Today, Johnson’s story is well known. Following a timeout in a game between his former team, the Florida Gators, and Florida State during the 2020-21 season, Johnson walked back onto the court before collapsing near midcourt. Johnson was rushed to a nearby hospital where he was placed in a medically induced coma, reportedly due to acute myocarditis – a rare form of heart inflammation that can interfere with the pumping of blood.
A cardiologist was sitting courtside the day of the game, and the lucky coincidence may have saved his life.
“I would say I’m blessed to be here, yes,” Johnson said in February 2021. “I was passed out. I could have died. She jumped out on the court and saved me. If it isn’t for her, I may not have had a second chance in life. You can’t take life for granted.”
Entering the 2020-21 season, Johnson was named the preseason SEC Player of the Year. Before folding to the court, he was averaging 19.7 points per game and six rebounds.
But doctors at Florida didn’t clear Johnson to participate during the 2021-22 season, which forced him to remain on the sidelines at Florida’s games. He served as a pseudo player coach during the last year and a half at Florida. He assisted with scouting opponents and a motivator for his teammates. In the Gators’ final home game of the season, he served as an honorary starter where he caught the opening jump ball before exiting the contest.
To play basketball again, Johnson would have to be cleared by doctors at his new institution. While away from playing organized, team basketball, Johnson was treated by medical personnel at the Mayo Clinic and was able to seek treatment with the NBA Players Association. Johnson spent weeks going through stress testing and cardiovascular testing where doctors required him to run on a treadmill with an oxygen mask placed over his head.
Both organizations determined that Johnson’s condition was safe enough to play basketball, though, he’s required to take medications to help prevent any complications with his heart.
“I mean, I thought I was done,” Johnson said of his basketball career. “I didn’t know what other doctors were going to clear me. Shands Hospital at the University of Florida is like one of the top hospitals, hearing it from them that they won’t clear me – it was real big.
“But after that, my parents said to keep holding on and that we’ll see more doctors. Went to the Mayo Clinic. Went to the NBA Players Association and both of them cleared me. That’s what got my hope up.”
While in the transfer portal, Johnson received interest from several programs nationally, including Memphis, USC and Western Kentucky. But the former first-team SEC member signed with Kansas State and first-year head coach Jerome Tang.
“Coach Tang, he coached at Baylor, we played against him at Florida and I liked how their playing style was,” Johnson said of why he elected to transfer to Kansas State.
“He came in and told me that he wanted to win right away, which is a big goal for me. He said he’s not trying to rebuild; I didn’t come here to try and rebuild. I’m trying to come here and make a mark in my first year and make a run.”
Tang, an assistant coach at Baylor for 19 seasons under Scott Drew, has a history of coaching players who battle heart conditions. Former Baylor star Isaiah Austin played with Marfan syndrome, which enlarges the aorta – an artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body. Tang also was an assistant coach for Baylor when guard Jared Butler played with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is a disease where the heart muscle becomes thickened, which can make it harder for the heart to pump blood.
“Having helped someone get back in shape with that [kind of heart condition],” Tang said of having experience coaching players with a heart condition. “You have some tell-tale signs that they have to understand that the doctors have cleared him and he’s going to be okay. He just has to figure out that difference between his lungs stretching and something else. Once they figure that out, and have that confidence, it takes time – he’ll be fine.”
While in the transfer portal, Johnson found comfort with Tang’s previous experiences with players like himself.
“It just makes me more comfortable knowing that he has been with a player that is similar to me,” he said. “Knowing that he has a feel for what to do and going to a different coach that doesn’t have that sense can be kind of scary because he’s trying to figure out what to do in that situation.”
Tang accompanied Johnson to doctor’s appointments, which also added a level of comfort for the Wildcats’ headline transfer heading into the 2022-23 season. The head coach is able to effectively remind Johnson to take the necessary medications or simply ask if the proper forms of care are being followed on a daily basis.
“I had a relationship with his doctor already,” Tang said, “Who was world-renowned in it. That was fun to do because I learned a lot about the whole situation before I ever met Keyontae.”
Teammates were a bit trepid about Johnson’s condition when he joined the Wildcats in August. A few asked about his condition, but soon more players became comfortable enough to ask Johnson questions about his battle through an – obviously – terrifying situation.
Now, teammates are supportive. They encourage him to get a sub if needed or to catch his breath when he feels short of breath after a conditioning drill or extensive minutes of playing. Johnson, though, is simply happy to be back working out and back on the court playing basketball – while moving.
“It feels good to feel the pain, soreness all over again,” he said. “Knowing that I put in the work because if you don’t feel sore after you put work in then you’re just out there doing stuff. So doing that and hearing the coaches tell me that it’s good to see me out there. It makes me feel a lot better knowing that everything is going to be fine.”
Before Johnson crumpled to the floor in Tallahassee, he entered the 2020-21 season as a potential first-round NBA draft selection. He’s a career 37 percent 3-point shooter and his bouncy athleticism allows him to play above the rim and play anticipatory defense all while being an effective three-level scorer.
Now, after having not played in an official game for more than a season, Johnson maintains both his big goals, like making it to the NBA. But he’s also focused on smaller, day-to-day goals that likely help Kansas State in 2022-23, and potentially help him make it to the NBA in the long game.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve been working really hard,” Johnson said. “Just trying really hard to get a feel back for the game and stuff like that. I don’t want to put too much pressure on me, just play. Go out there and play with confidence. Go out there and play like I’ve been there before and like I didn’t take two years off.”