Florida’s Keyontae Johnson gets ceremonial start after 2020 meltdown

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida forward Keyontae Johnson dribbled the ball near midfield several times, handed it to an official and began hugging everyone around him, even his opponents. He then dropped onto the court in a push-up pose and kissed the giant Gators logo – while receiving a standing ovation.

It was an emotional scene that took 15 months to work on.

Johnson, the collapsed during a game in December 2020 and has not practiced or played since, making a ceremonial start to Seniors Day against No. 7 Kentucky on Saturday.

“I wanted to stay out there a little bit longer but had to get out,” Johnson said after the Wildcats defeated the Gators 71-63.

Johnson was floored for the first of two opening picks. He officially played 10 seconds, moments that will last a lifetime.

“This is a day you will never forget,” he said.

Kentucky coach John Calipari was among the thousands who clapped and even hugged Johnson as he checked out of the game. Johnson returned to street clothes and took his usual seat on the bench as “Coach Key.”

“I’m super into fashion, so I had to put my clothes back on,” he joked.

Calipari offered to let Johnson score the first bucket, but the Gators opted for a short ball-handling exhibition and a quick exit.

“I got a little emotional because … his whole life was in that moment and that kind of games and it was taken from him,” Calipari said. “But good for Florida that they found a way to really honor him and their fans for what they did.”

Johnson was one of seven Florida seniors to be honored about 10 minutes before the game. He had his parents, grandparents, baby daughter and even the Tallahassee doctor who “saved my life” on hand for the ceremony. In his No. 11 uniform, Johnson lay on the ground for layup lines. He forgot his cell phone was in his pants the first time, a clear sign of how long it had been since he’d attended a game.

“I was trying to dip in before (the coach) came out,” Johnson said.

The 22-year-old Norfolk, Va. senior is expected to turn pro and is attempting to obtain medical clearance to train for NBA teams or compete in the NBA Combine before drafting. He also has $5 million insurance that would pay off if he never played pro ball.

He repeated on Saturday what people close to him have been saying for months: “I don’t know what the next (step) is.”

Johnson’s insurance policy went into effect in July 2020, five months before he fell face first in Florida state court. The 2020 Southeastern Conference Preseason Player of the Year became a trauma patient on Dec. 12 when he collapsed on the court seconds after breaking a team huddle in the fourth game of the COVID-19-delayed season.

Keyontae Johnson starts Florida
Keyontae Johnson (#11) waves to the crowd after his ceremonial start for Florida on March 5, 2022.
Getty Images

Johnson received emergency medical attention in front of teammates, opponents and fans before being rushed to a Tallahassee hospital. He spent 10 nights in hospitals and returned home in time to celebrate Christmas with his family. After a two-week break, he attended the first practice session in Florida.

Johnson’s parents said their son’s collapse last year was not related to a previous positive COVID-19 test, citing an advisory team that included experts from four highly regarded medical schools. The family did not say what doctors believe caused the episode.

Johnson has spent most of the last two seasons cheering for teammates from the bench while enrolled in school and on a scholarship. He is due to graduate next month.

The Gators worked much of the week to find a way to honor Johnson on senior night, and Florida coach Mike White was on the verge of tears as he expressed his appreciation.

“It’s a unique day. It’s a strange day. It’s any day; you could go so many different ways with that,” White said. “It’s a special day. It’s a great day, but it’s a really, really tough day.

“Obviously Keyontae’s situation is an incredible situation. He’s a special, special guy.” Florida’s Keyontae Johnson gets ceremonial start after 2020 meltdown


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