DENVER — Erik Johnson pored over the game footage from last year, not so much to study his University of Denver women's basketball squad as to search the fringes of the frame for a glimpse of that precocious kid.

Inevitably, the youngster would pop up on the screen.

Johnson would spot him dancing with the cheerleaders, climbing on railings; sometimes his beaming face was plastered on the big screen.

The images of the affable kid around the court at Magness Arena were both heartwarming and heart-wrenching.

That boy was his son, Davis, who died suddenly on May 6 after an undiagnosed precondition led to a twisting of his small intestine. He had just turned 4 years old.

"I miss him," Johnson said. "My wife misses him, my daughters miss him and my team misses him, too.

"He should be here."

Dealing with the loss has been difficult, especially here, on the court, with basketball season starting. Hoops has always served as Johnson's escape, his sanctuary from the real world.

But everywhere the Pioneers coach looks these days, there are little reminders of Davis.

At practice, Johnson can almost picture Davis on the floor running around, clowning around with his players, who used to pitch in and baby-sit.

In the locker room, where his son would saunter in after a game and climb into someone's lap as his dad gave his postgame speech.

And especially when looking at game film, as virtually every home contest featured the fun-seeking Davis getting caught on camera in some fashion, whether it was greeting the team with high-fives before the game or entertaining the crowd by donning size 12 shoes and trying to make a shot during a break in the action.

Watching those tapes again has been difficult — and a delight.

"I don't look back saying I wish I would've paid him more attention or I wish I would've loved him more. Not possible," Johnson said. "Same with my wife, Laura. Every night, we'd say, 'Can you believe what your son did today? Is he not the cutest thing ever?'

"We didn't miss a minute, and he squeezed every ounce out of his four years and 16 days."

That boy who bounded all over the arena, all over practice, has brought this Pioneers squad even closer. He was like their little brother, the players taking turns watching him and his two older sisters, Daly and Avery.

And he admired the team.

In fact, Davis' wish for his third birthday was to have the entire squad over to his house to dance to "High School Musical" in between bites of macaroni and cheese.

"At one point, he turned to everybody and said, 'This is the best birthday ever!'" Johnson said. "It was a wonderful thing to say and ended up being very prophetic."

To honor Davis this season, the Pioneers will wear patches bearing his initials on their jerseys. They will also keep a locker for him.

Just small remembrances for their biggest little fan.

"This teaches you how you need to enjoy life," said Kaetlyn Murdoch, a junior forward from Temple, Texas. "Enjoy every moment."

Months later, Johnson still chokes up talking about his son's death, still way too emotional, too raw.

In medical terms, Davis had an intestinal malrotation that caused a catastrophic twisting of his small intestine, cutting off the blood supply and leading to a large portion of his small intestine dying. No one knew until it was too late.

As sad as Johnson was, as much as he wanted to retreat, he simply couldn't.

Not with his wife and two young daughters grieving, too.

"When your daughter says, 'Daddy, can you pour me a bowl of cereal and read me a book?' You can't stay in bed," Johnson said. "You get up, you pour the bowl of cereal and you read the book. Having Daly and Avery, they've been a huge key in Laura's and my ability to just get up and put one foot in front of the other and breathe in and out."

His team also has been instrumental in the mourning process.

In the wake of the tragedy, the players got together to see how they could help the family. They took Johnson's two daughters to movies, to dinner, anything they could think of to give Johnson and his wife time to just grieve.

For that, Johnson will always be appreciative.

The Pioneers also elected to stick around over the summer, work on their game following a season in which they went 18-13.

"We wanted to be in the best basketball shape ever. Just so that his life is easier this year," Murdoch said. "We know it's going to be a hard year."

Sure, the return has been challenging. Johnson knew it would be.

Embarking on his third season at Denver, Johnson has good days and bad. His team can sense when he's having a rough time, knowing that's when they need to pick it up.

"There's no way we can comprehend what he's going through," Murdoch said. "Whatever we can do to make his life a little bit easier, that's what we're going to do."

There were some dark times when Johnson didn't know if he could return to the court, if the memories might prove too overpowering.

But coaching has always been a passion, the court his haven.

Since his playing days at the University of California-San Diego, Johnson has gradually worked his way up the coaching ranks.

He was an assistant at Boston College for three seasons before landing his first head coaching job in 2008 with the Pioneers, who are slated to make the switch from the Sun Belt Conference to the Western Athletic Conference in 2012.

So far, he's been able to keep his emotions in check.

"What we do is emotional, it's competitive, it's draining," Johnson explained. "And some of those questions are not answered yet. What am I going to be like when a tough game on the road gets nasty and there's a bad call and a couple of my players are struggling on an emotional level? Am I going to be ready to go? I sure hope so."

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To cope with their loss, the family has been going through counseling at Judi's House, a program founded by former Denver Broncos QB Brian Griese in memory of his mother, who died when he was 12 years old.

The support group teaches children and their parents strategies to deal with death.

"We're doing everything we can to try to heal," Johnson said. "There are still times when we look at pictures and cry together. We watch the videos and we're really sad that he's no longer with us.

"You have to take time to miss him, to grieve, to cry. You also have to remember the good stuff, and keep living your life the way he would've wanted us to live our lives. The way he wanted to live his."