Living Proof

By Jammel Cutler #33

Shaun Livingston is warming up in Madison Square Garden, after running drills during pregame shootaround he’s surrounded by hordes of reporters during his media scrum asking questions about the Warriors successful season. He’s answering all questions with a smile on his face. Behind that smile is relief, relief that he’s a reliable sixth man on one of the best teams in NBA history.

This is something he couldn’t envision 10 seasons ago, when Livingston was one of the best prospects in the country.

“I didn’t know him until the McDonald’s All-American Game. To see a guy his size being able to do things that he was able to do with the ball was amazing. That was one of the reasons he was one of the top players in the country,” says Al Jefferson.

Jennifer Pottheiser /NBAE via Getty Images
Livingston was part of a prep-star-heavy draft that included No. 1 pick Dwight Howard and Sebastian Telfair.

Livingston was part of the 2004 NBA Draft as a high school senior. While the 2004 draft didn’t change the NBA landscape with foundational players, it did have many reliable glue guys that still have roster spots to this day. Most importantly, it was the peak of the prep-to-pro generation with eight high school players drafted in the first round.

Livingston was among high school basketball royalty, a class that included prep prospects Dwight Howard, Sebastian Telfair, Al Jefferson, among others.

“I have arguments about this all time, that we were the best high school class, just look at the guys that came out that year, and look at the career that they had,” says Jefferson, the 15th pick in that draft.

The prep-to-pro era was hit or miss, what if some players went to college instead of entering the NBA Draft? Many believe the 2004 draft combined with some high school washouts was the reasons the NBA instituted that players be one year removed from their high school class, and be 19-years-old before entering the NBA draft.

“When I came out maturity-wise, I wasn’t ready, the NBA has programs that helped young guys out, I had great veteran players that helped me out along the way—like Gary Payton and Paul Pierce” says Jefferson.

After being drafted fourth overall by the Los Angeles Clippers as their point guard of the future, Livingston struggled with nagging injuries and playing time early in his career. In his first two full seasons, Livingston averaged just 6.6 points,and 4.7 assists. By his third NBA season, however, he looked like he was turning a corner, averaging 9.3 points (on 46 percent shooting) and 5.1 assists in 29.8 minutes.

“When I got drafted, it was the best day in my life up until that point. It was a dream come true coming into the League. We all have hoop dreams where I’m from,” says Livingston, who was born and raised in Peoria, Ill.

Coming into the NBA, the 6-7 Livingston drew comparisons to another famous big point guard, Magic Johnson.

“I think the comparisons were just physical because of my height, I was flattered to be compared to a legend. Look at what he’s done for the League, and for himself. It was an honor, but at the same time it was some big shoes to fill, ”says Livingston.

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Livingston’s first two seasons didn’t exactly light the world on fire. His 6.6 PPG and 4.7 APG were a far cry from Magic’s almost 20 and 8 in his first two seasons, but Livingston was also the same age as Johnson when he was a sophomore at Michigan State. The Clippers were playing the long game, hoping to gradually grow Livingston into the point guard role, a position that has a steeper learning curve.

By 2006-07, things were looking up for Livingston and the Clippers. They had finished two games ahead of the Lakers for L.A. supremacy and the Clippers were coming off a playoff run in 2006 that saw them in the semifinals, ending an eight-year postseason drought. The Clippers were seen as one of the up-and-coming young teams in the NBA and Livingston was playing a part in the revival. Some standout games included a 20-point performance against the Sonics and a 14-point, 14-assist game against the Warriors.

During a four-game stretch in January, he scored in double figures, showing glimpses of his bright future. He had a 15-point, 7-assist game against the Knicks, a 10-point, 6-assist game against the Magic, 12 points and 9 dimes assist against the Heat, and 19 points, 8 assists, 5 rebounds and 5 steals against the Wizards.

The Magic comparisons might have been premature, but it was looking more realistic.

“I had a solid season, it wasn’t spectacular or nothing great but my career was trending upward in the right direction. I was beginning to find my steps in the League,” says Livingston.

Feb. 26, 2007 is a day that Livingston still remembers. It’s a death and birthdate in one. The death of a player who relied on his physical gifts and the birth of one that would lean on intellect and grit. In a game against the Bobcats, Livingston stole the ball and got out in transition. From there, he went up for a layup—nothing fancy, pregame layup lines have seen more flair. There was slight contact but no foul as the defender ran by to contest the shot. On the landing Livingston came down awkwardly on his left leg, the knee bending in a angle that it was not designed to do. The result was a complete detonation of the knee: a dislocated left knee cap, a torn anterior cruciate ligament, posterior cruciate ligament and medical collateral ligament and a dislocated patella.

“It was a lot of shock more than anything, I was in extreme pain but then from there it was the mental challenges and the fear of the unknown.”

“It was hard to watch, it still is hard to watch. I remember wishing for the best because that could’ve been anybody. It was just a freak accident”, says Dwight Howard, who was picked three spots ahead of Livingston as the No. 1 pick in 2004.

Each of those injuries would mean a long recovery process. All of those happening at once meant an end of a career, even at 21.

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

“It was a lot of shock more than anything, I was in extreme pain but then from there it was the mental challenges and the fear of the unknown,” says Livingston.

That horrific injury put his career in serious jeopardy. Many people felt his career was over.

“The cloud of doubt that was casted over my career gave me an intense fear. I didn’t know what to expect” Livingston says.

 

No matter who you are, life will knock you down with adversity. How people deal with adversity is how people are judged. For Livingston, it was no different. Livingston spent a year and half vigorously rehabbing before even stepping foot on a basketball court. His $5.8 million qualifying offer, usually a given when it comes to high lottery picks, wasn’t picked up by the Clippers after the 2007-08 season, making him an unrestricted free agent at 22. Livingston went from a sure thing to out the League in the blink of an eye.

“It was grueling, rehab was probably the toughest part of the injury just because of the amount of time, the consistency, and the hurdles that I had to go through.”

If you ask any pro athlete the rehab process is a rigorous task. For Livingston the dream of returning to the NBA turned into a full-time job, eight hours a day of intensive physical and mental rehab, and that was just to get back the motor function we take for granted.

“It was grueling, rehab was probably the toughest part of the injury just because of the amount of time, the consistency, and the hurdles that I had to go through. It was basically a three-to-four year period where it was up and downs until I was fully back into the League as an NBA player again,” recalls Livingston.

After his doctors cleared him to play basketball again, the grind restarted. He was back to square one. It was like he turned back into a teenager trying to make JV. He had to scrape off the rust from being away from the game for so long. On top of that, he had to relearn many basic basketball movements before the injury.

D. Clarke Evans; Garrett Ellwood; Gary Dineen; Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images
After his injury, Livingston suited up for eight NBA teams over nine seasons.

The comeback was complete when Livingston suited up in 2008-09 as a member of the Miami Heat, followed by a stint with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He might have been back, but Livingston was no longer the shiny fourth overall pick who teams saw as a game-changing player. Livingston even did a stint in the D-League during this time period.

“The D-League builds character and resolve, the D-league especially back then featured a lot of hungry guys that wanted to make it to the League. When they see an NBA player come down to the D-league they see it as an opportunity to prove themselves off of your name. So they bring it a lot harder than they would otherwise,” says Livingston. “The D-League humbled me in a sense, it made me work harder and appreciate all the opportunities that I had and take advantage of them.”

Livingston was a bit player at this stage, plugging a temporary hole for teams. He did show some of his former self. There was a 10-point, 7-rebound, 5-assists and 2-steal game against the Pacers, and a 14-point game against the Bucks. For the season, he averaged six points in just over 19 minutes of playing time over 12 games. Modest numbers, but given the fact that many had wrote off Livingston’s NBA career, those numbers were no short of a miracle.

Even while playing with house money, Livingston did not let up. Making it back to the NBA is one thing, sticking around is another. The following season started in OKC, but he was released in December 2009. This led to two 10-day contracts in Washington before the team committed to him for the rest of the season. Under Flip Saunders in DC, Livingston saw his playing time increase and showed flashes of the old Livingston. One performance that stood out was 18 points and 8 assists against the Magic, and a 14-point, 3-assist game against the Jazz. Over 26 games as a Wizard, Livingston put up 9.2 points and 4.5 assists.

