottery pick in 2013, as a freshman before averaging double figures in scoring the next two seasons as Gonzaga's starting center.

Even though he looked slow and unathletic at times, Karnowski's ability to pass out of double-teams and his physicality in the paint impressed NBA scouts—not to mention the teammates that went up against him in practice. 

"It's like running into a brick wall. You're not going to move him," said backup center Ryan Edwards, who at 7'1" and 295 pounds is almost identical in size to Karnowski. "I can't imagine not being his size and going up against him. If I were a 6'9" or 6'10" post, no thanks. I would not want to deal with that.

Karnowski began his career at Gonzaga as a backup to eventual NBA lottery pick Kelly Olynyk.
Karnowski began his career at Gonzaga as a backup to eventual NBA lottery pick Kelly Olynyk.Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

"He hurts your body. You'll have a broken rib after the game or something. I've got bruises after every practice. It's intense."

After helping Gonzaga reach the Elite Eight as a junior in 2015, Karnowski entered what was supposed be his senior season determined to lead the Zags to the program's first Final Four before being selected in the NBA draft.

Everything seemed to be lining up perfectly.

And then, during a routine shootaround on Dec. 1, the giant fell. Karnowski still squirms when discussing the pain that would soon follow.

"I don't wish any of that to happen to my worst enemy," he said.


For nearly three weeks, Karnowski rarely got out of bed.

When he needed to use the restroom each morning, Karnowski—unable to lift his upper body from the mattress—rolled onto the floor and crawled.

Across the carpet he'd go, first to grab a crutch with one hand, and then toward the door, where he'd grip the knob with the other hand as he pulled himself from the ground and to his feet. Some days, he said, the entire process took an hour.

"I'm like, 'Przemek, you've gotta get out of bed,'" assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. "'You've gotta take a shower, you've gotta start feeling better.' I'm having the hard talk with him and he's like, almost tearing up."

Karnowski couldn't bend down and duck into the shower at his one-bedroom townhome, so on several occasions, Lloyd helped him get into his Toyota Sequoia—hardly an easy task—and drove him to the athletic complex so he could use the more spacious facility.

As the weeks went by, Karnowski's back spasms intensified. There were nights when he began sweating profusely.

Karnowski had undergone an initial MRI following his tumble on Dec. 1, which showed the bulging disk. But when he returned for a second MRI after things got worse, he leaned that a staph infection had developed in his back and spread to his left leg.

"The doctor comes out and is like, 'This can't even be the same guy,'" Lloyd said. "'From two weeks ago to now, how is this so different?'"

A bulging disk and a staph infection caused Karnowski to drop more than 60 pounds during his recovery.
A bulging disk and a staph infection caused Karnowski to drop more than 60 pounds during his recovery.Young Kwak/Associated Press/Associated Press

The source of the infection was never discovered, but it took its toll on Karnowski, who had an abscess on his left shin measuring 10 centimeters long by three centimeters wide by three centimeters deep. 

"A nasty puss pocket," Lloyd said.

An emergency surgery was scheduled to halt the infection. Nervous as Karnowski may have been, he tried to remain upbeat—even cracking a joke when his anesthesiologists told him they were graduates of BYU and Duke.

"No rivalries today, guys," he said as he was prepped for the procedure. "We're all friends here, right?"

A few days later, doctors told Karnowski his recovery could take up to 10 months. And they offered no guarantees when he asked if he'd be able to play basketball again.

Weber and her family were at the hospital every day until he was released, consistently providing updates to his parents back in Poland.

"I just wanted to hug him and take care of him," she said. "It'd be a scary situation for anyone, much less a 21- or 22-year-old whose parents were 6,000 miles away in another country."

Still, Karnowski was anything but lonely in the hospital. So frequent were the pop-ins from players, coaches and fellow students that nurses had to tell him to cut the visits short and get some rest.

With such a long recovery and an uncertain future, Few became concerned about Karnowski's mental health. Not to mention his physical well-being, as he dropped from 310 pounds to 238 in a single month.

"I was really worried about depression and things like that," Few said. "Emotionally, he wasn't in a great place. So going from those dark days to right now, it literally is miraculous, and I'm not using the term lightly."

Karnowski, though, vows he never became depressed—partly because people on campus wouldn't let him. Whether it was Bakamus trying his shoes and carrying his books or fellow students stopping him on campus for some kind words and a selfie with him and his IV bag—which he carried for four months—Karnowski's spirits elevated more and more with each passing day.

"One day I was playing basketball," he said, "and the next day, I couldn't get out of bed. It taught me a lot. It gave me a different perspective on my life. Take everything with a smile on your face, because maybe the next day you won't have [that opportunity]."

The further he got into his rehab, the more it appeared he'd indeed get another chance to play. Doctors told him it'd be 10 months before he could run or jump. Karnowski was doing both after seven. Near the end of last summer, he sent Bakamus a video of himself dunking for the first time since the injury.

"That was the first big moment that I can remember where I was, like, 'OK, he's getting back to normal,'" Bakamus said. "He stayed so upbeat the whole time. It made me proud to be his friend. It was a mental and physical grind."

Doctors cleared Karnowski to return to full contact drills in October, just before the start of official workouts.

The very first week of practice, during a warm-up drill, he felt spasms in his back.

"I thought, 'OK, is this going to be a recurring theme?'" Lloyd said. "We gave him a day off and, for a while, never had him practice more than two days in a row. 

"Since December, he hasn't missed a practice. He's done everything everyone else has. He's been great."

Along with his 12.3 points, which rank second on the team, Karnowski is averaging 5.8 rebounds and an eye-popping 2.0 assists for Gonzaga, which is 37-1 and in the national championship game (and Final Four) for the first time in school history. Although he's considered a fringe NBA prospect, there's no question Karnowski will make money playing basketball somewhere next season, most likely overseas.

Karnowski won't think about any of that, he said, until after Monday's game against North Carolina. The Tar Heels feature one of college basketball's top forwards in Kennedy Meeks, who had 25 points and 14 rebounds in Saturday's semifinal victory over Oregon.

At 6'10" and 260 pounds, Meeks isn't quite as big as Karnowski, but he's more mobile. "He's a great player," Karnowski said of Meeks. "I give a lot of respect to him. But I'm not just going to go out there and do nothing."

Whatever happens, people in Karnowski's native land will be watching. For the first time in history, he said, a Polish television station will carry Monday's NCAA title game live, meaning it will be available in every household in the country.

The only problem: It tips off at 3 a.m. in Poland.

Karnowski's father, however, won't have to get up that early.

Bonifacy Karnowski traveled from Poland to see his son play his final two collegiate games, landing in Phoenix around 1 a.m. Saturday. His face was featured multiple times on the massive overhead video scoreboard during Gonzaga's win over South Carolina, and it's likely that will happen again during Monday's championship tilt.

Bonifacy was Karnowski's coach growing up, so the 7-footer would love to make his father proud by capturing the NCAA title. He wants it for his teammates, too. He wants it for his coaches, for his school and, yes, for himself.

Win or lose, Karnowski's reputation at Gonzaga won't change. He'll always be one of the most loved players in Zags history.

And, even more so, one of the most respected.

"We are going to miss him so much," Weber said. "The greatest gift to me is that he doesn't need us anymore. He's become so gritty and determined and confident—and he's comfortable in this environment now.

"He's assimilated into his new life." 

   

Jason King is a senior writer for B/R Mag, based in Kansas. A former staff writer at ESPN.com, Yahoo Sports and the Kansas City Star, King's work has received mention in the popular book series The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter: @JasonKingBR.