By John Crumpacker
The big man is back. The question now is, is the big man’s back also back? Only time will tell.
Last Dec. 31, Gonzaga’s 7-foot-1, 300-pound center, Przemek Karnowski, rang in the new year in a hospital bed, recovering from major back surgery that limited him to the first five games of the Zags’ 2015-16 basketball season.
“Ten months ago I was lying in a bed with a lot of pain,’’ Karnowski said during the recent West Coast Conference Tip-off in Los Angeles. “Now I’m running around on the court. It’s a huge step for me. I’m just happy to be back.’’
After nearly a year of rehabilitation that included ice baths, electrical stimulation, massage and weekly acupuncture appointments, Karnowski is ready to give it a go in 2016-17, his fifth and final year in Spokane after being granted a medical redshirt season. The Zags, favored to win their 16th WCC regular season championship in the last 17 years, open the schedule on Friday against Utah Valley at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
“I’m excited to start playing again,’’ Karnowski said. “My focus was to rehab and get back in basketball shape. In mid-August I was cleared to play basketball. That was huge for me. I’ve been steadily progressing. For the last two months I’ve been going full speed. No flare-ups.’’
Asked to put a percentage on where he thinks he is now compared to his last full season in 2014-15, Karnowski said, “It’s hard to say. I haven’t been back playing a real game yet. From scrimmaging in practice, I’ve been feeling really good. I guess maybe 80-85 (percent).’’
Coach Mark Few is cautious in his assessment of where Karnowski is in the arc of his recovery from surgery. As he told the Seattle Times, “He’s not there yet. There’s a lot to come back from. He’s jumping into such a competitive environment. You’re wondering if it’s going to hold up.’’
Before injuring a disk in his back in the early going of 2015-16, Karnowski had averaged 8.8 points and 5.4 rebounds in his team’s first five games. In starting 37 of 38 games in 2014-15, the big man averaged 10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and a little more than one block per game.
Looking to Friday’s opener against Utah Valley, Karnowski said, “That’s going to be a huge step for me, to begin playing against someone else. It’s going to be something for me to get used to again. I’ve never had a break from basketball before. It’s a new experience for me.’’
A year ago, Karnowski was the tallest cheerleader in the country as he supported his teammates from the bench, in street clothes, while the Zags reached the Sweet 16 and finished at 29-6 overall.
“I tried to provide as much leadership on the bench as I could,’’ he said. “I tried to embrace that.’’
Karnowski returns to a different Gonzaga team in 2016-17. Gone from the front court are stalwarts Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis, both now in the NBA. As Few noted in the Seattle Times, “We’ve never had two NBA guys in the same year.’’
For the coming season, Gonzaga tried to reload with such big men as Missouri transfer Johnathan Williams (6-9), freshmen Killian Tillie (6-10) and Zach Collins (7-0) to go with holdover Ryan Edwards (7-1).
“We have a lot of new players, a lot of transfers, a lot of freshmen,’’ Karnowski said.
To bring this new cast of players together, Few held a team retreat in Idaho that included one night sleeping in tents. No cell phones, no social media, just quality time alone in the mountains.
“It was like when I was a kid – no phone,’’ Karnowski said. “We were talking to each other. It was good to get to know each other. It was really good to bring the players together. We were able to come there and feel comfortable with each other.’’
In Gonzaga’s recent Red vs. Blue scrimmage at the McCarthey Center, Karnowski received a standing ovation when he was introduced. “It was nice to see the support from the fans,’’ he said.
During his down time, Karnowski received support as well from fans in the form of cards and letters, as many as 250, from people across the country. At one point during his rehab he said he received as many as 10 cards and letters a day, wishing him well.
If Karnowski is able to make it through his senior season as a major contributor, it will make all that rehab worthwhile, including those weekly acupuncture treatments off campus.
“Anything that medicine had to offer, I tried,’’ he said. “I never had it until I got to the U.S. (from his native Poland). It helps for any kind of pain.’’
And now, the only question is, is the big man’s back, back?
John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards.