As a few hundred fans gathered at DeLaSalle for the Twin Cities Pro-Am championship last August, Curtis Johnson found his favorite team warming up in its black uniforms and pulled up next to them in his wheelchair.
Players beamed as they greeted him after finishing their layups.
Few people outside family had seen Johnson in the months since a stroke and complications that followed nearly killed him. He couldn’t walk or live on his own. His days were mostly spent at a rehab facility in Golden Valley, working hard to get back home.
Curtis’ son knows exactly what his father is going through.
Jarvis Johnson was near death when his heart stopped for more than 10 minutes after suffering cardiac arrest in eighth grade. Then 13 years old, he recovered, had a defibrillator implanted and enjoyed a stellar prep career at DeLaSalle, becoming the first player in Minnesota boys’ basketball history to start on four consecutive state championship teams.
Before Amir Coffey and Michael Hurt, local freshmen on this year’s Gophers basketball team, there was Jarvis Johnson. He was Richard Pitino’s first recruit from Minnesota. But he was not cleared to play by the university medical staff because of his heart condition.
Still, there Jarvis was this summer, leaping effortlessly for an alley-oop dunk with his dad sitting near the sideline, thinking that was just like he used to do it back in the day.
Curtis hadn’t seen Jarvis play since the Islanders’ won their fourth state title in a row in 2015.
“I was talking to my dad about it the whole time,” Jarvis said. “That was the highlight of my whole summer, probably the whole year.”
In the face of another tragedy, Jarvis and his family have been there to help his father along the long road back to recovery — the scary moments that came immediately after, the tough times as rehab began and the brighter days now and still to come.
Jarvis’ strength became his dad’s strength, especially when Curtis took his first few steps using a cane last fall. When his father made progress one day with pool therapy, Jarvis caught him on camera with a big smile, flashing a peace sign. The picture wound up on Jarvis’ Instagram page, with the message: “Honestly got chills after seeing my pops happy like this.”
On many afternoons, Jarvis made his father’s day just wheeling him around the hallways of his rehab facility, sometimes taking selfies of them. They talked about school and basketball. Curtis often proudly wore a maroon Gophers hoodie.
“You miss playing?” he would ask his son.
“For sure,” Jarvis always answered.
When the Johnson family got together for dinner last weekend, Curtis was overwhelmed by emotions and Jarvis had to tell him to “take a nap.”
“It’s funny because they’ve flipped roles now,” said Jarvis’ mother, Tanisha. “It’s like Jarvis has become the dad.”
More than six years after father helped son overcome obstacles with his health scare to fulfill dreams of becoming a high school basketball star, now it’s son encouraging father that it’s going to be another “minor setback” before a “major comeback.”
“We talk a good amount,” Jarvis said. “A major factor that helped me was the family factor. It’s easier for me to connect with my dad because I was in the same position. I tell him every day to just push. I tell him, ‘I know it’s hard, but pain is temporary. You’re going to be fine if you put in the hard work.’ ”
On the cold hospital room floor at Hennepin County Medical Center a year ago next month, Jarvis lay shaking with his face drenched in tears.
His father on most days was vibrant, cracking jokes, making him smile — never quiet, that was for sure. But on this Sunday night, Curtis was unconscious in a hospital bed with a respirator breathing for him.
“It really didn’t click in my mind that a stroke would put him in a situation like that,” Jarvis said. “I was just thinking, ‘This is out of control.’ ”
The night before, Jarvis’ mother was out of town, accompanying a friend who wanted to attend her son’s basketball game at South Dakota State. Tanisha, almost to Brookings, S.D., was about to text home when she received a frantic call. Her husband had suffered a massive stroke.
Jarvis and his older brother, Tysean, were on their way to a Timberwolves game after being invited by guard Tyus Jones, a family friend. Seanna, Jarvis’ sister, was on a plane back to Ames after her Iowa State team got clobbered by 37 points at Baylor.
Iowa State coaches had messages from Seanna’s mom when they landed. They told her to call home while the team was still at the airport.
“It was really scary because they didn’t think he was going to make it through the night,” Seanna said. “I was wondering if I should go home that night. But my mom told me, don’t worry about it and just fly back early the next morning.”
Tysean got to the hospital to find out a critical decision on craniotomy surgery had to be made. He told his mother as calmly as he could over the phone, “It’s a life or death situation.” His father’s brain was bleeding.
“He said, ‘Mom, you’re the only one who can say yes or no,’ ” Tanisha said. “We only had seconds or he could die. We’re working with time. I told him, ‘If it’s going to save his life, go ahead and do it.’ ”
After surgery, Curtis was sedated when Jarvis first saw him. The youngest in the family, the one who once had his family sob over his hospital bed, crumpled to the floor.
“I’ve never seen him without [him] being a funny guy, always laughing and loud,” Jarvis said. “Just seeing that kind of threw everything off. It put me in total shock.”
Road to recovery
In March 2016, Pitino told Jarvis, a non-playing member on the Gophers roster, to stay home to be with his family instead of going with the team to the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis. A month later, Curtis needed an emergency surgery to remove his appendix and nearly died from an infection.
