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Fox and Ihnen’s journey of resilience and return to basketball

Gophers men’s basketball teammates share their journey through recovery after two consecutive season-ending injuries.
Image by Gabrielle Erenstein
University of Minnesota’s Men’s Basketball team’s media day on Oct. 27, 2023.

Gophers men’s basketball players Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen experienced a unique perspective the last two seasons: the two were on the team but not on the court.

Both Fox and Ihnen suffered two consecutive season-ending knee injuries. The time on the sidelines allowed both Fox and Ihnen to take care of their mental state and foster passions without a ball in hand. 

Fox said that before his first injury, he didn’t think he had a problem with his mental health, given his happy and energetic personality. However, he quickly learned after speaking with therapists it is okay to talk through emotions and be vulnerable.

“You want to be a tough man and all that kind of stuff, but like sometimes you need a good cry,” Fox said.

Fox was not alone on his journey. Ihnen, his roommate and teammate, was recovering alongside him. Ihnen said he and Fox would push each other in the weight room and would lean on each other when it became hard to not be on the court.

“It helped just to have someone go through the same thing as you because you had someone to confide in,” Ihnen said. “It made days where you see your teammates out there a lot easier.”

Fox quickly learned the need to develop a coping mechanism for his emotions as a way to take care of his mental health. He said he looked up to Golden State Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson, who went through a similar ordeal to Fox.

Thompson tore his ACL in his left knee in 2019 and then his Achilles the following year, causing him to miss two full seasons of NBA basketball. 

Fox said Thompson participated in scream therapy, which involved Thompson being in a room by himself and yelling at the top of his lungs. Fox added he had never participated in scream therapy himself but understood the need to let those emotions “come out of you.”

After hearing about Thompson’s therapeutic methods, Fox picked up reading and journaling as a means to contend with his emotions. 

“[It was] definitely something I never thought I would do,” Fox said.

Fox knew he was never alone in his recovery. To prove it, he started the Double Down podcast and invited athletes who faced an injury that prevented them from playing their respective sport.

On the podcast, Fox spoke in-depth with guests on mental health and its correlation to sports and detailed the physical battle of rehab with guests.

Fox said when his injury first occurred, he had second-guessed himself and had doubts about his mental health. 

“Selfishly, I wanted to do the podcast to learn,” Fox said.

The podcast features Gopher athletes such as Taylor Landfair, Chris Autman-Bell, Ihnen and former Gopher Eric Curry.

Fox said that oftentimes athletes get caught up in playing at a high level and, to a point, the sport becomes the athlete’s life. Fox stressed the importance for athletes to explore who they are and what they can provide outside their sport.

“You have got to find out who you are and realize that it’s more than just a basketball player,” Fox said “Basketball is just something you do.”

Fox and Ihnen were both cleared to return to the court for the 2023-24 season and have been practicing with the team. 

Freshman guard Cam Christie said Fox and Ihnen have been helping him prepare for the Big Ten season. Christie said both have returned to the game as if they never left.

“Even I was surprised, they came back and they were ready to go right back into play,” Christie said. “You can tell they definitely took the rehab part very seriously.”

Despite Ihnen spending two years on the sidelines, he came back with new perspectives on the game after watching from the sidelines and slowing down his thought process. 

“It just gives you more time to really analyze things and think about like, ‘Ok, what are ways I can help the team once I come back,’” Ihnen said. “I do pride myself in that and try very hard.”

Fox said he learned more about the ins and outs of basketball while observing from the sidelines.

“When you get out on the court, you kind of get stuck thinking about making a missed shot,” Fox said. “When you watch on the sidelines, you get to pick out all the little nuances.”

Ihnen and Fox have long awaited the day they make their return in maroon and gold — Fox said he had chills just thinking about it.

It has been 963 days since Fox played a game of basketball, but that number will drop to zero once the season starts. The journey of recovery between the two roommates on the same team with the same injury will reach its finale.

“I get to go on the court and get to sub in. It is going to be probably one of the most special moments of my life,” Fox said. “When I step on [the Williams Arena court], this is my sanctuary.”

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