Gophers: Parker Fox, Isaiah Ihnen return after 2 years of knee injuries

The University of Minnesota men’s basketball team hosts Division III Macalester from the MIAC in an exhibition Thursday night at Williams Arena.

The game in itself means nothing and doesn’t count, but don’t tell that to Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen. It’s their unofficial return to the court after sitting out the last two seasons with knee injuries. For Fox, it’ll be tough to hold back his emotions. He transferred to the Gophers after the Mahtomedi native was a Division II All-American at Northern State. He finally gets a chance to play for his hometown team at Williams Arena.

It'll be his first game in 960 days.

"Visible chills already. I think the moment I get to go on that court and get to sub in is going to be one of the most special moments of my life," Fox said. "There’s days where you never thought it would happen. Now I feel great, feel awesome. It’s a huge process and a huge journey, but it all works out and pays off for itself."

It all became real for Fox when he stepped on the court for a scrimmage against Colorado State. In his first live action, his first basket was a dunk. He remembers getting a text message from his parents before, telling him how proud they were of his fight to return.

"I can’t believe I got back here, that I was able to do this. I subbed into the game and got a bucket right away. We’re back, let’s go," Fox said.

There were times when he thought he might never play again. He tore his first ACL right around the time he committed to Ben Johnson and Minnesota. He entered the transfer portal and the 6-8 athletic forward talked with more than 100 schools.

"The first day in the portal I talked on the phone for nine hours straight," Fox said.

He cut his list to eight, including the Gophers. A talk with Johnson sold him.

"The biggest thing was when Coach Johnson told me, he said ‘Imagine going somewhere else and thinking about what it would be like at Minnesota?’ That did it, he got me for sure," Fox said.

Both he and Ihnen then had to focus on rehab together, and become cheerleaders on the bench as Johnson and the Gophers went through a 13-17 season, winning just four games in the Big Ten. The team would go through practices for hours, they would be in the training room.

"I spent more time with that dude than you guys even know, I love him to death," Fox said of Ihnen. "I know everything about him, he knows everything about me. He’s not clean in the kitchen, I’ll tell you that much."

Set to return last season, it happened again to both of them. Ihnen injured the same knee during summer workouts. Fox was running a transition drill in a practice, passed to Jamison Battle and planted his foot. His other knee popped.

"It’s ridiculous, honestly, to have those type of injuries back to back. I would not wish that on anyone. At the same time, it was a blessing having him there with me," Ihnen said.

"I passed it to Jamison for a three, took a step and it just gave out. I looked at coach, and I’m like I tore it. I knew it right away," Fox said.

After going through his first knee injury, the process was on Fox never wanted to go through again. That’s until the basketball junkie had to do it again. He has five TVs in his home, has a subscription to NBA League Pass and basketball is constantly on.

His mindset changed after the second injury. He was determined to play for the Gophers and put on the Minnesota jersey one day. That day is now.

"I told myself I gotta do it again. There’s no way I can’t do it again because I love it too much. I have to give myself that chance," Fox said.

Fox talked with fellow Gophers Chris Autman-Bell and Eric Curry about their injuries. He followed Klay Thompson’s return from an ACL and torn Achilles. He read books, and picked up journaling to help his emotions on the dark days.

He also started his own podcast, an outlet he needed and relied on.

Thursday night, Fox and Ihnen will play in their first exhibition in two years. Next Monday, it’s for real against Bethune-Cookman. It’s impossible to know what their role will be with the Gophers this season. Their focus is being back healthy.

"The game is really my life, I’m just blessed I get to be able to practice," Fox said. "This is the last hurrah, so I’ve got to give it everything I got. I can’t second guess, I can’t hold back."