Florida basketball had no choice when it came to Keyontae Johnson | David Whitley
Kansas State is understandably excited about its latest basketball signee. Perhaps you recognize the name.
Yes, that Keyontae Johnson.
He was last seen kissing the basketball court in Gainesville in one of the more emotional scenes in Florida hoops history. Everybody presumed it would be Johnson’s final scene in college, but he’s onto a second final act in Manhattan, Kansas.
Good for him. Good for K-State. And good for UF.
Everybody in Gainesville wants Johnson to resurrect his career. There was just no way it could happen with the Gators.
They would have been crazy to let him back on the court — despite the fact he wanted to stay here and play here.
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Why Keyontae Johnson couldn't play at UF again
If you recognize Johnson’s name, you’ll know why he couldn’t.
“He has been sidelined since missing most of the 2020-21 season due to a medical issue,” the Kansas State press release said.
A medical issue.
That makes it sound as if it could have been a torn knee ligament or a broken arm. As everyone around here knows, Johnson had a broken heart — both literally and figuratively.
Flashback to Dec. 12, 2020, when Johnson collapsed face-first on the court in Tallahassee. His life was saved by a cardiologist who happened to be at the FSU game.
After that, Johnson had to become “Coach Key,” a mentor and cheerleader. His on-court activity was limited to a token appearance and that kiss on Senior Day.
It can cause irregular heartbeat, loss of consciousness and heart failure. That’s the literal heart breakage.
The figurative heartbreak is how a kid who loved basketball had his future taken away. Or so it seemed.
Now, Johnson is returning for a final college season in the purple and gray of Kansas State. Judging by the “medical issue” terminology, the Wildcats want to downplay that they just signed a guy who almost died playing basketball 20 months ago.
But you can be sure their doctors gave the go-ahead, independent doctors cleared him, liability lawyers inspected the deal, waivers were signed and everybody is comfortable in Manhattan, Kansas.
There could be no such comfort zone in Gainesville.
What if the unthinkable happened?
First, the medical consensus is not unanimous. Florida’s doctors would not clear him to play.
Second, nobody around here could ever dismiss what happened that December afternoon in Tallahassee as a “medical issue.”
Watching doctors and EMTs work to revive Johnson is a horror nobody can forget. As teammates fought back tears, Johnson was rushed to the hospital in critical condition.
He spent three days in a medically induced coma. UF staff members stayed there round the clock.
Johnson was released after 10 days in the hospital. He still looked like the SEC Preseason Player of the Year, but nobody knew what was going on inside his chest.
From 2021 season:Florida's Mike White said no change in Keyontae Johnson's status
His collapse and recovery became a national story. But publicity aside, the drama deeply affected everyone associated with the basketball program.
Imagine the furor if the Gators let Johnson play again and the unthinkable happened. Nobody could have lived with themselves.
There are also public relations considerations. If Johnson had another episode, UF’s image would be toast.
It could produce 1,000 EKGs showing Johnson was okay, and it wouldn’t matter. The school would be tarred as a sports factory willing to sacrifice a young man’s life in pursuit of an NCAA tournament bid.
That doesn’t mean Kansas State deserves that label. Its doctors obviously believe Johnson will be fine, and he probably will be.
Gators could face Keyontae at Kansas State in January
It is interesting to note that most name-brand schools took a pass. Johnson’s final list of landing spots — Memphis, Nebraska, Western Kentucky and K-State — could all really use a 6-foot-5 forward who was projected as an NBA lottery pick two years ago.
The Wildcats have had three straight losing seasons. Bruce Webber resigned as coach in March, and K-State hired longtime Baylor assistant Jerome Tang.
“We are just so excited to welcome Keyontae and his family to K-State,” Tang said in the press release. “He is a gifted player who brings significant experience to our team.”
You know what else he brings?
Six months of holding your breath every time he steps on the floor.
That may not be fair or medically justified, but that’s the reality. Though it might not come to that.
Johnson can cash a $5 million insurance policy if he doesn’t play again. The policy allows him to play 10 games before making that final decision.
Johnson could get to early December and decide either his health or his game are no longer sound enough to continue. Or, he could play on, kiss the insurance money goodbye and continue pursuing his basketball dreams.
That would include a Jan. 28 home game against none other than Florida in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. Ideally, Johnson will look like the player he was before the collapse. His broken heart will have mended, both literally and figuratively.
He will go on to have a long and rewarding NBA career, and will look back and thank K-State for taking a chance on a guy with such a medical issue.
As much as it wanted to, that was a risk Florida could not afford to take.
— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley.