NEW YORK (AP) — Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May had a hard time keeping his emotions in check as he spoke about Kansas State forward Keyontae Johnson.
May’s near-tears had nothing to do with preparing his Owls (34-3) to face Johnson and the Wildcats (26-9) in the East Region final on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
Johnson is a special person to May and his family.
As an assistant coach at Florida, May recruited Johnson, met his family and played a major part in getting him to join the Gators. May ended up leaving for the FAU job for the 2018-19 season.
Two year later, Johnson’s life changed. During a game against Florida State on Dec. 12, 2020, he collapsed and was rushed to a hospital, where he spent three days in a medically induced coma. He sat out the rest of that season and all of the next, then transferred to Kansas State, where he began playing again this fall and became one of the most important players on a team that reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
The third-seeded Wildcats got there with a 98-93 overtime victory over Michigan State on Thursday night, with Johnson scoring 22 points and getting the go-ahead basket on a reverse dunk after taking an alley-oop pass from Markquis Nowell.
During the game, May said Johnson had noticed his family among the 19,624 fans in the crowd and smiled at them.
“I said, ‘Why wouldn’t he be cherishing every moment with what he’s been through!’” May said. “To come back and play this game on this stage, there’s no other way but embracing and enjoying every single moment. And he’s obviously doing that.”
Johnson said he spoke with at least three doctors when he considered returning to basketball. Two of them said he could play.
“So I just went with what the two doctors said and trusted in God and trusted my faith just with everything,” he said Friday after practice. “Just my circle kept me positive and just kept me in an uplifted mood, and it just got me through a lot.”
On the court, Johnson — who’s averaging team-highs of 17.4 points and 6.9 rebounds — seems to be having a blast.
“I just always try to keep a positive energy around me, always let the guys see I’m happy,” Johnson said. “I can’t be blessed enough to be here, so just trying to enjoy life, enjoy the moment.”
Johnson still had some concerns about his health when he started practicing again last summer. But as he ramped up his work, his stress levels eased and his trust in his doctors grew.
The one person worried at that point was first-year Kansas State coach Jerome Tang, who said Johnson had promised an answer about whether he planned join the Wildcats before the staff took a summer break.
Johnson then took a late visit to Nebraska and didn’t decide to attend the school in Manhattan, Kansas, until just before the start of the year.
Johnson said his return serves as motivation for people looking to overcome adversity.
“I don’t really think about it, I just go out there and play,” Johnson said. “Everything happens for a reason, but I’ve just got my faith in God and I know he’s going to lead the way and not fail me.”
Johnson could apply for a medical redshirt that would give him another season at Kansas State, but he could also choose to go to the NBA.
“Basketball was almost taken away from me,” he said, “so I go out there to have fun and show my teammates the love and joy that I have for them.”