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Przemek Karnowski's long road back to Gonzaga

MORAGA, Calif. -- In a road win over Saint Mary's on Feb. 11, Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski, a 7-foot-1, 300-pound man-bear, flew down the court on fast breaks and bounded past the Gaels with rare grace for a player his size.

That's a startling progression for a man who could not walk a year ago, after he suffered a back injury that nearly cost him his career.

"I was just thinking about getting rid of the pain and being able to go back to daily activities like walking, jumping, running, stuff like that," said Karnowski, who was granted a medical redshirt for 2015-16. "I wasn't even thinking about playing basketball. I couldn't bend at all."

Throughout the month of December 2015, Karnowski would open his eyes after an achy night and feel trapped in his Spokane, Washington, apartment by an ailing back.

Like a steamboat docked in choppy waters, Karnowski would rock back and forth, slowly gaining the momentum to scoot his massive body toward the edge of his bed. Once there, he'd tumble off the mattress and land on the floor.

"I couldn't bring my upper body up," Karnowski said, "so I had to roll over from the bed."

Then, he would crawl. Yes, crawl.

He'd drag himself across the carpet, grab one of his crutches with one hand, grip the doorknob with the other and pull himself off the ground.

After more than an hour, and with a crutch under each arm, he'd stand.

"It was probably taking me an hour to an hour and a half to just get out from bed and do daily activities," he said. "I couldn't walk. None of the positions for me. Even laying down was uncomfortable for me."

He prayed against surgery, even when Gonzaga shut him down after five games in 2015-16, and sought alternative solutions.

He worked with the team's trainers. He went to a chiropractor. He tried acupuncture.

On Dec. 30, 2015, however, the unbearable pain in his lower back required a trip to a local hospital, where doctors told him he'd need surgery the following day, New Year's Eve, to correct the injury.

"Everything that medicine has to offer, and nothing was helping," Karnowski said. "So after a month of doing that I went to the hospital, and the diagnosis was I had to have surgery right away."

His parents had serendipitously traveled to Spokane from Poland as part of a previously planned visit for the holidays. They stayed three weeks and helped Karnowski maneuver, while dreading the eventual trip home.

"It was a hard time for us, and we were several thousand kilometers away from him," Karnowski's parents, Bonifacy and Wieslawa Karnowski, said in a translated statement. "We could not be with him on a daily basis. But, to see how well he is doing now, we are so grateful and happy for him. We are very proud of him."

Added Karnowski, the Gonzaga star: "They were there to help me, and it was big for me."

Others assisted, too.

Gonzaga guard Rem Bakamus carried Karnowski's books to class. Other players helped him navigate the quaint campus in eastern Washington.

He needed them.

Karnowski developed an infection after his procedure, and he'd lost nearly 60 pounds in the weeks after he'd suffered the back injury. The man-bear had shriveled into a 238-pound cub.

"He missed a lot of time, lost a lot of weight and was not able to function at a high level or even at a low level for a long period of time," said Josh Therrien, Gonzaga's head athletic trainer.

But Karnowski did not mope.

He listened to his doctors and invested in the rehab process, even though he did not know if he'd ever return to a basketball court.

Over time, he added more weight. And he began to feel mobile and flexible again.

Doctors told him he'd need 10 months to return to strenuous activities after surgery.

"I started running, probably, after like seven months," he said.

The Decision: Gonzaga or the pros

Karnowski had considered signing with a European pro basketball league after high school in Poland, but he ultimately picked Gonzaga. In his first three seasons at the collegiate level, he'd impressed some NBA scouts before his injury minimized the buzz for the then-projected second-round pick.

"I like the big boy," said one NBA scout who recently traveled to watch Gonzaga. "He has some deficiencies with his lack of athleticism, but he uses his body well and has good hands. The way the league is going away from the traditional centers, unless you can shoot the 3, it doesn't bode well for him. He can be a backup big. He does have a decent feel and skill set."

Karnowski considered leaving Gonzaga and turning pro after his injury.

Yet, a shot at the next level seemed secondary for Karnowski, who'd earned his degree from Gonzaga but missed last year's run to the Sweet 16. Another season would give him a chance to fully reboot his back and prepare for his future, while enjoying his final year of college, he figured.

In May, he announced his comeback.

