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Video: Keyontae Johnson gets game ball after Florida’s win over FSU

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Have tissues ready.

@GatorsMBK

Less than a year ago, Keyontae Johnson collapsed during Florida’s game against FSU — the one that he had cued a 11-3 start in, the one that he was supposed to lead Florida to victory in, the one that could have set the a strong and positive tone for his Gators’ season — and nothing was ever the same after he did.

Florida’s lead evaporated, as did its chances for victory — and those things and the suddenly dark horizon for the Gators were all but immaterial, footnotes compared to the headline that was Johnson’s health and status.

He spent days and nights in hospitals in Tallahassee and Gainesville, and Florida eventually cancelled two weeks’ worth of basketball games and practices, allowing players to process grief away from the court before resuming a season that would present many more opportunities to do the same on it. And while Johnson returned to a life that appears mostly normal from the outside, save for his ability to contribute to a basketball team with his extraordinary physical gifts, Florida impressively became a team surprisingly close to what it might have been with Johnson, with Tre Mann and Colin Castleton stepping into starring roles to carry the Gators to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Florida lost that game to Oral Roberts, of course, the Golden Eagles’ Max Abmas and Kevin Obanor combining to lead a rally that Johnson could only watch. And when the Gators’ season of heavy hearts and heavy lifting was over and done, most of the players who had journeyed to Gainesville with or to join Johnson and had embarked on seasons with him departed the program: Mann and Scottie Lewis turned pro, as Johnson — a projected first-rounder in the 2021 NBA Draft, pre-collapse — had intended to do, and Noah Locke and Omar Payne transferred to Louisville and Illinois, respectively.

With Osayi Osifo — thrust into a much bigger role than intended by Johnson’s absence, one that he struggled to consistently play well — and Ques Glover also transferring out, the only Gators who played in that fateful Saturday game in December 2020 and remain playing members of the 2021-22 team are Castleton, Tyree Appleby, Anthony Duruji, and Niels Lane.

Florida, for the most part, is moving forward from Johnson’s collapse with only a smattering of the souls who were among the most affected by it — the ones for whom moving on may be an impossibility, the ones for whom distance may be one of the only paths to healing, the ones for whom living out their own lives and hoop dreams may be their best testament to their fallen and sidelined brother.

But the ones who stayed, and the ones who came? On Sunday, they got Keyontae the win over FSU that he so richly deserved last year, smothering the Seminoles’ offense and making clutch plays by the dozen.

On every loose ball that prompted a dive by Duruji, every rebound that Castleton wormed his way inside taller FSU defenders to get, every defensive possession on which Brandon McKissic and Phlandrous Fleming set the tone by clinging to their assignments like a shadow, observers could be forgiven if they detected more than a bit of the spirit of Johnson’s play. Always more gifted physically than most who shared courts with him, Johnson never let that deter him from doing the dirty work for the Gators; he, too, sustained his fair share of floor burns, and got his fair share of tough rebounds.

Since his collapse, he’s famously become Coach Key for the Gators, a surrogate assistant who is more peer than teacher and whose words carry weight within the program that no coach’s ever could. Mike White has spoken effusively about what Johnson has done in that role over the months since last December.

And Johnson’s ebullience — the joie de vivre that made him dancing on a balcony in a hospital days after his collapse such a beautiful sight and sign — has clearly been a leavening agent for teams and a program that could have wallowed in self-pity or succumbed to overwhelming grief and been completely forgiven for it.

So, yeah: He deserved the damn game ball. And he got it.

And if you can read all of the above, consider everything that’s happened for Keyontae Johnson and the Gators since the moment that changed his and their lives forever, and watch that video without sobbing? I have no idea how you can.

But then, I don’t really know how Florida — and Johnson — did all of what it and he did to get from there to here, either.