From the moment he picked up the game, basketball came easy for Przemek Karnowski. How could it not? This is the sport played by giants, and Karnowski was a giant even among them. He was always the biggest player on the court during his adolescence in Toruń, Poland, and when he grew into an adult at Gonzaga he was all of 7’1 and 300 pounds.
Size was the bedrock of Karnowski’s game, but it was far from the entirety of it. He displayed a rare grace for a man so large, proving his success could be the byproduct of touch as much as power. He learned to use his big, soft hands to hit hook shots over his right shoulder and rifle passes to open teammates when the double-teams crashed down.
Karnowski’s steady post game became the foundation for some great Gonzaga teams. As a junior, he helped power a run to the Elite Eight that was only halted by eventual champion Duke. The ‘Zags looked just as promising the next season in what was to be Karnowski’s senior year before a freak fall robbed him of the game and suddenly made even the smallest tasks incredibly difficult.
It was Dec. 1, 2015 and Gonzaga was practicing before a game against Washington State. Karnowski jumped to contest a shot and landed on his back with nothing to brace the impact. He got up and finished the rest of practice, but the coming weeks confirmed he was far from all right.
The pain was concentrated in his back, but it shot all the way down to his leg. The fall had caused a bulging disc in his back and that triggered a staph infection. In the 30 days from the accident in practice to his surgery on New Year’s Eve, Karnowski had dropped 60 pounds.
“I didn’t know exactly what was going on,” Karnowski told SB Nation about those tense weeks after the fall. “I was just hoping to be able to walk around again. I wasn’t thinking about basketball at that time.”
On Thursday when Gonzaga faces West Virginia in the Sweet 16, Karnowski will be the man in the middle just as he’s been all season long. He’s healthy, he’s happy, and he’s playing as well as he ever has.
Now he’s ready to finish what he set out to accomplish when he arrived at Spokane five years ago. That means taking Gonzaga to where it’s never been: the Final Four. It’s only two wins away.
If head coach Mark Few is the most important man to Gonzaga basketball, assistant Tommy Lloyd is a close second. It’s Lloyd who has given the ‘Zags their international flair and discovered some of the program’s greatest players. Karnowski will go down as one of his all-time gems.
Lloyd was at the U17 World Championships in Germany in 2010 to watch a Canadian point guard named Kevin Pangos. While he was there, it was a big kid from Poland who caught his eye. College wasn’t Karnowski’s only option; he could have turned pro as a teenager, too. But if he wanted to come to the United States and go to school, Few and Lloyd knew Gonzaga was an easy sell.
The ‘Zags had staked a reputation on two things: welcoming international talent and valuing the big man. It’s what led Gonzaga to France’s Ronny Turiaf, Germany’s Elias Harris, Canada’s Robert Sacre and Kelly Olynyk, and later Lithuania’s Domantas Sabonis. Karnowski saw a pattern of success that he knew he could follow.
“I could see the transition from Europe to the U.S. wouldn’t be that hard here,” Karnowski said. It helped that he may have joined the most successful team in program history upon his arrival.
Karnowski played only 10 minutes per game as a freshman, averaging 5.4 points. But he got to practice every day with one of the country’s best teams. Olynyk, Harris, and Pangos, all three international recruits, led the way. The ‘Zags entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed at 31-2 and sat atop the final AP Poll of the season.
Then, in the round of 32, they ran into an upstart from the Missouri Valley, the Wichita State Shockers. Wichita State won by six and went all the way to the Final Four as a No. 9 seed before losing to eventual champion Louisville.
For Karnowski, it was an immediate introduction into everything that makes Gonzaga college basketball’s most polarizing program. The ‘Zags were a powerhouse, but they wouldn’t get the respect they were looking for until they made a Final Four run of their own.
Gonzaga would get close but ultimately fall short over the next few seasons. A trip to the Elite Eight. Another to the Sweet 16. They just couldn’t break through.
Is this the year? If nothing else, it might be the ‘Zags best chance. They started 29-0 before suffering their only loss of the year, an eight-point defeat to BYU. The offense ranks No. 12 in the country in efficiency and the defense ranks No. 1. The rotation has been bolstered by three high-major transfers who make this team look nothing like a mid-major.
Amid so much turnover this season, Karnowski has been a constant presence. You get the sense that Gonzaga wants to do this for Karnowski as badly as Karnowski wants to do it for his school.
During a time when every team at every level of the game wants to trade size for speed and downsize accordingly, Gonzaga has stayed big. The ‘Zags still play through the post and it starts with Karnowski. Having a 300-pounder who can score with his back to the basket and spot open shooters is a luxury few teams enjoy.
Still, the ‘Zags are excelling this year, in part because Karnowski is a piece of the puzzle, not the totality of it. Point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, a Washington transfer, has been Gonzaga’s best player. Add in the other two marquee transfers — guard Jordan Mathews (Cal) and big Jonathan Williams (Missouri) — and the ‘Zags have few holes in their lineup.
Gonzaga also has a budding star in freshman center Zach Collins, who serves as Karnowski’s primary backup. He’s allowed Few to cut Karnowski’s minutes back to keep him fresh for this tournament run. Even still, Karnowski is second on the team in scoring at 12.4 points per game and is shooting nearly 60 percent from the field.
As this magical Gonzaga season has unfolded, it’s given Karnowski the best measure of his impact: When the ‘Zags beat conference rival St. Mary’s for the third time this season, Karnowski passed Shane Battier as the all-time wins leader in college basketball.
It was only one year ago that Przemek Karnowski’s future as an athlete was in real peril. The thing that had come so easy to him had been taken away, and he didn’t know when or if he would get it back.
Now that he’s here, he’s not ready to let go of his college career just yet.