'I think I've got my swagger back': Iowa's Cordell Pemsl makes surprise return to court

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — A funny thing happened on the way to season-ending surgery for Iowa forward Cordell Pemsl.

His right knee, the one containing a 4- to 6-inch metal plate and five screws, started to feel better. The pain he felt while walking to class or climbing stairs disappeared.

Pemsl hadn’t practiced in three weeks. The Hawkeyes announced Nov. 27 he was going to have the metal removed from the knee and take the rest of the season off.

Iowa forward Cordell Pemsl attempts a shot against Iowa State on Thursday. The junior was supposed to have surgery on his right knee and miss the season. That plan is now on hold after the pain subsided.

Pemsl woke up three days later feeling fine. His Hawkeyes lost that night at home to Wisconsin. Three nights later, they lost at Michigan State.

On Tuesday, Pemsl went to coach Fran McCaffery and said he’d like to get back on the court for Thursday’s game against Iowa State.

And that’s exactly what he did.

Pemsl had eight points and six rebounds in 16 minutes in a 98-84 win over the Cyclones. He threw himself into the middle of a first-half fracas and nearly got ejected from the game, earning a technical foul instead. The junior from Dubuque even made the first jumpshot of his Hawkeye career, from about 12 feet out in the second half.

“I felt good,” Pemsl told the Register on Friday. “It still feels good. Thank God. Knock on wood.”

Pemsl doesn’t believe he’s in the clear, just because he was able to play a single pain-free game. The decision on surgery has merely been put on hold.

“We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. I could keep feeling better,” Pemsl said. “But there’s always been some days I feel OK. There’s some days I can hardly walk, I’m in so much pain.

“That’s where I was at for a few weeks and that’s when we came to the decision to get (the plate and screws) out. But then I started to feel OK. It’s frustrating.”

The issue stems from surgery to repair the knee when Pemsl was in high school. Doctors deliberately broke a bone in order to realign his leg and avoid further injuries. The bone has healed. The hardware remains. And that’s what’s rubbing against tendons and muscles and causing occasional discomfort.

Things came to a head in a practice after Iowa’s first game this season. Pemsl landed awkwardly and felt his knee give way. He didn’t play in a game again until Thursday, his mind set on surgery, a year of recuperation, and two hopefully healthy college basketball seasons ahead.

Pemsl spent four to five hours a day with Hawkeye training staff, icing the knee, applying heat and using electrical stimulation to try to alleviate the pain. He was going to wait to have surgery until after final exams next week.

Then the treatment started working. Pemsl said he’ll keep trying it in the days leading up to Iowa’s next game, vs. Northern Iowa in Des Moines on Dec. 15. He is reluctant to say how the knee will respond going forward. He would still qualify for a medical redshirt.

If Thursday ends up being the highlight of Pemsl’s 2018-19 season, what a moment it was.

“He had a great impact,” Iowa forward Nicholas Baer said of Pemsl. “He brings a lot of energy, is a bit chippy. So that’s a lot of fun, too. I’m really glad to have him back, have him bring that edge.”

McCaffery said he was surprised at how well-conditioned Pemsl was when he resumed practicing.

“He’s the kind of guy you root for,” McCaffery said.

Pemsl was happy that he could do some of the dirty work to allow his teammates to flourish. It’s what he sees as his primary value.

“Taking charges, getting rebounds, screaming at my teammates, screaming at them positively, getting them hyped up. Whatever I’ve got to do to win, that’s all I tell coach I’ll do,” he said. “I’ll do whatever it takes.”

But, seriously, where did that jumpshot come from? Pemsl had only attempted one in his first two seasons as a Hawkeye. His offensive arsenal has been limited to three feet from the basket.

“I told you I’ve got that. That’s what I do. I just need some confidence,” Pemsl was quick to respond.

“I think that’s what I needed was just a little time to re-gather myself. I think I’ve got my swagger back.”