The right side of his body was partly paralyzed. Some feeling slowly returned. His speech went from incomprehensible to well enough to carry on conversations. His memory is still unreliable at times.
“It’s going to be a long road,” Tanisha said last fall. “But it’s not something we haven’t been through before.”
As a teenage mom, she had to take care of herself for a year before Curtis, playing basketball at Wisconsin-River Falls, dropped out of college to help raise Tysean.
Less than two weeks after Jarvis arrived at Children’s Hospital in 2010, he learned how to walk and talk again. Curtis’ progress was slower. Six months after his stroke, he finally was able to move his right hand. Small things such as trimming his mustache (which Jarvis now does for him), gripping a drink or holding utensils are no longer taken for granted. He took his first steps without a cane and moved into an assisted living home in December.
He does intense physical therapy five times a week, three times a day. Hourlong pool sessions in the early mornings show him how far he has to go. Curtis, who turned 48 on Dec. 15, could still dunk a few years ago. His hops were passed down to Jarvis.
“It’s hard sometimes,” Curtis said. “Because I can’t do some of the things they want me to do now.”
“Baby steps,” Jarvis said one afternoon, sitting at his dad’s bedside. “Yeah, but I don’t want to be no baby,” Curtis replied. “It’s all good, though.”
Tanisha visited her husband at the rehab facility to get him meals twice a day, once in the morning and again after work at the Agape childhood crisis development center in Minneapolis.
Curtis couldn’t make a trip to Ames for his daughter’s first basketball scrimmage when practice started last October. But Jarvis, Tysean and their parents were together at Hilton Coliseum to see Seanna score 21 points in a Dec. 3 overtime loss to Mississippi State. Eight days later, she exploded for a career-high 33 points vs. Northern Illinois.
Seanna is third in the Big 12 in scoring, averaging 17.5 points, and leads the Cyclones with eight rebounds per game. She recently moved into 10th in school history with 1,453 career points.
“The end of last season was dedicated to [Curtis] and the award I got,” said Seanna, who earned All-Big 12 honors. “Now it’s just helping me have a lot of motivation for my last year.”
Still got game
In last summer’s Twin Cities Pro-Am championship, Jarvis went head-to-head against Tre Jones, the highly touted Apple Valley junior point guard who Duke is recruiting to follow in another Jones’ footsteps.
“He’s still got it,” Tyus said after the title game about Jarvis, his former Howard Pulley AAU teammate. “It’s great to see him getting a chance to play again.”
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the abnormal thickening of the heart muscle, was the diagnosis for Jarvis in 2010.
About 600,000 Americans suffer from HCM; many live normal lives. But with an enlarged heart muscle, blood flow is restricted through the rest of the body. That can cause shortness of breath, chest pain and critical irregularities in the heart’s electrical systems, especially during and after intense exercise.
It’s a condition that can kill athletes.
Last June, Louisiana-Lafayette incoming freshman guard Herman Williams suddenly collapsed during a workout in his Florida hometown and died shortly after in the hospital, later being diagnosed with HCM. Before playing against the Gophers in their Nov. 11 season opener, the Ragin’ Cajuns began their exhibition game against West Florida with only four starters on the floor to honor Williams.
Jarvis’ personal doctors have cleared him to play, as he did this summer in the Pro-Am. Pitino doesn’t know if Jarvis will ever play for the Gophers, but he remains on scholarship and a valued member of the team.
“It was obviously very disappointing for everybody that he isn’t able to play,” Pitino said. “But he comes to every practice and all the meetings. He’s attentive. He’s not moping around. That’s a tough situation to be put in. Jarvis is handling it like a pro.”
Tysean played basketball at Gustavus and got his degree. Seanna’s career is nearing the end with the Cyclones and she’s close to graduating. Jarvis is the last of the Johnson kids yet to fulfill goals of playing college ball, after once being ranked as a top-100 prep prospect. But his mother’s biggest goal for him now is to finish school.
“Does he still want to play? Yeah. Is he learning to accept it? Yes,” Tanisha said. “Even though he doesn’t get to play, it’s not Coach Pitino’s fault. When I’m there and I see how the boys treat Jarvis, how he interacts with the team and Coach Pitino — I couldn’t have picked a better place for him.”
The opportunity to transfer is there, but Jarvis is satisfied where he is — still a Gopher, and close to his father as they draw strength from each other.
“It wasn’t what I was expecting, you know,” Jarvis said. “But sometimes you get dealt a bad hand. You just got to know how to play the cards.”
After watching his brother and father team up for a workout one day, Tysean wrote a heartfelt message on Instagram about how much they inspire him.
“They have both been through drastic life-changing events that many people don’t make it through,” he wrote. “Even with the limitations that they both must endure, they don’t allow it to hold them back from living. They don’t mope. They don’t complain. They don’t feel sorry for themselves and they don’t ask for anyone else to either. THEY JUST LIVE LIFE! Remember when you think times are hard, someone always has it harder! These two will always be my heroes.”