GLENDALE, Ariz. – The man in the No. 24 Gonzaga shirt sat in his seat, rubbing his face, rubbing it again, and again, and again. It had been a tense and at one point infuriating game, but all’s well that ends well, and this could hardly have turned out better for Bonifacy Karnowski.
That was his son Przemek down on the court, waving up at him, heading for the national championship game after holding off South Carolina 77-73. The long road they had started together back in Poland – the father as the coach, the son as the player – had led to this remarkable scene, on this extraordinary night.
“I’m very happy. It’s a great moment for Gonzaga, for Przemek, for Polish supporters, because Polish television make a direct transmission from here,” he said. “The whole country is watching. First time in history.”
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He had reached Phoenix this very day, landing at 1 a.m. through London. A little sleep, and then to the University of Phoenix Stadium. No wonder he looked a tad tired. Maybe the American television noticed, because there Bonifacy was, with the screen to himself in the first half, after Przemek caught a South Carolina hand in the eye.
Przemek lay on the court for the longest time. Even South Carolina coach Frank Martin walked over to see how he was. No foul was call. In the Gonzaga section, Bonifacy was not happy.“I coach for 40 years and I was a referee over 30 years. I know it is U.S.A., not Europe, but probably rules are the same.”
So there should have been a foul?
Did he realize the TV cameras picked up every anxious twitch then, that he was getting more air time than Mark Few? He laughed at that one. “Not the first time,” he said.
Przemek left for the locker room the rest of the half, but was back for the second half, and finished with 13 points and five rebounds. So there’s one game to go in the journey that has not always been easy, for father or son. Especially in late 2015, when Przemek’s back was so bad, it was a struggle to get out of bed. Basketball was out of the question. There was a question it could ever be fixed, but surgery rescued him.
“I mean, he couldn’t even get in or out of car, or really walk,” Few said. “And then I was really worried about depression. Emotionally, he wasn’t in a great place. So going from those dark days to right now, it literally is miraculous, and I’m not using that term lightly.”
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Imagine being the father on a different continent through all that.
“It was really a hard time for Przemek and for the whole family,” Bonifacy said. “Przemek was in Spokane and we were in Poland, 6,000 miles away.”
But look where it’s led. The father took it all in Saturday; the game, the noise, the massive 70,000-plus crowd.“Biggest sport hall in Poland is only 15,000,” he said. “A great day for basketball in U.S.A.”
North Carolina and Oregon were taking the floor for the next game, but Bonifacy was on his way out. He had people to call back in Poland – “my wife, most of all" – and he wanted to see his son, of course.
“I am sure I will meet with Przemek because we live on the same floor of the hotel," Bonifacy said. "A little discussion about his game. And then rest.”
He’d be speaking with Przemek as a father or a past coach?
“Probably both. One person, both professions.”