Three years, nine rounds of chemo: Garrett Johnson's path back to basketball

The morning of his collegiate debut, six months after his ninth round of chemotherapy, Garrett Johnson stayed quiet.

He didn’t listen to music. He wasn’t chatty with his teammates. He simply went about his day, reflecting on the past two years of his life and his recovery from a desmoid tumor — “noncancerous growths that occur in the connective tissue,” per the Mayo Clinic website — in his hip that nearly ended his basketball career.

“I’m not going to lie to you, I was nervous,” said Johnson, who scored 21 points (5-for-7 from the 3-point line) for George Washington in its 89-44 win over Stonehill on Nov. 6. He also scored 15 points against William & Mary on Saturday, and takes the floor again against Hofstra on Tuesday night at home (7 p.m. ET, ESPN+).

“But also, at the end of the day, what I kept telling myself was, ‘I’ve been through a lot of real life things in the last couple of years and this is a basketball game and it’s something I’ve done my whole life and it’s something that I love doing.’ This, for me, is the fun stuff. It’s what I dreamed of, for two years, of getting back to doing.”

The journey for Johnson, a 6-foot-8 forward, began in 2021, when he felt an odd tightness in his hip. The pandemic had shut down his senior season at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, but he stayed in shape by playing pickup basketball around town. The pressure lingered, however, and the pain only intensified over months.

His mother took him to her chiropractor, assuming he just had a stubborn knot in his leg. The woman who worked on her son, however, seemed concerned.

“She said, ‘This is not a knot,'” Johnson’s mother, Shubha, recalled. “She said, ‘Something is up here. This is something else.'”

So Johnson’s parents took him to a doctor for an MRI and CT scan. The doctor called back hours later and told them that their son had a rare, benign tumor in his hip. That phone call came on March 1, 2021, months before Johnson, who had committed to Princeton, was due to start his collegiate career.

“All of a sudden, I wasn’t thinking about basketball anymore,” Johnson said. “I was thinking, ‘Do I have cancer? What does that look like?’ I was thinking about life and death. That crossed my mind at that point.”

Doctors told him the tumor was potentially harmful but not cancerous — only a partial relief for Johnson. At its peak, the tumor in his hip grew to be nearly nine inches in diameter and caused significant pain.

More concerning, the Desmoid tumor sat near his sciatic nerve, presenting a possible challenge for his mobility. It could one day, doctors told the Johnsons, limit or eliminate his ability to walk. It was a stunning revelation for the teenager.

At first, they tried oral chemotherapy, but then switched to surgery when the tumor continued to expand instead of shrinking. Through a series of nine-hour procedures, Johnson’s medical team tried to reduce the size of the tumor. But every time they went back in, it had grown again. That’s when the infusion chemotherapy treatments started.

“There were days when I couldn’t really get out of bed or I would throw up in the morning right after getting up,” Johnson said. “I was so nauseous. It was a long process, but at the end of the day, I just wanted to do something that worked. I really wanted to be able to get back to playing basketball and get some relief.”

The treatments affected his strength and energy. While he joined the Tigers for the 2021-22 season, he couldn’t fully participate in workouts and subsequently redshirted the year. As the chemo continued into the beginning of the 2022-23 season, Johnson made the decision to leave school and go home to focus on his treatment.

The emotional and physical anguish was persistent, Johnson said. He couldn’t sit down because of the pain in his hip. He would often sleep just a few hours each night. After the chemotherapy port was placed in his chest in late 2022, he slept even less.

“He wouldn’t sleep flat,” his mother said. “He slept on his stomach because of the tumor. But because of [the port], he was [also] trying to sleep sitting up.”

Even as he underwent the treatments, though, Johnson never stopped training. The goal of returning to basketball, his parents said, was what helped him through chemotherapy. Most days he’d show up to the Healthy Baller Performance Center in Alexandria, where he worked toward his comeback, even while fatigued and exhausted.

“As a trainer, you always try to stay positive, but even in this, there were times where I was like, ‘Damn, he can barely even move these days,’ and I used to see him on the court doing some awesome things,” said Kane McGovern, Johnson’s trainer. “He showed me his effort and will.”

Then, in March 2023, Johnson received some good news: His tumor had gradually shrunk, and the doctors cleared him to play basketball.

Instead of returning to Princeton, Johnson decided to enter his name in the transfer portal, and he soon received an opportunity to audition for George Washington.

On March 21, Johnson underwent a final chemotherapy treatment in New York City.

On March 22, GWU offered him a scholarship. He accepted.

“We looked at the size, the athleticism, the shooting, and you go, ‘Here’s a guy who is going to be a really good player if he can be healthy,'” head coach Chris Caputo said. “And you had to have some trust he would be healthy. But ultimately, we felt comfortable taking a leap of faith.”

For those who’ve watched his journey over the past two years, Johnson’s return to the court last week is still difficult to fully describe.

“Basketball got him through this,” his father James “JJ” Johnson said. “I honestly don’t know how he would’ve gotten through this process if he didn’t have a dream and if he didn’t stay focused on his dream the whole time. It’s what drove him.”

On Feb. 28, 2020, Johnson scored 12 points for Episcopal High School in his team’s 74-65 loss to St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School (Alexandria, Virginia) in the state semifinals. That was his last official five-on-five action until he stepped onto the court at Charles E. Smith Center last week.

With 17:56 to play in the first half against Stonehill, Johnson caught a pass on the left wing and launched the first attempt of his collegiate career, a 3-pointer. In a magical moment, Johnson’s first shot as a Division I player swished through the net.

“It was crazy to hear the crowd react,” Johnson said. “It felt like I was running back on defense for an hour. Time slowed down in that moment. It was everything I’d dreamed of and more.”

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