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December 31, 2007

Longhorn Johnson's heart OK, expected to start

AUSTIN, Texas Gary Johnson worried his heart might keep him off the basketball court forever. Still, something told him he would one day be pulling down rebounds again.

For six months and 13 games, the Texas Longhorns' top recruit has been on the bench with an unspecified cardiac condition while doctors considered whether he should play.

Word finally came last weekend he's good to go. Johnson will suit up and start for the first time Wednesday when No. 14 Texas (11-2) plays TCU (8-4).

"I feel it's a gift being able to play again," Johnson said Monday as he talked with reporters for the first time. "Right now I'm taking it as that, trying to take every minute as a gift on the court."

Johnson's health has been a seasonlong subplot for the Longhorns, who started 11-0 before losing their last two games, to Michigan State and Wisconsin. Texas is counting on his muscle for rebounds and points near the basket.

The 6-foot-7, 235-pound forward did not know of any heart problems in high school. They were detected last summer at Texas' standard physical for new players.

Even though he's now cleared to play, the school and Johnson won't say exactly what they found. It was initially considered serious enough that Johnson worried it might force him off the court forever.

"I was told that once - there was a possibility I might never play again," he said. "That was hard to take."

Johnson said his family told him basketball wasn't worth risking his life.

"Even my family told me I don't really need that if it's a death situation," he said. "But I've always told them this is what I do, and I don't feel like I was brought this far just to turn back around. I've always kept faith."

Johnson was put under the watchful eye of Dr. James Willerson, president-elect of the Texas Heart Institute and president of the UT Health Science Center in Houston. It was Willerson who gave him hope he might play again.

"I went through a lot of testing and things like that. For a while I wasn't able to practice or anything. I had to sit back awhile and let everything unfold," Johnson said.

He was cleared to practice in early September and wore a monitor every day that tracked his heart rate and how it quickly it recovered from stress. Athletic director DeLoss Dodds and university president William Powers Jr. were kept apprised of his progress.

It took a long time for doctors to gather the information they needed. Johnson said he cried several times out of frustration and the fear of not knowing what doctors would decide. He was allowed to participate in a preseason exhibition but not the regular season.

Coach Rick Barnes said he put Johnson through the regular paces in practice. Barnes is a demanding coach who stresses the Longhorns must be in top condition if they expect to play.

"He's done everything we've asked him to. He's practiced hard," Barnes said. "He's had the best medical care in the world."

Johnson was relieved when finally told he could play.

"I kind of smiled," he said.

Johnson will wear the heart monitor in practice and games. The team began using the monitors as standard practice about two years ago and several players will wear them on a given day, Barnes said.

Johnson said he's ready to take the pounding and intensity of a real game.

"I've made it through all the practice," he said. "If you make it through one of coaches' practices, you can make it through anything."

The Longhorns are counting on their muscular forward. In their two losses, the Longhorns were beaten up under the basket, especially in the final minutes. Johnson is ready to bang the boards.

"I feel like I have everything to live for and shouldn't be scared of anything," he said. "I feel like I was faced with death at one point, nothing gets worse than that."



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