Keyontae Johnson was going through a preseason workout in mid-August with three other Kansas State teammates as he paused for a break with his hands on his knees. This was different than any other preseason he's ever been through. All four players were wearing heart rate monitors and when Johnson would get tired, the coaches and athletic trainers would check his numbers as a precaution, compare his to the other three players also wearing heart rate monitors, and then it was back on the court.
"When Keyontae was getting back into game shape, he had to learn to distinguish the difference between his legs being tired, his lungs being tired as opposed to his heart," head coach Jerome Tang told Yahoo Sports.
It had been 20 long months since Johnson's last competitive basketball game. On Dec. 12, 2020, Johnson, a junior at Florida, was playing in a game against Florida State. This was Johnson's year. He was the SEC preseason Player of the Year, averaging 16 points per game, shooting 43% from 3-point range and already getting first-round draft buzz from NBA scouts. Johnson had just converted on an alley-oop in transition that silenced the crowd in Tallahassee. A timeout was called and as Johnson was walking back on to the court, he collapsed face first and his whole life changed.
Johnson was rushed to the hospital and was in a coma for three days. His parents, Nika and Marrecus Johnson, never left his side.
"The first thing I remember waking up in the hospital is seeing my mom and she was holding my hand," Johnson told Yahoo Sports. "I heard her talking and my vision was still blurry and she was the first thing I saw and then my dad walked in and just the look on both their faces, I knew something happened."
It would be another week before Johnson was released from the hospital, but Florida head coach Mike White will never forget his team's reaction when they were able to talk to Johnson over the phone for the first time.
"I was in the practice gym with his teammates and we were able to put Keyontae on a FaceTime call with them and they lost their minds," White told Yahoo Sports. "It was like winning on a buzzer-beater, triple overtime. That was the energy in the gym when they first saw him."
Johnson's road back to the court would be long and require patience. It would also present him with a life-changing decision that involved turning down a $5 million insurance policy.
Johnson's road to recovery
Johnson, of course, sat out the remainder of the 2020-21 season. Over the summer, he and his parents traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to meet with one of the best doctors in the cardiology space.
"Once my parents started doing research and trying to figure out what happened, I told them my goal was to continue to keep playing basketball," Johnson said. "We just reached out to as many people as we could and we were told to go to the Mayo Clinic to get the best doctors in the country to either clear me or not and they cleared me to play."
Johnson was also cleared by a doctor from the NBA Players Association and was eventually diagnosed with “athlete’s heart,” or an increase in cardiac mass because of systemic training.
Florida still wouldn't clear Johnson to play for the 2021-22 season for insurance and liability reasons. Instead, he took on the role of "Coach Key" and tried to help his teammates out as best as he could.
"He never showed he was having a bad day to the people around him," White said. "He had a few tough moments but he immediately became positive again and wanted his teammates to see him as an inspiration and as a fighter, and I’ll never forget how courageous he was throughout that time. The game of basketball was taken away from him along with so many normalcies that he’d been accustomed to — lifting weights, working out, running down the court."
Florida honored Johnson on Senior Day where he was announced as a starter, got the tip, dribbled a couple times before kissing center court. His time at the University of Florida was over.
— Florida Gators Men’s Basketball (@GatorsMBK) March 5, 2022
The $5 million question
With another year of eligibility left and the desire to still play basketball, Johnson entered the transfer portal. There are players who have been through similar situations as Johnson and continued to play with a heart condition. One player in particular was Jared Butler. Butler transferred from Alabama to Baylor and went on to play three years, fully healthy, and win a national title with Baylor in 2021. Tang was one of the assistant coaches on staff when Butler was there, was familiar with Butler's condition and doctors (the same doctors Johnson now has) and had recently been named the head coach at Kansas State.
Johnson and his family took a visit to Kansas State and immediately felt at home.
"Coach Tang had a vision where he wanted to elevate the program and this wasn’t going to be a rebuild year," Johnson said. "For a first-year coach, that stood out to me and just his focus on winning. I wanted to come in and showcase why I was preseason Player of the Year in the SEC and do it in the Big 12, which is the most competitive conference in college basketball."
"Their questions were different than everybody else's questions on a recruiting trip," Tang recalled. "Mom wanted to make sure we had a system in place with doctors and hospitals and checkups and all those things. Going through a similar situation with [Butler] and already being familiar with their doctors helped put the family at ease."
Johnson chose the Wildcats over USC, Nebraska, Memphis, Western Kentucky and Eastern Michigan, and was coming in fresh with 11 newcomers and a first-year head coach.
Prior to the season, Johnson and Tang sat down for an important conversation regarding Johnson's future. Five months before his collapse, a $5 million insurance policy went into effect. College basketball players are eligible for the NCAA’s exceptional disability insurance program if they have eligibility remaining and have the potential to be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft. For Johnson's policy, he could return to playing college basketball for nine games and still collect the money. If he cashed in on the $5 million, he wouldn't be able to pursue a professional career after this college season. The other choice was to play past that ninth game, not collect the money and continue to work toward an NBA career.
"When the doctors told me I could play and they felt good about me being on the court it just became about basketball," Johnson said. "If I can make it to the league, it no longer becomes about the money I gave up but what my future could be and I just didn’t want to settle. I told coach Tang without any hesitation, ‘If I’m playing, I’m playing the whole season. No question.’ It was never something I was thinking about throughout the season or anything like that."
Said Tang: "I remember him saying to me, ‘Coach, I’m doing this because I love this game and I want to play and the money doesn’t matter,’ and after that conversation, I’ve never thought about it since."
Johnson makes an immediate impact
Tang anticipated it taking some time for Johnson to find his legs and get used to playing at game speed again after so much time off the court, but Johnson impacted the team almost immediately. He scored 13 points in his first game back, 16 in his second, 19 in his third and two games later, he led both teams with 28 points in an overtime win over Nevada. Johnson would go on to score in double digits in all but one of Kansas State's 32 regular-season games.
"I thought it was going to take him until Big 12 conference play to get settled on the court but he hit the ground running and continues to get better every single day," Tang said.
Johnson is averaging 17.7 points, 7 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 34 minutes for the Wildcats. He's shooting 42% from 3-point range on four attempts per game — remarkable numbers for a player who didn't play competitive basketball for nearly two years and went through everything Johnson did during that time off the court.
"You can ask anyone on our staff at Florida, I said it a bunch, if he plays again he’ll be even better than he was here," White said of Johnson's return this season. "Look at the way he’s shooting the basketball this year. He was forced to hone in on one skill during his time off the court and that was spot shooting. I couldn’t be happier for what he’s accomplishing right now."
Johnson was named the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year and also selected to the All-Big 12 First Team. Kansas State finished third in the Big 12 and No. 15 in the final AP Top 25 rankings with a 23-9 record. Tang has said repeatedly throughout the season that Johnson has been an integral part in the Wildcats' success.
"We obviously would not be having the season we’re having without him," Tang said. "He stepped into a leadership role on a new team and has made everyone around him better."
Johnson's NBA draft stock
Johnson is back on NBA scouts' radar after a strong start to the season and playing consistently at a high level each night against tough competition.
"It's the best story in basketball," one NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. "To see him return to the court, and not only return and log minutes, but actually get better is incredible. His shot creation and how versatile he is as a defender, being able to guard multiple positions, is valuable at the NBA level."
Right now, Johnson is projected as an early second-round pick in most mock drafts, with many teams proceeding with caution because his collapse was so public. What he's done on the court this season without any recurring issues is a positive sign and Johnson might end up being a steal in the second round with the talent of a first-round prospect.
"He is a pro," Tang said. "What he brings to a team and how he impacts winning, he's a special player."
Johnson, for his part, is doing what he's done the past two years — being patient, trusting the process and betting on himself.
"I feel like this year I’ve just been proving and showing NBA scouts that I can play at the highest level," Johnson said. "I can play off the ball, on the ball, shoot the ball at a high level and just things like that. I’ve had to be patient through everything and I’m just trusting the process."
Johnson and Kansas State are now preparing for the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats are the No. 3-seed in the East region and will face No. 14 Montana State on Friday. No one could have envisioned this season a year ago when Kansas State was coming off its worst three-year stretch in program history and hiring a brand new head coach.
Johnson has been waiting a long time for this moment. The Big Dance. The tournament that creates legends and legendary moments. Basketball was taken away from him and even though it has been a long road of uncertainty, patience and acceptance to get to this point, Johnson has never wavered in the end goal to return to the court.
"It just goes to show the belief in myself and just working hard to prove myself that has gotten me to this point," Johnson said. "Everything happens for a reason and it’s all on God’s timing. I love this game and will never take it for granted. It's the best feeling in the world playing with my teammates and I'm ready to go out and compete every night and try and win a championship."