Future uncertain for Gators' Johnson

By Edgar Thompson
Orlando Sentinel/TNS

ORLANDO, Fla. - Stricken Florida Gators basketball player Keyontae Johnson’s return to the team has left coach Mike White eternally grateful even as he remains uncertain whether the 21-year-old will play again.

“I‘ve given Keyontae a lot of hugs lately,” White said. “His pops has gotten to where he makes fun of me. He tells me to get away from him at times. He’s joking, obviously - really, really funny guy.

“Yeah, incredibly emotional for all of us.”

Johnson attended the team’s practices Sunday, its first in the 15 days since the star forward’s Dec. 12 terrifying collapse at Florida State devastated the Gators and those close to him, gripped sports fans nationwide and put Johnson in a Tallahassee hospital.

Johnson also attended women’s basketball practice to watch his girlfriend, freshman forward Jordyn Merritt.

White said Johnson said he is eager to return to the court.

“That was over a week ago, maybe 10 days ago. ‘I’m ready to roll,’” White said during his first public comment’s since the incident. “Those decisions, yeah, it’s all [up to] the experts.”

Since he rejoined his teammates and coaches, Johnson has served as a self-appointed scout, a quasi-coach and an overly eager official.

“He even blew a whistle,” White quipped.

White said when he arrived Monday for an early meeting at the team’s practice facility Johnson was already there with assistant coach Jordan Mincy going over the game plan for the Gators’ SEC opener Wednesday night at Vanderbilt.

“Right now he’s really eager to help with scouting and doing some coaching, doing some officiating, talking a little trash on the sideline,” White said. “He joked about really being heavily involved in scouting on the front end, but it’s actually coming to fruition. He’ll do a really good job in that role, and I think it will help his development down the road.

“Not only that, but I think it will give our guys another voice and a pure voice. And Keyontae will become an extension of us in the near future.”

The sight of the 6-foot-5, 229-pound Johnson smiling, energized and engaged in the game he loves was in question just two weeks ago. Doctors transferred Johnson Dec. 14 from Tallahassee Memorial to UF Health Shands Hospital Dec. 14. He then improved rapidly enough for doctors to release him Dec. 21.

White declined to share details of Johnson’s condition as he continues on the road to recovery.

“We’re taking it one day at a time,” White said.

White said all medical information about Johnson will come from his doctors and parents, Nika and Marrecus.

“A lot of it I don’t know,” White said. “Even if I did, I could not talk about it.”

White could discuss at length the emotional toll Johnson’s collapse has taken on him and the Gators.

Johnson suddenly fell to the court and hit his head after he exited a team huddle during the opening minutes of Florida’s 83-71 loss at FSU. As Johnson was placed on a stretcher and carted away, White looked stunned, while players on both teams shed tears.

Gators’ shooting guard Noah Locke sobbed on national TV. Locke, a native of Baltimore, said Monday Johnson, who hails from Norfolk, Va., is his closest friend on the team. The two players were members of the Gators’ 2018 class with former point guard Andrew Nembhard.

“We were all close. We all lived together,” Locke said. “I mean ... I know him in and out. He knows me in and out, so we are pretty close.”

Locke and his teammates wanted to play on for Johnson at FSU. The decision led some to question and criticize White for not canceling the game.

“No regrets,” White said. “I asked my guys if they wanted to play on several occasions. ‘Yes!’ They were adamant, they were emotionally charged to play for Keyontae. Every media timeout we talked about it. At halftime we revisited it and our guys were, again, adamant about finishing the game, trying to find a way to win that game for Key.

“Obviously, it was a really, really tough situation for our guys to be in. But that’s what they wanted.”

Locke said the loss to the Seminoles is now a blur to him.

“Probably one of the worst situations I have been through in my life,” Locke said. “I honestly didn’t think how I finished the game. I mean mentally I wasn’t there. Every time I stopped I would just be thinking about it. Honestly, I don’t even remember like even playing, or any of the plays I was doing in the game.

“I was just thinking about him the whole time.”

Locke said he was overjoyed when he first saw Johnson out of the hospital.

“It felt really good,” Locke said. “We did our handshake that we do and, I mean, we got some dancing in our handshake, so it brought some joy when we did that.

“I was really happy to see him when he was back up.”

Many feared the worst for Johnson after his collapse on the court left him in critical but stable condition at Tallahassee Memorial. UF flew his parents to Florida on one of the school’s private jets to be with their son.

Upon Johnson’s release from the hospital last week, his parents said in a statement doctors would continue to evaluate his condition. The Johnsons asked for patience from those seeking answers.

“Without final results, without complete clarity, without the medical team and Keyontae’s family saying this is what it is, this is what we have to say, there’s not much to say, really,” White said. “That’s really it.”

Johnson was among the UF basketball players who have previously tested positive for COVID-19, prompting calls for more transparency about his condition - especially if it could help other players avoid health complications.

Florida and the SEC have in place extensive protocols, including detailed heart testing, before an athlete can resume play after testing positive for COVID-19.

Whatever caused Johnson’s collapse, the impact on those closest to the situation has been life-changing.

“This is not about me, but the toughest day of my life,” White said. “I’m sure a lot of people in our program will say the same thing. That said, we talked about how emotional it’s been lately as we started receiving really good news some of the best moments of my life, as well.”

Florida's Keyontae Johnson shoots the ball against Michigan during the first half in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa, on March 23, 2019. Johnson had a terrifying collapse at Florida State on Dec. 12.