Iowa freshman Cordell Pemsl moves past injury-plagued history

Mark Emmert

NORTH LIBERTY, Ia. — For Cordell Pemsl, an inadvertent poke in the eye was nothing when compared with an intentional breaking of a leg bone.

The Iowa freshman basketball player has experienced both and emerged with a smile, telling his health-scare stories to a group of reporters Thursday after scoring 16 rugged points in his debut in the Prime Time League at North Liberty Community Center.

The eye-poke happened the previous Thursday, delivered by a teammate and leaving a trail of blood, 20 seconds into what would have been Pemsl’s first game in the summer league. The red was still visible in Pemsl’s eye this week, but he insisted that his sight was not affected and good-naturedly said he refuses to wear protective goggles.

Iowa freshman forward Cordell Pemsl fires a pass while being defended by Tyler Cook on Thursday in Prime Time League action. The two have been  battling hard in practice sessions as well.

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As for what was done to his right knee, Pemsl had to flash back 14 months to a scary conversation he had with an Iowa City surgeon. Pemsl had suffered one meniscus tear and surgery as a basketball star at Dubuque Wahlert only to have a second tear six months later. Doctors said they could perform the same surgery but that further tears were likely unless they went in and permanently realigned the leg. That surgery would necessitate the breaking of Pemsl’s femur.

“My jaw just dropped when they said that, because I hadn’t broken a bone in my body and my first time was going to be intentionally,” Pemsl said.

Pemsl and his mother, Katy, took a week to mull it over, opting to have the realignment surgery on May 14, 2015. But not without moments of trepidation for the 6-foot-7, 245-pounder.

“I would second-guess myself. Every night I would go to bed and I was like, ‘Is this the best I’m ever going to be? Am I going to be a good high school player and that’s it?’” Pemsl said.

He needn’t have worried. Recovery time was estimated at six months. Doctors cleared Pemsl to resume playing in five. He suited up for every game as a senior at Wahlert, being named first team All-Iowa by the Register.

Pemsl is still working to regain full strength in his right leg — a regimen of stretching, resistance bands and weightlifting — but said: “I will definitely be 100 percent by the time the season comes.”

He still has work to do on his conditioning, but it was evident Thursday that Pemsl can be a load down low as he fought his way to the basket for 14 first-half points, often going head-to-head with fellow freshman forward Tyler Cook.

Just as he has been in five-day-a-week practice sessions.

“Trying to get each other to go to the next level because we know there’s always a next level,” Pemsl said of his battles with Cook. “We never want to just play mediocre. We want to give our best game no matter what. We’re always giving full effort, whether we’re making mistakes or not. As long as we’re pushing each other, that’s all that matters.”

Cook, at 6-8, is in line to be the starting power forward for Iowa this winter. Pemsl, if completely healthy, could spell Cook and sophomore center Ahmad Wagner. It would be a bulky, if inexperienced, trio for the Hawkeyes.

“I’m a little undersized to play the 5 (center), but I have the body to play the 5,” Pemsl said. “Four (power forward) is where I feel more comfortable because at that position some of those guys have to come out and guard me because I can shoot the ball. So I may be matched up with someone a little smaller so I can go post up, too. Because that’s been my game since I was a little kid. That’s kind of a position where I know I can go both ways.

“I’m a lot more confident now shooting it than I was when I was in high school.”