Gophers men’s basketball: Parker Fox, Isaiah Ihnen bonded through ‘ridiculous’ knee injuries

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Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen are joined at the knee.

At the hip, too. But after the forwards on the Gophers men’s basketball team went through consecutive serious knee injuries, which robbed both of them of the past two seasons, especially at the knee. The teammates and roommates bonded as they went side-by-side through the process, not once but twice.

In 2021, Fox needed surgery on the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee as he transferred to the U that spring from Division II Northern State, while Ihnen needed ACL surgery in the summer going into his third season at Minnesota.

In 2022, Fox tore the ACL in his right knee in June, and Ihnen re-injured the ACL in his left knee a few weeks later.

“It was ridiculous, honestly, to have these types of injuries back-to-back,” Ihnen said. “You would not wish that on anyone, but at the same time, it was a blessing to have (Fox) there with me. He’s a very light-hearted guy and very motivated as well. He helped me push myself. I helped him. I pushed him in a sense. It was great to have him.”

Fox and Ihnen are healthy and set to play in the Gophers’ season opener against Bethune-Cookman at Williams Arena at 7 p.m. Monday. They are cherishing their third chances to play college basketball.

Fox, who attended Mahtomedi High School, said he had chills thinking about debuting for his home-state school. His running count of days without a game has eclipsed 960.

“After I tore the second knee, we had a team meeting … and I told the guys,” Fox shared. “The biggest thing that I was just sad about was I don’t get to go practice. I don’t get to go play basketball for a year. I love this sport.”

Head coach Ben Johnson acknowledged he had his doubts that Monday’s game would arrive for Fox and Ihnen. He said there was some relief after they were able to play in the U’s exhibition win over Macalester on Thursday.

“It’s been pretty incredible when you think about it — to even stay motivated to get to this point,” Johnson said. “Two years of the same type of tortuous rehab. I think it shows a certain level of competitiveness within them to do that. They have built confidence where now, I don’t necessarily worry about them mentally on the floor.”

Ihnen said his first injury happened when he slipped on a wet spot on the court. The second time came when he stepped on someone else’s foot during a five-on-five portion of summer practice. Bad luck followed by bad luck.

Fox said his second injury came during a transition drill in practice. He had Ihnen on his left and former teammate Jamison Battle on his right. Fox passed to Battle for a 3-pointer before Fox stepped and his knee gave out. The ominous no-contact variety of injuries.

“I looked at coach and opened my eyes (wide),” Fox recalled. “He’s like, ‘What?’ I was like, ‘I tore it.’ He didn’t believe me, but I knew right away. I think it’s a feeling you don’t know until you do it. But once you do it twice you’re like, yep, there it goes.”

Fox recalled telling Johnson as he left the practice facility later that day: “I’ll play for you one day.”

Ihnen went home to Germany for a spell after his second knee injury, while Fox took leave in Mahtomedi for a while. His family moved his bed down to the living room, so he didn’t have to navigate stairs.

“There’s dog days of surgery where you can’t even stand on your leg,” Fox said. “You can knock on your leg and you just feel bone, it’s like, ‘There’s no way I can get back on that court.’ ”

The loquacious Fox started a podcast, in part, to learn how others got through their own serious injuries. His guests include U volleyball player Taylor Landfair, football player Chris Autman-Bell, former basketball teammate Eric Curry and Ihnen, of course. The conversation flowed with Ihnen.

“I mean, I spent more time with that dude than you guys even know,” Fox told reporters in late October. “I love him to death. We spent just so much, like every practice, three-hour practice, we were in the training room together.”

Ihnen said Fox helped from “not feeling alone.” Ihnen, the only player still in the program from the Richard Pitino era, showed he can drive himself, too.

“I don’t ever want to be a quitter,” Ihnen said. “When I committed to this school, I came here with the intention of being a part of this school and helping them win here. That was the first reason. The second reason was just the (Johnson) coaching staff that came in. We immediately clicked.”

Fox and Ihnen also connect as fans of big European soccer clubs, with Fox supporting London side Tottenham Hotspur and Ihnen backing Bayern Munich. When star English striker Harry Kane transferred from Tottenham to Bayern earlier this year, Ihnen gave Fox a hard time.

“We definitely had a little bit of back and forth joking around about that,” Ihnen said. “But it’s a better club, so who can fault (Kane).”

At home, Fox sets the standard for cleanliness; U teammates Jackson Purcell and Will Ramberg also share the space. Ihnen says he’s tidy, too, but nowhere near the same level as Fox.

“It damn near borders on OCD a little bit,” Ihnen said.  “But he makes sure the apartment is always clean. I feel like it’s very important because I’ve had the opposite of that where the roommate weren’t clean at all. It’s great.”

If Ihnen isn’t the cleanest, what does he provide as a roomie?

“I guess good energy, good vibes,” Fox said. “It’s not cleaning the kitchen, I’ll tell you that much.”

Their apartment has a wall of five TVs. It’s a sports fan heaven, where a junkie like Fox watches any game he can get, including former teammate Payton Willis playing abroad in Italy. Maybe late Monday night, Fox and Ihnen will return from the Barn to their apartment and watch highlights of themselves playing for the Gophers.

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