SAN JOSE, Calif.
At first glance, you might imagine him wandering the ancient Bialowieza forest, trudging through some of Poland’s primeval woodland, chopping down trees with his trusty ax so as to prevent them from falling on trails and crushing poor unsuspecting tourists.
His thick beard is only missing an accompanying plaid shirt, and we suspect Babe the Blue Ox might instead be a European bison.
But then you realize it’s amazing Przemek Karnowski can walk without needing a cane, never mind being this important a figure to the Final Four pursuit by one of college basketball’s premier programs.
Karnowski is a large man, the Paul Bunyan of Gonzaga, and central to why many believe the Zags will finally break through and reach the season’s final weekend when they meet Xavier in an Elite Eight game of the West Regional on Saturday afternoon at SAP Center.
Karnowski was supposed to have been gone by now, off to NBA riches, throwing his 7-foot-1-inch, 304-pound structure around against other professionals.
But a giant’s body doesn’t always work like those of ordinary folks, and a bulging disk in one’s back from a fall can be especially traumatic to someone so massive.
He couldn’t get out of bed in December 2015. He sort of rolled over and fell out each day, which I assume made the ground under Spokane shake to its core.
He would crawl to a pair of crutches and lift himself up. He saw doctors, trainers, acupuncturists. He tried everything but surgery, until New Year’s Eve.
It couldn’t be avoided any longer.
“We weren’t sure he was ever going to play again,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “We were just all hoping he would get back to moving and being able to handle the general activates of life. For him to be where he is now is a total miracle and credit to him and everybody involved. A great story.”
It’s crazy how things work. Gonzaga recruited freshman Zach Collins out of Bishop Gorman High with the idea the 7-footer would start this season, but then the NCAA granted Karnowski a medical redshirt and additional season.
It has afforded the Zags a luxury few teams have in the middle, a senior whose extensive experience includes being a member of the Polish national team and a first-year college player whose upside is limitless.
Karnowski is another example in the long line of foreign players having made names for themselves at Gonzaga, following the likes of J.P. Batista and Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk and Robert Sacre and Ronny Turiaf.
But none has been this imposing around the rim, something Xavier must combat as the Musketeers also try to reach their first Final Four.
“Karnowski is a load,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “The biggest we have played. They do a good job keeping him at the rim. I love our post players. They have played their tales off this tournament. But they’ll have to do that again for us to advance.”
Karnowski has started all 36 games, averaging 12.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 23 minutes, meaning he has produced while Few protected him and his fragile back from logging considerable time.
But it means so much more to the young man who when he heard Gonzaga was in Washington, looked at a map of the United States and wondered why he couldn’t find Spokane, which he quickly learned wasn’t in the same area as the White House.
Basketball and Final Fours and his NBA Draft stock were the furthest things from Karnowksi’s mind when he awoke in that hospital bed the night before 2016 arrived, an only child talking to his parents in Poland on the telephone and assuring them his back felt better than it had in months, that the deep pain had been replaced with a different, not so brutal kind.
“The whole experience taught me a lot, to live in the moment and enjoy every day,” Karnowski said. “It was a tough transition coming to United States besides just the basketball. The language, the culture, all that kind of stuff. But five years later, I have had a great support system.
“Going through the injury, at the end of the day, I just wanted to be healthy. I wasn’t thinking about basketball. I just wanted to get out of bed and walk. To remember where I was a year and a half ago to now, one win from the Final Four … unbelievable. I’m just happy to be playing.”
Paul Bunyan of Gonzaga grew his thick beard out of necessity last year when he couldn’t lift his arm to shave because of the back issues. He and others liked it so much, Karnowski decided to grow it out again after finally removing it after last year’s NCAA Tournament.
The process began in June 2016.
“I look like Castaway,” he said. “I trim to make sure it’s even, and I think people enjoy it.”
I think they enjoy more the fact he can walk without needing a cane.
Contact columnist Ed Graney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “Seat and Ed” on Fox Sports 1340 from 2 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.