One of the top high-school basketball players to come out of Surrey in recent years may not be altogether familiar to local hoops fans, considering it’s been a few years since he played competitively in his hometown.
James Karnik, however, is hard to miss.
For starters, the South Surrey teenager is six-foot-nine inches tall. He’s also got game – even if his skills haven’t been showcased locally at high-profile events such as the BC High School Basketball Championships.
Instead, well-travelled Karnik – who attended Sunnyside Elementary and White Rock Christian Academy as a youngster, before moving on to Earl Marriott Secondary and Coquitlam’s B.C. Christian School as a teen – has spent the last two years playing with prestigious prep schools abroad, first at Balboa Prep in San Diego, Calif. and, more recently, at Orangeville Prep in Ontario.
Now, he’s on the move again – first, for a family trip to Europe, and then to eastern Pennsylvania, where he’ll join his newest team – the NCAA Div. 1. Lehigh University Mountain Hawks. It’s the latest move – to the U.S. college basketball scene – that Karnik said makes all the previous journeys worth it.
“It was hard to leave home so young, because I’d built my life here and had a strong group of friends here. I was really close to a lot of people, so it was tough,” he told Peace Arch News. “This is where my roots are.
“I played at Earl Marriott until Grade 10, and I graduated from B.C. Christian, but I just felt like in order to expand my horizons, I needed to make the jump to a bigger, more well-known school.”
Karnik’s first stop, in Southern California, had its pluses and minuses, he said. He got to experience a new culture and a new country – he lived with a billet family in San Diego – as well as play a very high level of hoops. The team, however, never quite gelled the way it should have, he said – “We lost some pretty bad games” – and he soon knew it wasn’t the best spot for him long-term.
“We were a really talented team, but the chemistry just wasn’t there… we didn’t know how to play together, and there was a lot of ego on the team, too,” he explained.
So off to Orangeville he went, enrolling in what were, essentially, Grade 13 classes – something unique to Ontario – while hitting the hardcourt with some of the country’s top young players. He was joined on that team by two other Lower Mainland talents, former Tamanawis Wildcats star Miguel Tomley and Langley’s Jake Cowley.
“In Orangeville, we played more together, and we all wanted the best for each other,” Karnik said. “It’s really like a family there.”
While Tomley and Cowley both eventually returned home to the former schools, Karnik stayed out east, helping Orangeville to an Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association championship while garnering the attention of a handful of NCAA programs, including Northern Arizona, Jacksonville, Maine, Davidson, Pacific and Lehigh.
The attention was warranted – during his final OSBA season, the lanky post player averaged a double-double, 15.3 points-per-game to go along with 13.1 rebounds.
As well, he saw huge improvements in his own game, from improved fitness levels to the ability to run the floor.
“Just the way I look at the game is different. I had a competitive side to my game before, but still, I was mostly just playing for fun. Now, I still have fun, but I have fun by competing harder and going as hard as I can,” he said.
“I knew the competition would be good – at a new level from what I was used to – but the first thing I noticed was the pace that the games were played at. At the prep level, you’re just constantly running, so you’re conditioning has to be so much better.”
While life was good on the basketball court, Karnik admits to having had bouts of homesickness, both at Orangeville and at Balboa Prep. He tried to keep up with friends and family as best he could – largely through social media – but said the reality of his situation hit him hardest in moments of sadness, or even tragedy.
He wasn’t in San Diego long when, back home on the Semiahmoo Peninsula, the family dog – a Labradoodle named Baron – had to be put down. And last spring, he was thousands of miles from home when he learned that his close friend and former EMS classmate Jordan Tsuruda had been killed in an ATV accident.
“It was really hard to be away for that. I wanted to show my support for the family and for my friends, and I was so far away. I was able to fly out for the funeral, but it was hard,” he said.
“I really missed my friend – I hadn’t seen him in a long time – and it hurt, but I knew I was making sacrifices. You’ll always be able to find really talented people who just weren’t willing to make the sacrifices necessary to be successful, and their career kind of ends right there.
“If you really believe in yourself, I think you have to do what you have to do to make sure you’re successful. If that involves making multiple sacrifices, then you do it.”
Upon returning from his family vacation later this month, Karnik will head to Lehigh to join his new team for off-season training, while also getting acclimatized to his new surroundings. Considering how much he’s travelled in recent years, he doesn’t expect to feel the same level of shock that many college freshmen feel upon leaving home. It also helps that Lehigh felt like home – “A very welcoming community,” he said – from the second he stepped foot on campus during an official visit earlier this year.
In fact, he liked it so much, he cancelled plans to visit other schools.
“The second I got there, I just felt like it was the place I wanted to be.”