Some nights he wouldn’t make it back to his dorm, sleeping instead on a couch in the nearby team room.
“I don’t know what it was. I just felt like I needed to be there in the gym,” Johnson said. “I would wake up in the morning and start shooting again. I wasn’t going to class a lot at that point. I would just shoot.”
The shots were therapeutic more than preparatory because at the time it wasn’t clear whether he would play competitive basketball again. In early 2021, toward the end of Johnson’s senior year of high school, doctors discovered an aggressive, noncancerous tumor in his left glute. He was sidelined from his sport for nearly three years, had four surgeries, dropped out of college and underwent nine rounds of chemotherapy.
Now, just a few months after receiving his final treatment, he has returned to the game he loves at George Washington. After an emotional debut last month, Johnson has settled into college basketball with ease. Named Atlantic 10 rookie of the week in each of the first two weeks of the season, he is averaging 13.1 points and 6.6 rebounds as the Revolutionaries have gotten off to a 6-2 start ahead of their game Tuesday night against Navy.
“Basketball was the thing that kept me going — the hope that I would get back on the court,” he said. “But there were definitely days that I didn’t believe that was going to happen.”
Johnson has always been a basketball player. He spent his childhood playing on a Little Tikes hoop in the basement with his brothers and watching a lot of Duke, his father’s alma mater. When Garrett scored 42 points in a game in first grade, his parents — J.J. and Shubha — realized the sport was going to be a part of their son’s future. By third grade, he was traveling the country playing AAU ball.
“He was committed to basketball from a very early age,” J.J. said. “It was always his favorite thing to do.”
At Episcopal, an elite private high school in Alexandria, Va., Johnson blossomed into a college prospect. At 6-foot-8, he could handle the ball, shoot from the outside and attack the rim with surprising athleticism. He committed to Princeton the summer before his senior year, telling The Washington Post in July 2020 the choice was a “no-brainer.”
That winter, the lingering coronavirus pandemic wiped out any hope for a normal season. Instead, Johnson and his Episcopal teammates spent the winter playing in an unofficial high school league held at the St. James, a sprawling fitness center in Northern Virginia. It was during those games that Johnson first noticed something was wrong.
It wasn’t pain, necessarily. It was just a tightness around his hip. An odd feeling. He felt a step slower when he attacked the basket, but nobody else seemed to notice. So, for a while, Johnson just kept playing.
By February, the feeling became impossible to ignore, and he told his mother about it. Shubha took him to her chiropractor, who often helped the boys with soft tissue issues. The chiropractor told them it didn’t feel like a knot.
An MRI exam revealed it was a tumor. The next step was determining whether it was cancerous.
“I remember it was hard to sleep in that time,” Johnson said, “just not knowing what it was, knowing I had this mass on my body.”
Doctors told him it was a desmoid tumor, a rare noncancerous growth that occurs in connective tissue. Johnson’s tumor was located near his sciatic nerve, making the treatment process more complex. Removal surgery carried a long-term risk to his mobility. Johnson, so focused to that point on his future as a basketball player, was now having conversations about his future ability to walk.
The first procedure, called a cryoablation, took place in August 2021 and lasted nine hours. The goal was to freeze and destroy some or all of the tumor. Two weeks later, Johnson left for Princeton.
He arrived in New Jersey on crutches, unable to climb stairs or sit comfortably. His parents hoped the cryoablation would help, that he would be healthy in time for the start of the season. Johnson, dealing with the anxiety of his medical status, the struggles of freshman year and the logistical challenges of a pandemic, had a less optimistic view.
By the midpoint of that first semester, it was clear the cryoablation had been ineffective and Princeton would have to redshirt him. In his worst moments, Johnson was visited by a nagging question: What if I never get better?
“Especially once we got the scans back and saw that first surgery did nothing, I was just dejected,” he said. “A really bad place mentally. I was skipping class, not doing my work. It was hard for me to be present and invested in my education.”
He fielded questions from friends and former teammates who were expecting to see him with the Tigers. Was he hurt? Suspended? In the transfer portal? Johnson, opting not to go into specifics, would tell them he was going through a medical situation and, no, he wasn’t sure when he would return.
As the situation progressed, Johnson would travel back and forth between Princeton and Northern Virginia and, later, Princeton and the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. He had another cryoablation that December and a chemotherapy embolization the following March. That procedure, involving an injection of chemotherapy drugs into the arteries around a tumor, also proved ineffective.
From the beginning of the process, traditional chemotherapy had been on the table as a last resort. The Johnsons were always hesitant. J.J. had lost multiple family members to cancer, and he had seen firsthand the toll chemo can take. But in the summer after Johnson’s freshman year, doctors told him the tumor was as big as it had ever been, and yet another cryoablation was futile. A new course of action was needed.
Johnson decided not to return to Princeton for his sophomore year. In August 2022, he started chemotherapy.
Life became simple and hard. Johnson underwent his first few rounds of chemo in Northern Virginia before moving to Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York. He would travel the day before a treatment session to get a scan. He would undergo bloodwork early in the morning. There were hours of waiting, followed by hours of sitting to receive treatment. He would watch movies on his mother’s iPad or chat with his girlfriend, wishing time would move faster.
After a session, on the days when he wasn’t plagued by nausea or overcome by fatigue, Johnson would work on his game. Now that he was home from college, basketball became his sole distraction from the grind of chemotherapy.
“If he could get out of bed, he was going to work out,” J.J. said.
The first signs of progress came in early spring. Not only were scans showing the tumor shrinking in size, but Johnson started to feel physically stronger, more like his old self. The guarded, pessimistic view he had developed after so many failed solutions started to fade. Johnson started to believe he would get better.
This was good news, but it also introduced a new set of concerns. Johnson had last played a competitive basketball game in 2021. Would there be an opportunity for him in this new, unpredictable college basketball landscape?
“I hadn’t played basketball in 2½ years,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of players in that transfer portal. So I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to earn an opportunity. Just had to believe in my abilities.”
The coaching staff at George Washington heard about Johnson through local connections, and they attended one of his private workouts. Happy with what they saw, they invited him to work out on campus. In late March, days after his final round of chemo, he committed to GW. He joined the team shortly thereafter, hoping his months of solo work would help him keep up. They did.
“Even in the summer we could tell he was a guy who’s got it,” Coach Chris Caputo said. “I’m not surprised at how well he’s playing because he’s a really good basketball player. I’ve just been surprised at how quickly he’s been able to go about things.”
On Nov. 6, George Washington opened its season with a home game against Stonehill College. An early-season game against one of the weaker teams in the Northeast Conference was never going to be one of the highlights of the season. But it meant everything to the long-armed forward in white, wearing No. 9 to remind him of what he had been through. Johnson hit his first shot, a three-pointer, two minutes into the game.
He kept shooting, scoring 10 of the Revolutionaries’ first 17 points. In his first game in years, Johnson finished with 21 points and nine rebounds.
“It’s just uplifting to see your child have joy,” Shubha said. “That night was about basketball — believe me, this family is about basketball. But whatever your kid is interested in, to see them doing that thing again is an incredible feeling.”
Johnson himself was lost in the regimen of a typical game day. It wasn’t until the end of the night, after the 21 points and the blur of a news conference, that he was able to take it all in. That was when he saw his family waiting for him outside the locker room.
“Going through it, you don’t get to sit back and see the whole thing,” he said. “But they had seen it all. They saw me at my lowest. Seeing them after put it all into perspective for me, just how special it was to be healthy and playing basketball again.”