SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Przemek Karnowski woke up every morning unable to lift his upper body off the bed, so he would slowly rock back and forth until he reached the edge.
Once there, he would lower to the floor and crawl to his crutch, using it and the doorknob to raise his massive frame off the carpet.
This was the Gonzaga center’s life in late 2015. The concern then was not whether Karnowski would play basketball again. Living a normal life again was the goal.
“What he went through was just heartbreaking,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “For him to go from where he was at his darkest time to where he is now is pretty heartwarming and you couldn’t be happier from the kid.”
Karnowski — first name pronounced Shim-ick — has arrived at the end of his collegiate career healthy and with the Zags in the midst of their best season as a program.
Gonzaga (24-1) is in the Sweet 16 for the third straight season, looking for the program’s first Final Four appearance with perhaps Few’s best team in 18 seasons as coach.
The Zags face West Virginia in the West Region semifinals on Thursday, with a potential matchup with Arizona in the Elite Eight on tap if they can get past the Mountaineers.
Karnowski, as he was during Gonzaga’s run to a 19th straight NCAA Tournament appearance, will be a key factor in their chances of moving on to the Final Four in Glendale, Arizona.
The massive and massively-bearded Polish center gives the Zags an immovable presence in the middle and perhaps the best passing big man in college basketball.
The 7-foot-1, 300-pound redshirt senior is a matchup nightmare against one-on-one coverage inside because of size and a craftiness that includes up-and-unders, hook shots with both hands.
Karnowski also creates problems against double teams because of his Bill Walton-esque ability to find the open man, leaving teams unsure of how to handle him.
“He’s got good footwork and he’s agile,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said.
Karnowski had a steady climb of improvement after arriving in Spokane from Poland in 2012. He played 34 games as freshman, became the starting center as a sophomore and scored 10.9 points with 5.8 rebounds as a sophomore.
Heading into the 2015-16 season, Karnowski was expected to team with Domantas Sabonis in one of the nation’s most formidable big-man duos. Instead, he was limited to five games because of bulging disks and a hard fall in practice early in the season.
Everything in Karnowski’s life revolved around pain after that, from being unable to carry his school books or finding a position that didn’t hurt, even lying down.
“Literally, we were rooting for him to come back from that and just be able to function a normal life,” Few said.
“There was no basketball involved. Just be able to get out of bed, move, get into his car, things that were just not possible when he was at his darkest time. You could even see depression sort of set in because it was so bleak.”
Karnowski tried everything from physical therapy to chiropractors before the pain became so unbearable, a trip to the hospital was the only option. He had surgery the next day, on New Year’s Eve.
The difference was immediate.
“Basically all the stuff I was used to doing all my life disappeared,” Karnowski said. “It was just awesome the day after surgery to get up and slowly get back to walking.”
Karnowski suffered an infection following surgery and began dropping weight quickly, down to about 240. He gradually built up his strength and his weight again, moving back to the basketball court for running and jumping within about seven months.
Few eased Karnowski back into things early in the season and the big man has remained healthy during the Zags’ run to the Sweet 16.
He was Gonzaga’s second-leading scorer at 12.4 points per game and second with 5.9 rebounds during the regular season, and became the NCAA’s all-time leader in victories with 134 heading into Thursday’s game.
“It just feels nice to be back,” he said. “After everything I went through, I’m happy to do all things I couldn’t do before and play basketball again.”
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