Whitley: Keyontae Johnson merely attending FSU game is a victory

David Whitley
The Gainesville Sun
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The most remarkable story about today’s Florida-FSU basketball game has already been written. Keyontae Johnson will be there watching.

Anyone who saw last year’s game must be heartened at that sight. They remember last year’s game in Tallahassee, Johnson collapsing face first onto the court, medical personnel rushing to his aid, players from both teams breaking down in tears.

“I told my guys, ‘There’s only one thing we can do right now is pray,’” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton told his team.

The reunion will be happy, though tinged with melancholy and curiosity. Melancholy over Johnson still being sidelined, and curiosity whether the budding star will ever play basketball again.

That’s been a running mystery for most the past 338 days. Johnson and his family have kept the medical details private and said little publicly about his prognosis.

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That is fine. Their wish for privacy is understandable, but Johnson remains an object of sympathetic interest.

"I don’t know how he feels," coach Mike White said. "But this probably, I would assume, this weekend could be hard for him."

That's a safe assumption. Just about everything else about Johnson's story is speculative, but this much can be deduced:

Some doctors have said he can play again. If not, Johnson would have cashed in the $5 million insurance policy taken out five months before his collapse.

It was taken out through the NCAA’s Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Insurance Program and protects him against the loss of future earnings.

The question is whether Johnson and his family will feel comfortable with him playing. And if they reach the point, where will he resume his career?

“I don’t know if it will be here, but I’m for sure going to play basketball again,” Johnson told the Orlando Sentinel in July.

If Keyontae Johnson plays basketball again, it won't be for Florida or any other college

It won’t be here or any other college. Johnson may have independent medical clearance, but the thought of him playing triggers Hank Gathers flashbacks no school can risk.

His collapse and death in 1990 while playing for Loyola Marymount is seared into sports lore. An autopsy found Gathers had a heart disorder known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

Johnson’s family has not divulged his specific condition. The Sun reported last December he had acute myocarditis, possibly caused by a bout with Covid last summer.

The family issued a statement in February that extensive tests showed the collapse was not Covid-related. It did not address the myocarditis report.

Myocarditis is an inflammation that affects the heart’s pumping ability. It can cause arrhythmia, loss of consciousness and heart failure.

Athletes with myocarditis have safely competed, often after having defibrillators implanted. But being physically capable can be half the battle.

“The fear of SCD (Sudden Cardiac Death) and ICD (Implantable Cardiac Defibrillator) shocks faced by these athletes affects their quality of life, as does restricting them from all competitive sports,” said a report in the Clinics in Sports Medicine.

Practice for Keyontae is little more than dribbling, shooting, coaching

Imagine the thoughts ricocheting through Johnson’s head the past year. The body and skills that made him preseason SEC Player of the Year are still there.

He goes to practice and is allowed to gingerly dribble and shoot around, but anything more vigorous is off limits. Johnson's posted Instagram videos of himself doing tricky dunks and looking as capable as ever. But he's primarily just “Coach Key,” mentoring players and cheerleading from the sideline.

He must feel like a starving man at a buffet. He can see, smell and even touch the food. But he’s forbidden to have even the smallest bite.

Then weigh that against the unknown. Johnson’s been told he can try to eat, but how can he not be wary?

It’s one thing to have a flashback of Hank Gathers. It’s another to be Hank Gathers in that flashback.

How dire were things last December 12th?

“I could have died,” Johnson told FloridaGators.com in February.

As luck or fate or a higher power would have it, a cardiologist happened to be near the court enjoying the game. She saw what was happening and guided the medical team through the first critical moments.

“She jumped out on the court and saved me,” Johnson said. “If it wasn't for her, I may not have had a second chance in life. You just can't take life for granted.”

Now Johnson has to figure out what to do with his second chance. There’s no guarantee an NBA team would give him medical clearance, though that assumes he decides to try.

At worst, he’s in for a $5 million payday. That’s great, but Johnson was a first-round prospect. Even a mediocre NBA career would yield 10 times his insurance settlement.

It’s not just about the money, however. It’s about having to give up something you love, something that has defined you since childhood.

It’s also something that, in the back of your mind, you fear might lead to another Dec. 12, 2020.

It will be sad watching Johnson stuck on the bench today and wondering if he’ll ever play again. But everything must be weighed against the last time Florida played FSU.

Johnson collapsed. Now he’s arisen.

Whatever happens from here, everyone’s prayers have already been answered.

— 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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