Anyone watching Gophers men's basketball games this season has probably caught a snippet of the Parker Fox show.
Michigan State's Tom Izzo became a fan after Tuesday's 59-56 Gophers win against his Spartans. The Hall of Fame coach witnessed a flying Fox inject energy into the crowd, highlighted by a chase-down block on star Tyson Walker in the first half.
"The fact that Tom Izzo looks me in the eyes and tells me I made an impact," the 6-8 Fox said, "that's like the biggest thing in the world."
There's no Gophers player who enjoys each moment and loves being the spark more than Fox.
A 24-year-old senior, in his sixth college basketball season after multiple knee injuries, Fox is thankful just to be thriving in a role off the bench as the emotional leader for the Gophers (15-7, 6-5 Big Ten), who are vying to extend a three-game win streak Sunday at Iowa.
"If anybody watches me play basketball, they can tell," Fox said. "I wear my heart on my sleeve."
The core players for a Gophers team sitting fifth in the Big Ten and making a push to reach the NCAA tournament could potentially be back next season for another crack. Maybe not Fox, though.
Leading scorer Dawson Garcia is a junior. So are starting guards Elijah Hawkins and Mike Mitchell Jr. Sophomore Pharrel Payne and freshman Cam Christie are budding stars.
Ben Johnson's most talented team yet could easily be also thinking about a bright future, but the oldest player on the roster is focused on winning right now. He plays with a sense of urgency.
"That's what he does," Johnson said. "If it's 18 minutes or five minutes, he's going to do what he does. He keeps our offense moving. He's smart, so defensively, he makes adjustments on his own. He's a confidence guy."
Fox and junior Isaiah Ihnen weren't sure if they would have any more in their careers left after missing two seasons with knee surgeries. A Minnesotan who frequented games at the Barn growing up, Fox is living out a dream, helping turn around his home state program.
"It's the reason why I came back home," Fox said. "To build something special."
Keeping up with the Foxes
Neal Fox took a break this year after two decades as a Mahtomedi boys basketball assistant to watch both of his sons play college basketball. He missed watching Parker for sure.
There was a time when he and his wife, Heather, were constantly making five-hour trips to Northern State in Aberdeen, S.D. to see their oldest boy basically turn into the LeBron James of the NSIC.
Fox is not nearly the walking highlight reel he was then. He's tied for second on the Gophers with 17 blocks and third with 15 dunks this season. That would've been a week's worth of highlights before ACL tears on both knees.
"If the two knee injuries wouldn't have happened, the state of Minnesota would've been in for a special treat," Fox's father said. "They would've been able to see this kid play with [more athleticism] with that energy and passion."
Some of the success Fox had with four straight league titles and two Division II NCAA tournament runs reminds him of how hungry the Gophers are now to win.
"I remember a lot of times at Northern in the locker room when it was a close game," Fox said, "we just had the feeling we were going to win the game. I've had that same feeling [with the Gophers]."
In 2021, Fox transferred home with the hopes of possibly being a Big Ten star. That dream faded with his physical setbacks, but it's been heartwarming for his parents just to see him have fun playing again. "He did remarkably well with both of those knee surgeries in the background," his father said.
Brody Fox drew inspiration from his older brother's journey. The 6-6 junior blossomed and now ranks second in NCAA Division III in scoring (26.3) at Wisconsin-Stout. A day after the Gophers beat Michigan State, Parker and his family drove to Menomonie, Wis., to watch Brody become Stout's all-time season points leader.
The Foxes' travel plan for this weekend is to go from Wisconsin-Stout's game Saturday at Eau Claire to Iowa City to see the Gophers face the rival Hawkeyes on Sunday. They have to watch Parker play while they can.
"I suppose at some point, it's like, 'I've been there and done that in college, and it's time to move on,' " Fox's father said. "But I think he's also in a position to mentor. He understands the scope of what it takes to be a successful college athlete."
Playing a seventh year?
After Tuesday's big win against Michigan State, Fox was asked what he would do if he heard chants from the student section to play a seventh season. He still has an extra COVID-19 year of eligibility.
"I don't know if my knees could take it," Fox said with a sly smile.
There's a lot that goes into his weekly routine to get his legs ready, and he's often limited in practice. He plays 20 pounds lighter than before the injury to take pressure off his knees. He's still springy but wishes he could do more.
"I've gone through worse and worked too hard to let that kind of stuff deteriorate my attitude," Fox said. "That's not just basketball, but that's life."
Earlier this season vs. New Orleans, Fox approached an offensive rebound with no fear. The slam over a defender's head went viral even after being waved off. His wide-eyed reaction was priceless.
To help the Gophers snap a four-game slide late last month, Fox had 11 points and four blocks off the bench in a win at Penn State. On Tuesday, he fueled a 16-6 run with five points and that huge block on MSU's Walker. Fox's three-point play also gave the Gophers a 20-13 lead.
Fox is averaging 3.9 points and 2.6 rebounds in 11.6 minutes. He eclipsed that with seven points in 10 minutes in the first half Tuesday. It's been tough for Fox and fellow forwards Ihnen and Joshua Ola-Joseph to get consistent playing time lately. Garcia and Payne are playing well together.
But the Gophers and even opponents realize just how much more bounce they have with Fox out there.
"You try to find minutes for him," Johnson said. "I've got all the confidence in the world in Parker."