Updated: Mar 11
The kiss was spontaneous and so was the eruption at the O-Dome Saturday afternoon when Keyontae Johnson dropped down in push-up position and then lowered his lips to kiss the Gator head that on the playing floor of Billy Donovan Court. The hinges that hold the roof on the O-Dome were strained to their limits. The roof barely stayed on. The noise was deafening and it kept bouncing around. If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like when you hear someone say, “In one ear and out the other,” then this was it.
The cheers from a mostly Florida – there were a couple thousand Kentucky fans in the arena, but they too were cheering – crowd said, “We love you!” a thousand times over. The kiss may have been symbolic, but it was like hearing voice of the O-Dome Tom Collette scream into his microphone, “I love you and I love everything about being a Florida Gator!”
That kiss said more than that, however. A whole lot more.
The kiss said farewell. Farewell to playing days as a Florida Gator for sure, but also farewell to an almost lifetime of dreams that had their origins when Keyontae Johnson was growing up in Norfolk, Virginia. These are dreams that grew stronger and more powerful as he learned the game and realized that he was a rare talent while earning national attention playing for the renowned Boo Williams Summer League AAU teams that seem to always finish among the nation’s best. After his sophomore year at Norview High School, he spent a year at IMG Academy in Bradenton and then his senior year at Oak Hill Academy, the same school that was a jumping off point for Kevin Durant and a whole host of NBA players.
At Oak Hill, Keldon Johnson (Kentucky, then NBA one-and-done) and David McCormack (Kansas) were supposed to be the big stars. Keyontae was the glue that held the Warriors together and that had everything to do with why Mike White recruited him so heavily.
“He was the only coach my senior year that constantly came up to Oak Hill,” Keyontae said Saturday. “He called late at night, constantly trying, showing how much he cared for me and wanted me to come. He never guaranteed me anything which was something I was looking for. I don’t want stuff handed to me, never let it get handed to me. Just the love behind him – he’s done a lot for me. Me kissing the court … this program basically changed my life. Me coming here changed everything for me. I’ll never forget it.”
There were no guarantees at Florida but that never stopped Keytonae from continuing to dream big dreams. After an All-SEC sophomore year, he was the preseason SEC Player of the Year for the 2020-21 season only to see his entire world turned upside down a month into the season when he collapsed on the floor at the Donald Tucker Center in Tallahassee just minutes into a game with Florida State on December 12.
Life hasn’t been the same since and will never be what it was, or at least what he dreamed it would be.
In the 450 days since the fateful collapse that took a medically induced coma to save his life, Keyontae has clung to his dream of regaining his health and playing basketball again but all the dreaming, all the wishing, all the hoping and all the prayers haven’t restored his health. He’s still on scholarship at UF but he can’t play. Doctors won’t let him. He’s become known as “Coach Key,” working as a student assistant for Mike White. He has been an asset to the UF basketball team – a real coach, big brother and father-confessor all rolled into one – but it kills him inside to know that if he could only play again at the level he was at before the collapse, the Gators would be so much better.
And his dream of playing in the league would be reach out and touch close.
I see him around the O-Dome on a regular basis. He’s quick with a smile and a hug. Always, I ask how he’s doing and always, the answer is the same: “Waiting for the doctors to tell me I can play again.”
Whether or not he knows exactly what’s wrong with him and why he isn’t allowed to play, he’s not telling. He has his reasons and so do the doctors who keep testing but haven’t released anything to the public to say exactly what happened back on December 12, 2020, what continues to happen and when, if ever, he will be allowed to play again.
The suspicion is that it has something to do with his heart. Given what we know about COVID-19, whose after-eff