"I'm excited to be coming back," Karnowski said at the time in a statement through the school. "After talking with the coaches, my parents and the team, I decided this was the best decision for me. I still have a ways to go with my rehab, but I'm staying positive about the upcoming season."

The night before undefeated Gonzaga rumbled past its chief rival two weeks ago, Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett worried about Karnowski's impact.

"Their inside kid is a factor in this," Bennett told ESPN.com before the redshirt senior recorded 19 points and nine rebounds in a 74-64 road win over Saint Mary's. "Hard for us to just get easy shots inside."

Karnowski scored on his first five attempts at Saint Mary's, the last true test for a 28-0 Gonzaga squad aiming to enter Selection Sunday with an unblemished record and secure a No. 1 seed that would position the team to play every stage of the NCAA tournament on the West Coast -- Salt Lake City to San Jose to Phoenix.

While Nigel Williams-Goss draws the most hype in Spokane, Washington, and Zach Collins continues to intrigue NBA executives, Karnowski's teammates will tell you he's their veteran anchor.

A versatile big man, Karnowski possesses an assist rate higher than Bronson Koenig's and Donovan Mitchell's, according to KenPom.com. He has connected on 63.6 percent of his post-up opportunities -- "excellent," per Synergy Sports scouting data standards. Plus, he leads Gonzaga with a 49.4 percent clip on his jump shots inside the arc, according to hoop-math.com. He has made 65.2 percent of his 2-pointers in West Coast Conference play, No. 2 in the league.

Anyone doubting those marks based on Gonzaga's league slate should look at his performances earlier this season, when he flirted with a triple-double in a win over Iowa State (11 points, eight rebounds, five assists), scored 18 points in a win over Arizona and collected 10 points and nine rebounds in a victory over a Tennessee squad vying for an at-large berth.

"He's such an entity, man," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "There's not many like him in college basketball. He's big, but he can pass and he can deliver. ... He's a big mountain of a man that's hard to move, and he's a pretty good rim protector."

Big Love for a Big Comeback

Those who remember his worst days marvel at his progress.

"He's doing things that are amazing to see someone his size do as a healthy individual, but even more amazing and gratifying for the rest of us to see him do coming back from an injury like that," Therrien said.

In the second half of the recent Saint Mary's matchup, Karnowski drew multiple defenders on one possession before he kicked it out to Johnathan Williams, a 6-foot-9 transfer from Missouri who hit an 18-foot jump shot.

"Him having that skill set can separate him from other bigs across the country because he's able to find open players, hit them right in the pocket, hit me on the cut for a dunk," Williams said. "He's able to make those reads. He's really intelligent, and I love him."

Gonzaga could make a run to the Final Four. That's only a crazy thought if you've failed to follow a Bulldogs team with wins over Iowa State, Florida, Tennessee, Arizona and Saint Mary's (twice). Karnowski's presence and health boost those odds.

The team's training staff has heard all good news in recent checkups with local specialists, although each appointment takes Karnowski an extra 30 minutes because Gonzaga fans always stop him to tell him how much his return means to them.

Karnowski said he no longer has any severe pain in his lower back, only minimal soreness after lengthy practices.

He preserves his back with daily pool workouts that reduce the pressure on his body. He only steps onto the court to play and practice. His conditioning work occurs in exercises that reduce the risk of re-injury, according to Therrien.

This season, he's averaging 22.3 minutes per game, a surprising tally for the big man who questioned his basketball future last year.

"I think the first lesson that the surgery and the injury taught me is being grateful for the little things you don't appreciate every day," Karnowski said. "You go to practice and you take it for granted. Now I go to practice, and I'm really grateful. I've been humbled. I'm really grateful for another chance because, like I said, it didn't look good for me during that month of December [2015] when I was injured."

Karnowski's parents recently traveled to Spokane.

They'll accompany him during Gonzaga's senior night ceremony before Saturday's game against BYU. And then, they'll travel to the West Coast Conference tournament in Las Vegas.

He had not seen them since July, when he flew home to Poland over summer break.

They had not visited their son in Spokane since his surgery 15 months ago, when they had to help him do basic things like walk and stand.

It's those elements of the journey that make Karnowski appreciate his role in a flawless season.

"It was tough for me," Karnowski said. "I didn't know if I was going to play basketball again. I'm just happy where I am right now. I'm happy where the team is. We just gotta keep working, keep getting better."