Florida’s Johnson rejoins team, works as coach amid recovery
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Keyontae Johnson is back in Florida’s basketball facility, just not on the court. He’s scouting opponents, coaching teammates, refereeing scrimmages and even talking trash from afar.
Seeing him, hearing him, being able to hug him and just having him around has created a much-needed feeling of relief for the Gators after a week of uncertainty that followed Johnson’s harrowing collapse during a game at Florida State.
“Incredibly emotional for all of us,” coach Mike White said Monday.
Johnson was released from the hospital last week, 10 days after needing emergency medical attention.
White said he has “no idea” whether Johnson will be able to play again this season and added, “even if I did, I couldn’t talk about it” because of privacy laws.
“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.
The Gators (3-1) postponed four games following Johnson’s collapse and took 15 days off. They returned to practice Sunday and will get back on the court Wednesday night at Vanderbilt (4-2), the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.
“Our guys are ready to move forward, not move on from Keyontae, but move forward with him,” White said.
Kentucky’s John Calipari is one of several coaches across college basketball who have said they would like to know if Johnson’s collapse was related to his positive COVID-19 test months earlier.
Johnson’s parents have said they “are committed to sharing not only updates on Keyontae but also any information we think could help others.”
Although the cause of Johnson’s collapse has not been revealed, the coronavirus can lead to myocarditis, a viral infection of the heart muscle. At its most severe, myocarditis can lead to sudden cardiac arrest and has been a documented cause of death for young, otherwise healthy athletes.
The SEC mandates protocols, including rigorous heart testing, before players can be cleared to return to play following positive COVID-19 tests.
Florida also administers heart screenings to all incoming athletes and re-checks athletes’ hearts heading into their third and fifth years. Johnson was entering his third season, so he would have had a heart ultrasound (echocardiogram) and heart tracing (EKG) before he arrived on campus this summer and again after testing positive for COVID-19.
Johnson crumpled to the floor coming out of a timeout on Dec. 12. He was moved to a stretcher and carried to a waiting ambulance as teammates, coaches, staff, fans and others watched in disbelief.
ESPN declined to show video of the incident. Witnesses said Johnson was standing near midcourt and suddenly fell forward and landed on his face. White gave his players several chances to quit playing the game, but they insisted they wanted to play for their fallen teammate.
“I don’t even think I finished the game,” guard Noah Locke said. “Mentally, I wasn’t even there.”
Johnson spent two nights at Tallahassee Memorial before being transferred to Gainesville via helicopter with his mother by his side. He was eventually able to chat with friends and teammates, all signs of improvement.
“He was moving much faster than what we thought it was going to be,” Locke said. “Now he is back to how he usually is. It is definitely a blessing. Very, very scary moment. It was tough for me to even see happening. It is hard to really explain how I was feeling. It wasn’t good.
“To see him back definitely helped a lot. I’m good. I’m good now. I’m ready to play. It was great to see that he got back to how he is now.”
White said Johnson already has mentioned that he’s “ready to roll” and wants to practice, but doctors will decide when and if that happens this season. Until then, the Gators will be without the SEC’s preseason player of the year.
“If Keyontae is not playing, we won’t be the same team,” White said. “We certainly have to get to the point where we have that pep in our step and that competitive spirit back. Maybe it’s baby steps.”