Two weeks after Florida basketball star Keyontae Johnson collapsed during a game at Florida State, the Gators have returned to the court — with Johnson, albeit in a very different role.
“Our guys are ready to move forward,” coach Mike White said. “Not move on from Keyontae Johnson. It’s very different. But move forward with him.”
As UF prepares to play Vanderbilt on Wednesday in its first game since Johnson’s hospitalization, there still are unanswered questions about what led to his Dec. 12 collapse in Tallahassee. The Gators and Johnson’s family have not publicly shared details about medical issues.
But the Gainesville Sun reported that Johnson has been diagnosed with acute myocarditis, a heart inflammation that is feared to be linked to the novel coronavirus. A similar diagnosis led Miami safety Al Blades Jr. to end his season prematurely and will sideline him for at least three months. Johnson was in critical condition immediately after the episode and was hospitalized for a week and a half.
Although Johnson has already talked with White about playing again, he has not been cleared to do so medically. White said he has “no idea” if or when the SEC’s preseason player of the year can resume his career.
For now, Johnson has a new role with the program as a de facto assistant coach. He was scouting Vanderbilt with assistant Jordan Mincy on Monday morning and has spent time officiating and talking trash during UF’s three practices.
“He joked about really being heavily involved in scouting on the front end,” White said, “but it’s actually coming to fruition.”
In his first extended public remarks since Johnson’s collapse, White called the incident the “toughest day of my life.”
White said he did not regret continuing the FSU game after Johnson was rushed to the hospital. Some players cried during the break in action, and UF lost 83-71. White said the team talked about whether to play at every media timeout, and his players were adamant about continuing.
“Just from the whole team, even when it all happened, we all said we wanted to play,” UF guard Noah Locke said. “Honestly, I felt like I shouldn’t have said it. When I got into the game, I didn’t feel like I could at the moment. Even afterward, I just felt like mentally, I couldn’t.”
The Gators called off their next four games but never discussed ending the season. They resumed practice Sunday, 15 days after Johnson collapsed.
Although the layoff was necessary for players’ mental health, their physical fitness suffered. White said the team has been rusty in its first three practices and won’t be in SEC shape in Wednesday’s conference opener. There’s no way to fast-track conditioning, either, without risking injury.
And not even White knows for sure how his players will respond when they take the court for the first time without Johnson.
“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. Maybe we’ll be a little bit better today.”