words: Ryan Jones

The threats are directed at him, but Shaun Livingston is unfazed. Their words are brash, and they’ve got him outnumbered, but he doesn’t seem to sweat it in the least. If you scared, kid, say you scared. But…nothing. Shaun Livingston hears them, and their promises of impending harm, and all he can do is smile.

“Mark say he gonna mix you, Shaun.”

“Oh yeah?” There’s that grin again. He is unfazed. Maybe it helps that his tormentors are about 12 years old.

There are five or six of them, middle school-age kids congregating on the steps of the George Washington Carver Center in Peoria, IL. It’s early afternoon on Columbus Day, and the weather is cooperating, giving the local kids an unseasonably warm and flawlessly sunny day off from school. And so they’re congregating together in front of the Carver Center, one of those community gathering spots that acts as a magnet for area youth. They’d probably be here anyway, but they’ve got extra incentive today: Lingering out on the sidewalk, they watch Livingston—arguably the best prep point guard in the country—flash his supreme ball-handling skills for the benefit of a SLAM lensman.

And then they come with the threats.

It’s all love, of course—Shaun’s game is real enough that these kids might be expected to approach him with a sense of awe, but they know him too well to be star-struck. So they harass him instead, sounding as hard as they know how, challenging him to come into the Carver Center gym and get served. They’re old enough to know they’re overmatched, but young enough to think they might have a chance.

“You heard he said ‘mix you,’ right?” Shaun asks. “That’s like, to cross you over, embarrass you.” Yup, the new slang is mix-tape inspired. And in this town, they know all about it.

Understand, they’re nice with theirs in Peoria. Big Ten coaches have made a living there in recent years, with the likes of Illinois’ Frank Williams and Sergio McClain and Indiana’s AJ Guyton among recent Peoria stars to shine collegiately, while former DePaul standout Howard Nathan set it off in the early ’90s. They tend to be tough, and they tend to be even tougher to check. “Guys who come from Peoria can always dribble the ball,” Shaun confirms, “including the big guys.”

Maybe it’s something in the water of the Illinois River that flows along the city’s eastern edge. Whatever, there were others before, and there will be more to come; Shaun—a long, willowy 6-7 point guard who is the latest and may end up as one of the very best—is well aware of the legacy of which he’s a part.

“We’re not the big city, and the one thing about that is, almost everybody knows almost everybody,” Livingston says. “So you grew up and watched those great players—Frank Williams, Howard Nathan, all those guys—and you want to keep the torch going. I think that’s hopefully something I’ve been able to do—just keep expanding it.”

Expansion is a fitting concept, since Shaun’s rep has seen plenty of it lately. Starting with his MVP performance at the NBA Players’ Association Camp last June and followed by a standout run at the USA Basketball Youth Development Festival and a co-MVP effort at the adidas ABCD Camp, Livingston’s name and game got large in 2003. “I think the main thing was just consistency,” he begins. “I didn’t want to have a big blow-up tournament and then fall off. Anybody can have one of those. I think that was my main objective, to do it consistently and show everybody that the summer before wasn’t a fluke. I wanted to elevate myself even above that notch to try to get where I am now.”

As Livingston implies, the summer of ’03 was more of a confirmation than a coming-out party. He’s been considered one of the top players in his class for years—at least since seventh grade, when Sports Illustrated scribe Alexander Wolff rolled through Peoria for a chapter on a book he was working on. In Big Game, Small World, his 2002 tome to the global hoops culture, Wolff makes reference to a trick-dribbling middle schooler who, despite standing just 5-9 and 110 pounds, was “already ranked as the best prospect of his age in the country.” The seeds were planted even earlier. As he watches the photo shoot with a look of subdued pride, Shaun’s father, Reggie Livingston, shares some history. “He likes Pistol Pete a lot,” the elder Livingston says. “When he was younger, we’d get in the car, and he’d dribble the ball out the window while I drove around.”

In the years that followed, Shaun never fell terribly far from the top spot in the Class of ’04, but it was in his final high school summer that he made his claim as the best prep player in America not named Dwight Howard. “Dwight had the best summer, just because he was so dominant—but he gonna get enough love. That’s my boy though,” Livingston laughs as he bigs up Howard, the Atlanta-based big man who’s generally the only player in the country considered a better prospect than Shaun. “But I feel I had a pretty good summer.”

He should feel better than that. He was always good and often dazzling at the Players Association and USA Basketball events, but it was at ABCD Camp—with its over-the-top media attention and penchant for highlighting one-on-one matchups—that Livingston most publicly made his point. He opened the week with his worst game of the camp, getting lit up by top-20 Florida pg Darius Washington; while D-Wash nearly went for a double-double in his team’s blowout win, Livingston was held without a basket and managed just two assists. He’d blown all the momentum he’d brought into camp, leaving many observers (this one included) wondering if he was really ready to claim the title of Best PG in the Land. Shaun was having doubts of his own.
“That was something that I was struggling with that first day,” he says. “I think I doubted myself, confidence-wise, ’cause of the way the first day went. And I don’t think I should’ve done that. I was like, I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t meant to be here. I still feel I could’ve played better throughout the course of the camp, but gradually it kept getting better for me.”

