Long before visions of a four-year state title sweep, and long before he became a crowning piece of the Gophers’ 2015 recruiting class, Jarvis Johnson lay facedown on the court.
The basketball prodigy broke his stride in practice, clutched his chest and hit the floor. They rolled him over on his side, thinking he was having a seizure. Minutes later, a paramedic arrived and felt for Johnson’s pulse. Nothing. He looked up from the motionless player and saw a stunned knot of teammates and coaches.
On Dec. 1, 2010, hours before his little brother’s heart stopped for 10 minutes, Ty Moore was busy shooing him away. Moore had finally broken into the rotation with Gustavus, playing meaningful minutes in two road games. On this Wednesday night, the Division III Golden Gusties were headed to Bethel, and his family — yes, even his hoops-obsessed kid brother, Jarvis Johnson — would finally see him really play.
Aw, you’re not gonna do nothin’ anyway, the text from Johnson read.
Moore grinned. Li’l bro, an eighth-grader, always knew how to needle him.
We’ll see, he thumbed back.
On the team bus, Moore — who was born before his and Jarvis’ parents were married and has his mother’s maiden name — was jamming to Lil Wayne through black Sony earbuds when his phone buzzed again. This time, it was his mom.
Jarvis passed out at school, she wrote.
He wrote back. OK, well when he gets up tell him to call me.
She texted again. No.
No? Moore typed a bunch of question marks into the reply box.
During shootaround, Moore surveyed the upper bleachers of the fan section, where he knew his family would be and where his mother liked to sit so she could cheer at her preferred volume. No parents. No sister. No Jarvis.
When Moore checked into the game, he immediately turned the ball over twice, and he hit “nothing but backboard” all night. When the 40 minutes finally expired, he ran back to his locker. His iPhone showed 40 missed calls. Forty more texts. Facebook was blowing up his phone’s feed.
Praying for him, the first text read, from his cousin.
He selected another from his mother. We brought him to Children’s Hospital.
• • •
The 18-year-old future Gophers guard rubbed his eyes and shuffled out of his bedroom in his socks. Johnson, already wary of the next morning’s 6 a.m. practice at DeLaSalle High School, plopped down on the couch next to Moore and flipped on the Thunder-Rockets game. In the kitchen, mother Tanisha Johnson grilled burgers on the stove and toasted crinkle fries in the oven for her boys to scarf down.
In a few months, Jarvis Johnson will be in Dinkytown, pushing through coach Richard Pitino’s rigorous summer workouts. For now, he is watching as the Gophers struggle through a 6-10 conference season. “That would be tough,” Johnson said. “I can only imagine, actually. Especially coming to close games at the end.”
He can only imagine because all he has done is win. Freshman year, sophomore year, junior year, state titles in each. A four-peat could come in two weeks.
After collecting offers from a litany of schools, including Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa State and UCLA, Johnson committed to the Gophers in September, putting a shining local cap on the recruiting class.
Johnson, averaging a pedestrian 12.5 points a game in his senior season, is not one to light up a scoreboard. But the combo guard has the extra gear coaches and recruiters love, the kind of athleticism that pushes onlookers to the edges of their seats. He isn’t an automatic starter as a Gophers freshman, but the one-time national top-85 recruit (he has dropped in the ever-changing recruiting rankings) is still considered one of the state’s top prospects and a valuable three-star addition.
“He’s got that kind of end-to-end speed offensively and defensively that we wanted,” Pitino said. “[He] had some of these ‘wow factor’ moments. … The more I watched and we kind of figured out our team, we felt there was definitely a need for him.”
Through this back-and-forth Gophers season, Johnson has never wavered in the future he chose, the future he fought for.
“Now you know you have to go,” Moore told him. “Because they need you.”
• • •
In the second-floor lobby at Children’s Hospital, Moore waded into a crowd of about 200, searching. His eyes locked with those of his sister, Tyseanna. Hers were full of tears. Moore, feeling dizzy, heard the details.
While Moore was getting on Gustavus’ bus, his brother was owning a defensive drill in practice at Prairie Seeds Academy. Johnson blew past teammate Devin Buckley, turned back and grinned.
“He was laughing, giving me a hard time,” Buckley described. Suddenly, Johnson’s face flattened. Buckley remembers his teammate saying, “Oh, shoot,” before he fell “really fast,” nearly careening into a gym wall. Before the paramedics arrived and shocked him until his pulse returned, Johnson’s heart had stopped beating for somewhere between eight and 12 minutes.
The doctors called it hypertrophic cardiomyopathy — a heart disease that can cause sudden death — and prepared the family for all scenarios. Johnson, lying unconscious in his hospital bed with a net of sensors covering his head, might not make it through the night, they said. If he did, his brain could be severely damaged.
The doctors had injected drugs to “freeze” Johnson’s body for 72 hours to allow his organs to stabilize, but he could remain, the family was told, in “a vegetative state” for the rest of his life.
Tanisha remembers shaking her head. “That doesn’t sound right,” she said. “When I go home, he’s coming home with me.”
A couple of days later, she was sitting by her son’s hospital bed when a familiar whisper finally broke through the wheezing and beeping sounds of the machines that had been keeping Johnson alive.
He knew her. She remembers thinking, How could he be in a vegetative state?
He was wagging one finger, urging her closer. She put her ear to his mouth.
“I’m hungry,” he whispered.
“What?” she said, still shaken. It had been about week since his collapse, and her son had lost about 15 pounds. His cheeks had started to sink toward his tongue.
“Mom,” he said again. “I’m starvin’ like Marvin.”
