A year older and closer to home, CJ Felder ready to take game to next level for Florida Gators
Having spent his underclassmen years at Boston College, forward CJ Felder holds an undesirable designation: he’s one of just three players matched up against Keyontae Johnson for an entire game last season.
The 6-foot-7 power forward started for the Eagles last season when they met the Gators in Uncasville, Connecticut, for the Basketball Hall of Fame “Bubbleville” Tournament. The Johnson-led Gators would have little trouble dispatching Felder’s squad, eventually securing the 90-70 victory in that Dec. 3 contest.
Johnson would collapse just nine days later in the early minutes of Florida’s contest at Florida State, and he’s yet to be medically cleared for a return to basketball activities.
Now, Felder is the one set to compete for the Gators while Johnson, the 2020-21 SEC preseason player of the year, remains on the roster on scholarship but in an advisory role as a student-assistant coach.
When he thinks of Johnson’s situation and how he’s a minor footnote in his new teammate’s story, one word comes to Felder’s mind: surreal.
“First, this is kind of surreal just talking to him, because playing against him and then having what happened happen to him and then now being here, around him, talking to him,” Felder said, “it’s just kind of surreal being in this situation.”
But Felder quickly realized why Johnson remains so highly regarded inside the walls of UF’s basketball complex, and it’s not just his talent-level or his eagerness to improve. The praise for Johnson from his teammates and coaches alike is a testament to his personality, which remains as jovial and optimistic as it was prior to the life-changing incident. Having someone like Johnson around the program accelerated the adjustment for Felder and Co.
“He’s been one of the people here that’s made the transition easier, because he's such a great person, a great guy,” Felder said of Johnson. “He’s definitely one of the guys I think I'm closer to on the team right now.”
Johnson’s hospitalization and eventual return to the sideline was a constant thought in the minds of everyone in the program; after both wins and losses, it was a reminder for the Gators of the bigger picture, and how fickle life can be.
Though UF eventually made the NCAA Tournament and secured a first-round win, it didn’t supersede or reciprocate the loss of Johnson.
He may not have been with the program at the time, but Felder was also gaining perspective amidst a difficult season.
Boston College began the season with lofty expectations in what would be head coach Jim Christian’s seventh and ultimately final year at the helm. The Eagles went 1-1 in the 2K Empire Classic to open the season, with the loss coming against then-No. 3 Villanova by single digits.
He would finish the season with 9.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per contest in 17 starts, but things quickly unraveled for Felder’s squad after that opening weekend, and BC would finish the season with an embarrassing 4-16 record.
“It was very difficult just having a losing season like that, especially going into the season with such high goals for the team because I think ours was one of the better teams that Jim Christian probably had there at BC,” Felder said. “We were definitely talented. We had good players. I'm not sure what happened. We just couldn't win games. We had the team chemistry. I'm just not sure what happened.”
Soon, it was clear Christian would be out before year’s end, and Felder wasn’t the only player keen on finding a new home. Having grown up in Sumter, South Carolina, Felder naturally looked south toward the ACC and SEC.
The University of Florida stood out from the rest and piqued his interest, but coach Mike White’s pitch sealed the deal.
“What really drew me to Florida was just the prestige and everything that comes with attending Florida and playing sports here,” Felder said. “But I really liked the plan (White) had in place for not only me but the team, so that we can get to where we want as a team and as a player. So, just talking to him, building a relationship with him, Coach (Al) Pinkins, and some of the rest of the staff was just really instrumental in me coming to Florida.”
Last year involved many undesirable aspects, such as quarantining, constant COVID-19 tests, social distancing and isolating, in addition to a lack of friends, family and fans in attendance for games.
Now that he’s closer to home, Felder is already seeing far more familiar faces, even though the start of the regular season is just under three weeks away.
“Definitely get to see more of my family more. They were actually here a couple of weeks ago I believe. It was good seeing them. It’s definitely great being back in this familiar weather, because I’m sure you know up north it’s totally different. So being back in an area I’m comfortable with, it means a lot for me,” he said. “I would say the driving force for me to enter the transfer portal was that there was just so much turnover there in Boston with everyone leaving and transferring out. Just the relationships I built over those two years not being there and then also coupled with the fact that I was so far away from home than I was used to.”
As the Gators prepare to open the season Nov. 9 against Elon University, Felder, who will wear the No. 1 jersey, expects to take advantage of his newfound home and opportunity. Throughout preseason camp he’s been competing at the four-spot in UF’s frontcourt with returning starter Anthony Duruji, a contest that Felder believes has been nothing but beneficial for the pair. No matter how his role is defined, Felder believes he’s built for it; after all, tough times don’t last – tough people do.
“It’s been a great battle actually. He pushes me to go hard every day and I think I push him as well,” Felder said of Duruji. “It definitely gets physical out there but in a good way. It does nothing but help both of us grow as a player and it helps the team as well. So it’s been great battles out there, and I’m looking forward to the season.”