"I cried when I was told it," said a solemn Johnson. "I cried a lot."
At 18 years old, Johnson was told he may have to give up basketball because the sport he'd played since he was a child, the sport he loved, might kill him.
"I've shed tears," said Johnson. "I kept going back to the doctors again and again and they kept saying 'We need more time. We need more time.'"
But Johnson said that throughout the entire process he kept hope, kept praying that he'd be able to play. Slowly, hope grew as he passed each test before him. The heart monitor he wore each day continued to give consistent readings after each of Texas head coach Rick Barnes' legendarily brutal workout regimens.
"If you can make it through his (Barnes') practices, you can make it through anything," said Johnson, laughing.
It became clearer and clearer the day would come that Johnson would step off the bench and take the floor, but still he waited.
Finally, Dr. James Willerson, President-Elect at the Texas Heart Institute and President of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, made his official announcement that Johnson is "cleared to participate in all physical activities at The University of Texas, including regular-season games, beginning on January 1, 2008."
Welcome to the party, Gary. You're a Texas Basketball player.
"I feel like it's a gift just to be able to play again," said Johnson. "I'm trying to take every minute on the court as a gift to me."
Well in that case, according to Barnes, Johnson's going to get a lot of gifts.
"I'm going to start him," said Barnes. "He's gonna be a starter. We're going to try and get bigger."
Johnson will be one of the most talented players to suit up for Texas in Barnes' tenure and it was largely expected, before the diagnosis, that he would start from the get go. But even with all the time away from game action, there will be no easing in and he's going to start at the four (power forward) for Texas. Barnes said it may take his team some time to get used to how Johnson's insertion into the line-up will change the game.
"Gary is going to change a lot with our team," said Barnes. "We might go through some growing pains in the next couple weeks as we utilize him and he becomes a part of the team...I've said all along that we aren't going to find out who we are as a team until the end of January."
Johnson taking over at the four moves forward Damion James out to the wing, where the 6-foot-7 sophomore can potentially take advantage of more size mismatches. Center Connor Atchley, guard D.J. Augustin and guard A.J. Abrams will keep the same spots in the starting lineup and guard Justin Mason will move to the bench.
Barnes cautioned that Johnson will also have to do some readjusting just because of his lack of experience, even though he has participated in all drills.
"Gary's done everything you can ask him to do," said Barnes. "The only thing he doesn't have right now is game experience. He's never played a minute of college basketball."
The biggest immediate impact should be on the boards. Texas' back-to-back losses to Michigan State and Wisconsin highlighted the Horns need for an intense post presence and that aggression inside is exactly what Johnson is known for. The freshman forward said he's always considered himself a fearless player, but said the six month ordeal has made him, mentally, even stronger.
"There's nothing to be scared of. I've lived through this. I've got everything to live for, so I shouldn't be scared of anything. I was faced with death," said Johnson.
Johnson also said he doesn't expect to be slowed by the minor back injury he suffered in practice two weeks ago. According to Barnes, while going up for a shot in practice, Johnson twisted his body and had a minor back spasm. He sat out for a week of practice and likely would not have played, even if he had been cleared at that point, against Oral Roberts or Michigan State.
Barnes said he's excited about the interior presence Johnson will bring and compared his style of play to that of a former Longhorn star.
"He's 6-7, relentless around the rim and he's worked on his outside shot," said Barnes. "I think the best comparison is P.J. (Tucker) because they were both so strong coming out of high school. In high school they both dominated because they could muscle people around."
His senior season at Aldine High School in Houston, Johnson averaged 26 points and 13 rebounds, leading his team to a record of 32-2. He said that he never experienced any symptoms of the condition while playing, no matter how hard he pushed himself. Physically, he appears in perfect condition, but with matters of the heart (literally), one must be exceptionally cautious. Barnes, however, has full confidence in Dr. Willerson's diagnosis.
"He (Johnson) has had the best medical care in the world and he wouldn't have been allowed to do this if they didn't think he was okay," said Barnes.
Johnson said that concern will always remain, but it won't be strong enough to stop him.
"I feel like it'll always be in the back of my head that on the court," said Johnson. "Anything could happen. Even my family, they told me that if it's a death situation, I didn't need to play. But this is what I do. I don't feel like I was brought this far just to turn back around."
Up next for the Longhorns is the TCU Horned Frogs. Johnson is looking forward to his debut and said he hopes to be a strong addition to the Texas front court.
"I want to be able to bring an inside game to the team and hopefully we can bounce back for this next game against TCU," said Johnson.
Texas Starting Line-up
G D.J. Augustin
G A.J. Abrams
F Damion James
F Gary Johnson
C Connor Atchley
The Horned Frogs roll into Austin with record of 8-4, but Texas' old Southwest Conference foe has lost all three of their road games this season, losing at Texas Tech, SMU and Rice. TCU's lone home loss is a 90-66 drubbing at the hands of Oklahoma back on December 2nd.
The player to watch for on the TCU roster is junior guard Henry Salter. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Salter is leading the Horned Frogs in both points (14.9) and rebounds (6.1). He's been especially deadly from outside the arc, hitting an astounding 49 percent of his three-point shots (30-of-61) this season. Underneath, Johnson will get a tough test in his first game, defensively, when he faces 6-foot-8, 245-pound junior forward Kevin Langford, who transferred to TCU from Cal and is averaging 14.3 points and 5.1 boards per game.
TCU is a stingy defensive team, holding opponents to just 69.2 points per game this season, while generating 19.9 turnovers from opponents per game, including 11.1 steals per contest. If both teams hold to form, expect a hard-fought, hard-nosed defensive battle and Johnson, being the wild card that he is, will likely contribute to that style of game with his aggressive attack on the boards.
Texas comes into the game with a No. 14 ranking in both the AP and Coaches polls and an 11-2 overall record this season, but the Horns have also lost their last two, a 78-72 loss to Michigan State in Auburn Hills, Mich. on December 22nd and a 67-66 loss to Wisconsin back home at the Erwin Center a week later.
Tip-off: 4 p.m. CST at the Frank Erwin Center.
TV/RADIO: The game will be televised in the state of Texas by Fox Sports Southwest. The radio broadcast will be on the Longhorn Sports Network and KVET (FM 98.1/1300 AM).
SERIES: Texas leads the series with TCU, 98-62. In the last meeting, Texas beat TCU, 102-81, in Fort Worth on Feb. 11th, 1996.