Gradual became rapid on the last night of camp. Driving, dishing and scoring with flair during the week-ending Senior All-Star Game, smiling and laughing as his point-blank alleys were turned into an array of oops, Shaun showed off all aspects of his next-generation game. That all-star game performance was the exclamation point on his week; he’d done more than enough to put his name back atop the ’04 guard rankings. And given how deep the guard class is, that’s saying a lot.

A survey of the noteworthy recruiting lists shows a half-dozen seriously skilled point or combo guards (NYC’s Sebastian Telfair, Illinois’ Justin Cerasoli, Cali’s DeMarcus Nelson and Dorell Wright, Washington and Livingston) among the nation’s top 20 seniors. Others, like New York’s AJ Price, Cali’s Jordan Farmar and North Carolina’s JamesOn Curry, aren’t that far behind. Naturally, that depth means some will soak up the media shine while others
are overshadowed—and until this summer, at least, Shaun felt like one of the latter. The fact that he doesn’t fit the mold of most of his point-guard peers (6-footish and lightning quick) made it that much more obvious.

“I think it’s motivated me,” he admits. “Last summer, I felt I had a pretty good summer, and I felt I had good matchups against Darius and Sebastian. But they kinda stole the show, and I had to live with that. Coming back this summer, I wanted to take it to that next level, where they have to worry about competing with me.”

At least two of them will get their chance this winter: Livingston’s Peoria Central squad, a preseason top-10 pick, has games scheduled against Washington’s Orlando Edgewater and Cerasoli’s instate rival Aurora West. “They tried to get us on ESPN to play Lincoln, too,” Shaun says, referring to a matchup with Telfair’s Lincoln High squad that fell through. As it is, Livingston knows he shouldn’t be getting caught up in those overblown one-on-one battles. He also knows that he’s human. “It’s not good as far as being consistent, but right now, yeah, I think I get more motivated when I play against those top guys. That helps my determination,” he confirms. “I mean, it’s always gonna be there. That’s just part of the hype.”

Back in Peoria on Columbus Day, the hype is happily absent. While our man Thierry (lying on the concrete to get the right angle) clicks away, Shaun dips, lunges and twists for the camera; he’s precise with the rock, pulling his dribble to and fro, between the legs, up and back, at hard-to-fathom angles. He’s showing off, but only because we asked him to. As he stares through his lens, our man Thierry is getting mixed.

This is Livingston’s game in snapshot form, a long-armed yo-yo attack that’s nothing short of brutal for an opposing defender. There’s room for improvement—the J’s good but could use some work, and an extra 10 or 15 pounds wouldn’t hurt his lanky frame—but there’s no questioning his floor game. He may lack the hummingbird quickness of Bassy, D-Wash and the rest, but he knows he can counter those smaller cats with tricks of his own. “I’m pretty good with hesitations,” he says. “I play against a lot of guys that’s quicker than me, so I try to get ’em off their pace, change up the speed.”

Skills and the smarts to know how to use them—those qualities, along with terrific instincts and length that makes it impossible for most opposing guards to ever get a finger on his jumper, are why Livingston has long been one of the most coveted players in his class. As such, he essentially had his pick of schools, and as this issue went to press, he was on the verge of choosing between Arizona, Duke and in-state favorite Illinois.

For now, though, it’s all about home. About dreams of another state title, maybe even a perfect record and a national championship. About the legacy. About carrying the torch. Expansion. Peoria is always there.

It’s there when he talks about the tutelage of Frank Williams, the current Knicks backup and ’98 Mr. Basketball in the state of Illinois, who’s generally considered the nastiest of Peoria’s many nasty handlers. “I always credit Frank, going back to when he used to come up here and play,” Livingston says as he watches a pickup game on the outdoor courts across the street from the Carver Center. “I was always up here, and he took me to the side, played one-on-one with me, showed me stuff.” It’s there as he reveals his connection to each of the city’s high schools: Shaun grew up a Peoria Manual fan because Williams’ alma mater dominated the state in the mid ’90s, but he attended crosstown rival Richwoods for two years before transferring to Central. And it’s there when the local kids, who were mock-stepping to him just a few minutes earlier, crowd around like hungry hatchlings as he hands out some spare Rbk wristbands.

“There’s always guys that don’t want to see you make it and guys that’s gonna be jealous—I mean, there was probably a few guys that drove by and seen me taking pictures and be like, ‘Aw, he’s nothin’,’ you know what I mean?” Shaun reasons. “You’re always gonna have doubters. But the vibe here is mostly good.”

As we’re wrapping things up, Shaun asks if he can throw in some shout-outs. “Bridget, who did my hair—I promised her I’d try and mention her,” he says, referencing the tight ’rows tucked under his Jerry West-silhouette headband. “And my boy Booper, and AG from VA, and can you put in my godfather, Verdell Jones? I know I’m pushing it…” His parents get a mention, as does his grandfather, Frank Livingston, with whom he lives. You get the feeling Shaun would mention each of Peoria’s 100,000 or so residents by name if given the chance. The legacy is alive and well.