The next season in Charlotte, Livingston played in 73 games which was a career high up in games played at that point.

Over the course of the next three seasons, Livingston would bounce around several teams (Milwaukee, Washington and Cleveland), auditioning for a permanent NBA spot. Everywhere he went, he would prove to be a good teammate while providing spot starts and a steady hand as a reserve point guard.

 

Jason Kidd, who was then the first-year coach of the Nets, put a call to Livingston to join him in Brooklyn. He would be a big part of a super team that featured Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce; Livingston was supposed to be part of a backcourt rotation of Joe Johnson and Deron Williams making a big splash in Brooklyn.

The Nets’ Brooklyn revival failed catastrophically (and are still paying the price for that home run swing) but things worked out well for Livingston in Brooklyn. He found his niche in the League as a sixth man who can run the offense and defend multiple positions. Injuries to Williams meant Livingston would start 54 games out of the 76 he saw action in, averaging 8.3 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 3.2 APG and 1.2 SPG. More importantly, it put an end to his vagabond NBA life.

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“That was a great opportunity for me just being able to play for one of the greatest point guards ever (Kidd), to have a relationship with him. He tutored me, and served as a great mentor. He helped me find new possibilities on the court. He gave me a shot to be able to play on a competitive team, not just on a team that was rebuilding. That season in Brooklyn gave me a shot to sign with the Warriors,” says Livingston.

“At this standpoint of my career…I’m just taking advantage of my role, and helping all the young guys that walk in our locker room.”

Livingston’s hard work in Brooklyn paid off when he signed a 3-year $16 million contract with the Warriors. His role on the Warriors was much different from the one he envisioned when he was first drafted into the League. Gone were the days of being the lead point guard. He became one of the many shapeshifting parts on a Warriors roster that thrived on versatility. On most days, Livingston is asked to run the second unit. When the Warriors went small, Livingston would share the court with his more famous nicknamed backcourt teammates. Livingston didn’t get the headlines, but he played a big part of the run the Warriors made to the championship. To go from being almost out of the NBA to holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy is proof of the hard work that it took to return to this level.

Livingston is no longer the spry youngster with the big hair and he no longer had the eye-raising speed and quickness that made GMs’ hearts skip a beat, but his game was still plenty effective. The court vision was still there. Instead of a blowing by his man and setting up his man with a dazzling pass, Livingston was now taking the efficient angle to the basket and making the right read on the play. Dunks are still there, just less emphatic and only when the situation calls for it. You won’t find Livingston taking part in three-point shooting drills against Steph Curry and Klay Thompson after practices. He’s only shot 64 of them in his career, roughly what the Splash Brothers clear in a week. Livingston prefers to use his midrange game—likely gleaned from his time with Sam Cassell during his Clippers days—posting up smaller guards before turning around to unfurl a reliable 15-20 foot jumper. On defense, he teams up with Andre Iguodala to form the anti-Splash Brothers, a long-armed duo bent on shutting down opposing swingmen. If his time in Brooklyn was his chance at NBA redemption, Livingston’s time in Golden State has been his victory lap to the doubters.

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“We were coming off a championship my first year here, so we started winning 24 in a row. It was a lot of hype—from the wins, to the streak and chasing history,” says Livingston. “This year we added Kevin Durant, and now we’re a superstar-built team. Now we have a lot of expectations with a lot of people analyzing us under a microscope.”

Livingston success continues with the Warriors as his role evolves with the team, not only is he an important part of the bench, he is now a mentor to the young guys on the team the same role that players like Elton Brand and Cassell played to him a decade ago.

“At this standpoint of my career—coming off a championship, being with a team that had success, when you add in my 13 year journey—now I’m kind of one of the elder statesman. I’m just taking advantage of my role, and helping all the young guys that walk in our locker room,” says Livingston.

Livingston is a free agent this summer. Golden State knows his value to the program they’ve built up over the last three seasons, but with four All-NBA caliber players on the roster, the cap will be stretched thin, making Livingston a luxury they might not be able to afford. Livingston won’t be fielding any max-contract offers, but he’ll have plenty of suitors looking to add a valuable piece of a winning team, a good leader of men and just as important to Livingston, a durable player. It took 10 years to get to this point and Livingston is savoring every moment.