Kansas State forward Keyontae Johnson turned down $5million (£4.09m) following a horrific collapse and instead bet on himself. It has paid off as he has led the Wildcats to the Sweet 16 of March Madness.
March Madness is one of the most anticipated and closely followed events across all American sports. It is the NCAA Division I tournament for both men's and women’s basketball, pitting the best players and the best colleges against one another to become a staple of the American sporting calendar since it was first contested in 1939.
Kansas State are taking the 68-team tournament by storm and Johnson has been spectacular. Averaging 18.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game for the fifth-ranked Wildcats, the 22-year-old has quickly become one of the top players in the best basketball conference in the country.
Back in December 2020, Johnson collapsed while playing for Florida against Florida State. He received emergency medical attention in front of horrified teammates, opponents and fans before getting rushed to hospital, where he spent 10 nights in critical but stable condition, as he was placed in a medically induced coma for three days.
It was unclear whether Johnson would ever return to the sport, as the NCAA has an insurance policy for the top basketball players that are determined to have a future at the professional level. The policy - the ‘loss of value’ insurance by the NCAA - ‘protects a student-athlete’s future contract value from decreasing below a predetermined amount due to a significant injury or illness suffered during the policy’s designated coverage period.’
According to Stadium basketball analyst Jeff Goodman, that insurance policy was worth $5m in Johnson’s case. The forward decided to turn the money down and bet on his own skills - and it is working wonders. Johnson scored 13 points and added four rebounds and three assists as Kansas State defeated Kentucky 75-69 to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2018.
Late in the game, Johnson hit a crucial step back from the right-hand side of the court to put the Wildcats up 67-62. While Kentucky heads home, Kansas State will face the No. 7 seed Michigan State in the Sweet 16.
Johnson’s story is remarkable; in order to pursue his NBA dream, he needed medical clearance and to pass a number of tests before being allowed to attend the NBA Combine or privately work out. Not many fans would have expected to see him turn down the $5m he was owed, much less lead the Wildcats on a March Madness run.
“I just love the game,” Johnson told Goodman recently. “I feel like I put a lot of work in. I feel like God didn’t give me a second chance [just] to sit out again.”
Johnson is a projected second-round pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, which takes place in June. If he continues to lead Kansas State deeper into the NCAA tournament, Johnson’s stock will improve while his priceless NBA dream could turn into reality.