GLENDALE, Ariz. — The surprise is not that Gonzaga, after nearly a decade of maturing into a national power and almost two decades of growing from a mid-major afterthought to a legitimate title contender, is here at the Final Four. That’s been expected for a number of years. In some ways, their arrival here is a lot later than many probably would have liked.
No, the surprise is that Przemek Karnowski is here with them.
Then again, maybe surprise is too soft of a word.
“It literally is miraculous,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said Thursday, “and I’m not using the term lightly.”
That’s because in the fall of 2015, Karnowski suffered a back injury and an ensuing staph infection that nearly robbed him of not only his senior season but a healthy post-basketball life.
“There was a very high probability that he was not probably going to play basketball again,” Few said of the early prognosis. “We were really truly hoping, probably, in 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.”
From those dire predictions, though, Karnowski has emerged to not only become a leader of the first Bulldogs team to make it this far, and not only the NCAA’s all-time winningest men’s basketball player, but in very real ways the face of his team in this Final Four.
His long, droopy beard, his 7-1 frame and his gregarious personality have made him a larger-than-life figure here. He can’t even walk into the Gonzaga locker room in University of Phoenix Stadium without strolling past a mural of himself painted on the wall. He doesn’t lead the Bulldogs in any statistics, not even rebounds or blocked shots. Only face time.
Those who know him will say he deserves every one of those close-ups. “It’s been a tough year,” said Karnowski, who averages 12.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game and shoots 60.1 percent from the field. “The support system I had at Gonzaga, Spokane, all the people who support our program, I knew I had their constant support, and that really helped me get back. At first I was really focused on daily activities like walking and getting in and out of bed. When I got cleared to do more and more stuff, it just kept me going.”
Earlier this season, Karnowski, a fifth-year senior, passed Duke’s Shane Battier (131) for career victories and currently sits at 136. He’d love to finish with 138.
That he even has an opportunity to do it speaks to the optimism and fortitude he exhibited in those post-op days of gloom.
“It came in stages,” he said of the comeback. “First I was thinking about getting back to daily activities, then I was thinking about playing basketball again, then being able to play basketball at a high level. And then when I was cleared to play, I was able to play with the team.”
It was during that convalescence that he began growing the beard. He eventually trimmed it but decided to let it grow back. It now stretches a good five inches below his chin. He joked that he gets asked more questions about his facial hair than about basketball by the media.
On Saturday, though, hoops will be the focus. He and Gonzaga will face South Carolina in the first national semifinal. It will be an exciting time for the school and for Karnowski’s native Poland (the games will be broadcast there for the first time, he said, and his mother will be watching on television).
The game may even come down to a critical late moment that many people will want to label as miraculous.
For Karnowski, though, the miracle already has happened.