Obscured by Markquis Nowell, Keyontae Johnson is Kansas State’s most stirring story

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When Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May was an assistant at Florida from 2015-2018, he helped recruit and sign Keyontae Johnson to the Gators and came to know him well.

He “watched him a lot,” as May put it Friday at Madison Square Garden, at IMG Academy and then some more at Oak Hill Academy and spent ample time with Johnson and his family on signing day.

His oldest son Jack, a walk-on at Florida, became what May described as a “very close friend” to Johnson when they were teammates.

So small wonder May was almost overcome when he was asked to reflect on the December 2020 day of Johnson’s chilling face-first collapse on the court during a game against Florida State in Gainesville — a moment that made unfathomable his remarkable journey to K-State and its Elite Eight game on Saturday against Florida Atlantic.

In fact, if the Wildcats were playing anywhere but New York, his astounding comeback to lead the Wildcats in scoring and rebounding this season likely wouldn’t be as obscured as it’s been by Markquis Nowell — the Harlem native who has dominated the headlines locally and nationally as the top player in the tournament.

But Nowell’s play has been amplified by the cast around him. And by none more so than the 6-foot-6 senior, who opened the victory against Michigan State on Thursday with a dunk on a Nowell lob and put K-State up for good with another in overtime as he finished with 20 points.

That would be exhilarating stuff even without Johnson’s back story, one that compelled his mother to call each anniversary of that episode his “rebirth” day.

“It helped me see that I’m an inspiration to everybody around the world,” he said. “A lot of people hit me up just saying I am inspiring them. That motivated me to keep going, just not let my story fail.

“They motivate me and I’m motivating other people, and I feel like that’s just driving me to keep going.”

Moving on in basketball seemed unfathomable on the day May put in context with such eloquent emotion.

Never mind that May, with whom Johnson said he remains “real close” and called “my guy,” had left for FAU in 2018.

The stunning 2020 scene that left Johnson in a medically induced coma for three days will stay with him forever because of the ongoing connection he feels.

“It’s hard for me now, like, to watch …” May said before suddenly being left reaching for words, his voice cracking as he resumed. “They showed it on SportsCenter yesterday, and I said, ‘I’ve got to go.’”

For a second, he appeared on the verge of tears as he swallowed.

Even without knowing Johnson, anyone might feel the same if you dare watch the video. Think, for instance, of how it felt to see Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills suddenly slump to the ground.

But that horrifying moment makes for a profoundly moving point of contrast now when it comes to Johnson — who like Hamlin may have died then and there if not for a properly prepared and equipped athletic training staff and first responders.

While Johnson initially was diagnosed with acute myocarditis, last month he confirmed to The New York Times an ESPN report that he was diagnosed with “athlete’s heart” — defined by Stanford Health Care as “an increase in cardiac mass because of systemic training.”

Whatever it was deemed to be, Johnson never was medically cleared to play again for Florida … other than the touching Senior Day farewell last season when he started the game, took a couple dribbles and kissed the Gator emblem on the floor after a prompt timeout.

But after seeking more medical opinions last year, Johnson said Friday, “the ratio was two to one. So I just went with what the two doctors said and trusted in God.”

After Johnson entered the transfer portal last May, new K-State coach Jerome Tang — and his virtual recruiting deputy, Nowell — pushed hard to appeal to the former Southeastern Conference preseason player of the year. They finally secured his commitment in August.

As one of 11 new scholarship players to join Nowell and Ish Massoud, Johnson on Friday said “my goal was to try to change the program.” Indeed, he became an essential part of a team on Saturday seeking to advance to the Final Four for the first time since 1964.

“What has he meant to the team?” Tang pondered. “Man, just — I think it’s very evident to see what he does on the floor.

“But I’m just telling you all: What he does off the floor, in the locker room, and how he’s just one of the guys and treats everybody the same and all his teammates love him. It’s just — you can’t quantify it, how it impacts the chemistry of the team.”

Still, you can practically quantify the chemistry with Nowell, with whom Johnson collaborated on the pivotal last lob-dunk through their own distinct code.

While Johnson initially said he “just told him to throw it,” he later attributed the connection to some mighty granular body language.

“It was an eye contact,” Johnson said. “I raise my eyebrows sometimes. Or something like that.”

Just like his mere presence here has raised eyebrows.

And filled hearts all over the country.

“I just always try to keep a positive energy around me, always let the guys see I’m happy,” he said. “I can’t be blessed enough to be here …

“Basketball was almost taken away from me. So I go out there to have fun and show my teammates the love and joy that I have for them.”