• • •
Eleven days after arriving at Children’s, Moore and the rest of the family stood staring at the doctors, speechless and blinking.
Johnson was preparing to leave the hospital. He had relearned how to walk and how to speak. He had had surgery to implant a defibrillator into his chest, to administer shocks in case his heart quit on him again. Now, there was another challenge.
See if he’ll consider golf instead, the doctors suggested. Johnson, they said, should stay away from basketball.
Back home, as Johnson was regaining strength, Moore saw him fishing through a closet. Where were his high-tops, he wanted to know.
“It’s probably safer to play with an ICD than we previously thought,” said Dr. Chris Carter, Jarvis’ primary doctor since his hospital stay. “That being said, our recommendations are generally not to play. And that’s the conversation we had with Jarvis.
“An ICD is a safety net. That safety net doesn’t always work, but it does the majority of the time. We went over all those things, and it was important enough to him that he wanted to continue to play.”
• • •
DeLaSalle coach Dave Thorson stood in the stuffy back gym, anxiously eyeing the 6-1 guard. Johnson would soon join the Islanders, leaping and dunking his way into the starting lineup as a freshman. But for now, he was just sweating through a summer session with a dozen others. Suddenly, Johnson stopped. “I’ve got to take a break,” he told his new coach.
Oh my … Thorson, who was well aware of Johnson’s heart condition, remembers thinking.
Johnson was fine. But their first real meeting was the opening assessment of how the teenager could go on playing a game that nearly killed him.
“He himself was trying to figure out how hard he could push himself,” Thorson said. “It wasn’t about what the coach wanted, or pleasing the coach or the team. … But [instead], ‘OK, wait a minute, less than 12 months ago, I’m on the floor.’
“There were a couple of times where I was like, ‘I can’t imagine what you’re thinking.’ ”
Johnson progressed so quickly that Thorson started running plays for him, a rare honor for a freshman. The coach and his staff would look at each other after a thunderous dunk and try to pretend they weren’t impressed. “But we were,” he said.
The Islanders celebrated their first of three state championships that March, but Johnson was still holding back.
“I knew it, but no one else knew it,” he said. “That was one of the toughest things. I knew I could be playing much better.”
In school, his grades suffered. Still healing mentally and physically, he was seeing a neurologist every day.
At the end of the fall semester of his sophomore year, Tanisha learned her son had gotten all D’s. She drove to school to pick him up, and as they pulled out of the parking lot, she lost it.
“Everybody has something,” she yelled. “You’re not the only one going through something. You’ve got to deal with it.”
Jarvis sat stunned and silent.
Soon, his grades began to pick up. In practice, he let himself run faster. He allowed himself to play harder. He let go of holding back.
“It was gone,” he said. “For sure.
“I said, ‘Forget it. I’m going to play now.’ ”
• • •
Johnson sat at the kitchen breakfast bar and pulled the handheld sensor to his heart. The ICD, bulging beneath the 2-inch scar, looks like a hockey puck trapped under his skin. Four years and two months from the moment his life changed, the defibrillator embedded in the athlete’s lean muscle shows it still has 99 percent battery life. Johnson’s safety net has never been needed. But once a month, Johnson will test it. After three beeps, the data will be sent to the hospital through the phone line. The next day, one of the nurses will call and tell the family, once again, that their heart patient can go back to being a basketball player.
For the rest of his life, Johnson will go through the same routine. That, he hopes, will be all.
“He can certainly have another event,” Carter said. “Fortunately, he hasn’t in the four years I’ve known him and he’s been playing. But at any time, he could have another event.”
Johnson has spent four years learning how to push his body within Thorson’s system. But this fall brings the next stage. In college, where Johnson figures to compete with a guard-heavy incoming class for a spot in the starting lineup, he will have to push himself even harder.
When Gophers assistant Ben Johnson (no relation) first watched Jarvis play, he saw the hesitation. For some time after his collapse, Jarvis was scared of his extra gear. “You never know if that was the reason it happened in the first place,” he said.
Thorson still holds his breath when Johnson participates in the regular taking-charges drills he puts his players through. Johnson’s grandmother orders him not to hang on the rim after dunks. His mom asks their Brooklyn Park neighbor to turn off his electric fence — on the list, along with microwaves, of things he’s not supposed to get near — when her son is outside.
If Johnson forgets to go in for his regular checkup, the nurses will “page” his ICD. Johnson recently heard a beeping while he was in his academic counselor’s office and scrambled to mute his cellphone before realizing that wasn’t it. He looked at his chest. “I’m going off,” he told his counselor.
And those chores normally dumped on teenagers? When it snows or when the summer grass on the corner house’s wraparound lawn grows long, Johnson will suddenly and inexplicably grow weak.
“He’ll look at us and say, ‘I’m about to pass out,’ ” Moore said, rolling his eyes.
In more serious moments, Johnson will call his second chance a miracle, a word echoed by his family.
The morning of his collapse, Johnson had sprinted to the bus stop, alone. What if it had happened then? The day before, he was at the house, by himself. What then? When it did happen, without immediate CPR, his clock was ticking. His life was slipping further away with every second.
“He was probably close to the line,” Carter said. “For being down that long, he made a remarkable recovery. I think he’s a very lucky young man.”
Johnson tries not to play the what-if game. In a few months, he will step on the Williams Arena court, something his mother never thought she would see.
With the sensor still clutched to his heart, Johnson wipes away the burger crumbs. The home testing machine beeps three times. The nurse will call tomorrow with the all-clear. And the heart patient, for another day, will go back to being a basketball player.