One moment, Keyontae Johnson was soaring to the hoop to convert an alley-oop.
The next, Johnson, a junior forward at the University of Florida and the 2020-21 Southeastern Conference preseason player of the year, suddenly collapsed face first on the Florida State hardwood during a game on Dec. 12, 2020.
After his teammates realized what had happened, they quickly motioned for medical personnel to rush to the court. The crowd in Tallahassee, Fla., went quiet. Johnson was loaded onto a stretcher, taken to Tallahassee Memorial hospital and put into a medically induced coma for three days.
“I just remember after the alley-oop, they called a timeout,” Johnson said in a video interview on Feb. 4. “When I was walking out of the timeout, I looked down and everything just went black. That’s when I collapsed, was in a coma for three days. And when I woke up, I seen my mom.”
His parents, Nika and Marrecus Johnson, were not at that game, but when Keyontae Johnson came out of the coma his arms were attached to a network of wires and needles and his mother was seated at the foot of his hospital bed.
“It’s probably been the scariest thing I’ve ever dealt with in my life,” Nika Johnson said in a telephone interview. “I don’t really recall my emotions other than I needed to get to my child A.S.A.P. Just praying that he was alive when I got there.”
Nika Johnson stayed with her son, catching some sleep when she could, until he was transferred to a hospital in Gainesville, Fla., and then released on Dec. 22.
Had it not been for the prompt attention of Duke Werner, the Florida athletic trainer who administered chest compressions, and a Florida State trainer who used a defibrillator, it might have played out differently for Johnson.
“It’s extremely important for schools, no matter the size, to have athletic trainers on site for competitions and practices,” Werner said. “We go through extensive training to be ready in moments like that.”
“Duke was instrumental and the reason Keyontae is alive today,” Nika Johnson said. “We’re full of gratitude; we can’t say how grateful we are for him and what he did for Keyontae that day.”
Now, more than two years since the incident, Keyontae Johnson, 22, is a key member of the No. 12-ranked Kansas State men’s basketball team that is thriving under the first-year coach Jerome Tang.
Johnson, a Norfolk, Va., native, is averaging 17.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game and was recently named to the watch list for the John R. Wooden Award, given annually to the best player in men’s and women’s college basketball. On Jan. 31 against the reigning Division I champion Kansas, he scored 22 points and had 12 rebounds in a loss. He is considered a potential second-round pick in this summer’s N.B.A. draft.
“Keyontae’s got to be one of the most impactful transfers that I can remember in a long time,” Mike White, who coached Johnson at Florida and is now the head coach at the University of Georgia, said in a phone interview. He joked that he has to watch Johnson’s games “even when I’m busy or needing to scout the next opponent because he’s my three sons’ favorite player.”
Johnson was initially diagnosed with acute myocarditis, or inflammation in the heart, but he confirmed an ESPN report that he was diagnosed with “athlete’s heart,” or an increase in cardiac mass because of systemic training.
Johnson never played another meaningful game at Florida after his collapse because the doctors at the school never cleared him. He was introduced as a ceremonial starter on Senior Day on March 5, 2022. After receiving the ball off the opening tip from his teammate Colin Castleton, he took a few dribbles before handing it to an official. He hugged starters on both teams, did a push-up at midcourt and kissed the Gators’ logo as he was bathed in a standing ovation.
Johnson ostensibly served as a coach for the remainder of his tenure at Florida, but he never lost the desire to get back on the court.
“I was a witness to him making thousands of stationary shots in the Florida facilities and shooting it at a really, really high clip and assisting us as a staff,” White said. “He was very engaged in our program and in the game and into his teammates’ future. I knew ultimately that he may or may not play again, it would be up to him.”
On the first anniversary of Johnson’s collapse, his mother came up with a name to describe where he stood in life.
“I jokingly said, ‘It’s a rebirth,’ and he liked it,” she said. “He didn’t want it to be a sad occasion. We spent that whole year reflecting on Dec. 12, so we wanted to do something that was going to be positive. And he wanted to give back to everybody who helped him on that day to make it possible for him to be there a year later.”
Johnson said he was ultimately cleared by two other doctors, one from the Mayo Clinic and another from the N.B.A. players’ association.
The Associated Press reported in November 2021 that Johnson had a $5 million insurance policy that he could have collected if he never played another minute of college or professional basketball.
But he always wanted to play again.
“I never really considered stopping,” Johnson said. “Just the love of the game of basketball, it got me to where I’m at today.”
He transferred to Kansas State in August, and after the medical staff there made sure his “medical stuff was up-to-date,” he became the centerpiece of a program overhaul that included 12 newcomers. The program has been one of the surprise stories of this men’s college basketball season, going from 14-17 last season to 19-6 before Tuesday’s game at Oklahoma. In January, Kansas State reached the top five in The Associated Press poll for the first time in more than a decade.
On the second anniversary of Johnson’s collapse, his “rebirth” day, he was surprised by his teammates and coaches, who sang “Happy Birthday” to him in the team facilities.
“College is one of the best times of your life, so I’m just trying to take advantage of it and do everything with my team,” Johnson said.
Nika Johnson said she and her husband have “pushed him to live in the moment and enjoy this time because you don’t get it back.”
One of those moments was Jan. 28, when Johnson posted a double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds in Kansas State’s win over Florida in Manhattan, Kan. He was reunited with some of his former teammates and posed for photos after the game. He also reconnected with Werner, his old friend and the trainer who helped save his life.
“I told him that I love him,” Werner said. “I’ve prayed for him every day and couldn’t be happier for him and the success he’s having.”
Johnson’s ultimate dream is to play in the N.B.A., and scouts continue to monitor his play. “That was another main reason why I came back to basketball,” Johnson said of his professional aspirations. “I felt I still had a lot to prove, and just the love of the game. Just getting that college feeling, this is one of the best feelings you could get.”
“That was his goal, that’s been his goal since he was a little kid,” Nika Johnson said. “And so he’s never taken his eyes off of the goal. He wants to play professionally, which is why playing another year of college ball was so necessary for him, kind of erase the memory of the collapse and see that he’s OK and can do it.
“We’re hoping that it shows the world that he’s OK.”
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