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Gonzaga Basketball

Blanchette: Przemek Karnowski and his beard have endeared themselves to Zags fans

Przemek Karnowski and the Gonzaga Bulldogs are used to getting a boost from the home crowd in the Kennel. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

So, the beard.

It is not enough that Przemek Karnowski is 7-foot-1 and teeters on either side of 300 pounds, depending on the day’s breakfast. Nor is it enough that he plays basketball for a team that is the civic cocktail at happy hour, with every seat sold and every game on television. Or that the team is unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the nation, the buzz of college basketball.

No, there has to be a beard, too.

You could call it fuzz to go with that buzz, but it is much more than that.

“It’s nice,” Karnowski said. “It’s big. A full Polish beard.”

With a life of its own. TV announcers admire it and dissect it. There is a Twitter account – @KarnowskisBeard – full of hirsute content, though it’s not of his making.

“The attention for it was surprising at first, but it’s normal now,” he said. “It’s one of those funny things. When I was younger, I always wanted to have a beard. Then when it came to shaving, I thought, ‘I have to do this every second or third day?’ So this way it can be part of my personality and who I am.”

But it is not the only part of Przemek Karnowski that’s grown full.

The games are fun and the national attention is flattering, but the fulfilling part of Gonzaga basketball is bearing witness to the ontogenesis of its many personalities – which are not always as outsized as their physiques. This is not true in Karnowski’s case, however.

He is at once the biggest and the most accessible of Zags, and there is some tradition to that.

You only have to think of Ronny Turiaf, as multidimensional as his explosion of hair, or Robert Sacre, the Zags’ illustrated man, dog fancier and social commentator. Both cast great light and long shadows not easily replicated. In fact, it’s worth going back to the fall of 2012 when Karnowski arrived on campus to “replace” the graduated Sacre and re-examine the cautions of coach Mark Few.

“That’s a little unfair to say – ‘Przemek for Rob,’” he said. “They’re completely different players, but the whole entity of Rob will be impossible to replace – the personality, the energy, enthusiasm, leadership.”

Yet just a few games back, asked about Karnowski yet once more about Karnowski’s performance and impact, Few ticked off some assets and then concluded with a sigh, “He’s just such an entity.”

And he is – different from his predecessors, but of a kind.

Which along with his renown as Gonzaga’s winningest player – 129 and counting – was celebrated at his final McCarthey Athletic Center appearance Saturday night, with his parents Bonifacy and Wieslawa in the house from Poland.

They have visited once a season since Karnowski’s sophomore year. As a freshman, he flew home over Christmas break “for about 60 hours – and 25 hours in the air going and 25 coming back” for his anti-homesickness shot. It was an awkward year. The English skills he thought were “pretty good” weren’t getting him far in conversations. Language courses were piled on top of degree pursuits. Practice and conditioning made demands “I had never experienced.” And game contributions were limited on a No. 1-ranked team.

So his flowering has been remarkable, and few have tracked it as closely as Jolanta Weber. Gonzaga’s associate academic vice president grew up in Poland before attending GU as an undergraduate, and was enlisted to aid in Karnowski’s transition – and became a confidant.

Her tall friend, she noted, is surprising on several counts.

“I don’t know if the public sees it, but he is very smart,” Weber said.

Weber was tasked with helping the Gonzaga staff resolve his initially eligibility, and a look at his transcripts revealed he’d taken the most academically demanding route through the Polish system – and then passed the “A” exams for college “that only a small percentage of his peers would even attempt,” he said.

And what else?

“He’s really funny,” Weber said.

Ah, this side has been very public. We’ve seen it in the SWX video of Karnowski and teammate Rem Bakamus – “Santa Shem and my helper Rem” – reading “The Night Before Christmas” in the requisite Santa hat and Yule sweater, a plunge few on college basketball’s A-list would make. He’s also funny by accident.

“Favorite pro team?” interviewer Kelli Tennant asked him in a “rapid fire” video posted on the West Coast Conference site.

“Chicken,” said Karnowski, hearing the “m” as an “n.”

The laugh they shared was better viewing than any dunk this season – and retweeted nearly as much.

“People gravitate to him,” Bakamus said. “You can just tell he’s a great guy that people want to be around.”

This is the giant’s burden, sometimes. Children and the child in adults are fascinated by that kind of size, but where it can sometimes be forbidding, Karnowski is “nothing but responsive,” as Weber put it – and completely comfortable with his lot.

“If that kind of attention, taking a picture with someone, is the worst thing I have to deal with, I’ll take it every day,” he said.

He is a unique amalgam. The brute who can back down defenders or finesse them with a ridiculous pass. The giant brought low by a career-threatening back injury who worked his way back. A Euro with a taste for baseball and American slang – when he threw “true dat” into an interview two years ago, pencils dropped to the floor.

He’s nice. He’s big. A full Polish gift.