A kiss goodbye: Keyontae Johnson appears in a Florida Gators uniform one last time

David Whitley
Gator Sports
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Sometimes, a kiss is not just a kiss.

Like Saturday afternoon at the O’Connell Center. At about 2:20 p.m., Keyontae Johnson bent over and kissed the basketball court. It was a public display of affection nobody could object to.

“It was an unbelievable feeling,” Johnson said.

The whole thing was an unbelievable surprise to the 9,788 people who saw it. They came to Senior Day expecting to see Florida’s departing players get a nice pregame sendoff.

What they got was Johnson, putting on a uniform for the first time in 449 days.

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'This program changed my life'

No Gator fans needs to be reminded of the circumstances. How Johnson collapsed on the court against Florida State. How everybody feared for his life.

How that afternoon in Tallahassee began a long, winding, private, painful and inspiring journey with an ending that’s yet to be determined. But everybody knew Saturday would be the last day Johnson would be on a Florida roster.

He made the most of his surprise appearance. What came after wasn’t so surprising.

Kentucky beat Florida 71-63 in the final regular-season game. So much for a Hollywood ending.

In that, the pumped-up Gators would have won one for “Coach Key.” It would have given them 20 wins and pretty much clinched a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Hollywood is about 2,400 miles from Gainesville, however. That translated into roughly 50 miles for every Oscar Tshiebwe rebound and point on Saturday.

“He’s fantastic,” UF coach Mike White said of Kentucky’s center.

Florida probably will have to win two games in the SEC Tournament to get a bid. That made it a big downer of a day for Florida fans. But years from now — maybe even days from now — what they’ll remember most was what came first.

Like the other seniors, Johnson was introduced with his family and given a framed jersey. He was the only player wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans, however.

Everybody returned to the locker room, then returned for a final layup drill. But the guy in the black T-shirt and jeans had changed into a white uniform.

Then the lights went down and the starting lineup was introduced.

“At forward, a 6-foot-5 senior from Norfolk, Virginia, Keyontae Johnson!”

The teams lined up for the opening jump. Colin Castleton tipped the ball to Johnson, who took a couple of dribbles and a timeout was called.

Johnson started hugging teammates. Then he bent down and kissed the big Gator emblem at midcourt.

“This program,” he said, “basically changed my life.”

Johnson recalled how White recruited him harder than any coach. How the two of them butted heads when Johnson was a know-it-all freshman.

How he blossomed into a preseason SEC Player of the Year by the start of last season. Then came the horror show in Tallahassee, and the nights White slept at the hospital hoping and praying for the best.

The best turned out to be Johnson acting as a de facto assistant. He might one day return to the court as a pro, but there was no way Florida would take that risk.

Until Saturday, sort of.

Pregame talks with doctors, John Calipari set stage for Keyontae Johnson's farewell

After a lot of behind-the-scenes planning and consultation with doctors, lawyers, the SEC and John Calipari, Johnson got one more chance to be a Gator basketball player.

After those triumphant few dribbles, he walked off hugging Kentucky players and waving to the crowd. He went over and hugged Calipari, who was happy to go along.

Calipari said he’d been happy to let Johnson score a basket. White said the powers that be decided not to go that far.

Florida Gators forward Keyontae Johnson (11) hugs head coach Mike White as he is recognized before the game against the Kentucky Wildcats during the first half at Billy Donovan Court at Exactech Arena.

It would have to be enough to let Johnson suit up in his old No. 11 jersey and take the court one last time. We can torment ourselves over what might have been in the 60 or so games since Dec. 12, 2020. How Florida’s basketball fortunes would have been different with a dynamo like Johnson on the floor.

No doubt, the thought has crossed his mind about 10,000 times. It probably crossed them a dozen more Saturday as Florida rallied from a 16-point deficit.

The Gators cut the lead to six points with 51 seconds left, and Phlandrous Fleming had an open 3-pointer that could have made things really interesting.

It rimmed out. No surprise there, given how UF made only three of 20 3-pointers all afternoon.

“Tough loss,” White said. “It would have been a huge win. We didn’t play well enough.”

He said he’ll probably look back in a few years and remember the loss. But the smile on White’s face as he sat next to Johnson in the postgame news conference told a different story.

So did the way he choked back tears when asked what the day meant to him.

“Umm, I’m just really appreciative,” White said. “Yeah.”

He swallowed hard and went back to looking at the box score.

It had Keyontae Johnson:

10 seconds. 0-0 from the field. 0-0 from the free-throw line. Zero rebounds.

And a kiss nobody will ever forget.

David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley

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