Shaun Livingston’s long road back.
Shaun Livingston’s most valuable asset is his vision. How do I know that? Because he has told us numerous times – as a teenage lottery pick or a twentysomething vagabond, owner of a healthy left knee or not, with or without a guaranteed contract. Livingston’s vision, his foresight, his ability to see; it was always there. And yet, ironically, the thing that motivates him most is the unseen. Something he’s never consumed on film, maybe never even in his mind.
By now you know the story. In February 2007, Livingston, during his first stretch of professional stability – he was starting for the Clips, playing consistently, playing in rhythm, showing more than just glimpses of that awesome potential – saw his left knee collapse like a sandcastle in a game against Charlotte. The ACL, PCL, MCL, the meniscus, whatever they are, were concurrently GONE. Livingston claims to have never watched the incident, and one can’t blame him. It’s nauseating, heartbreaking, wrenching – name the category. The setback was instantly tagged as career-ending. A promising career was nothing more than an empty promise; a line of injuries (shoulder problems as a rookie, lower back issues as a sophomore) just grew longer. Why couldn’t he just strain a muscle or have flu-like symptoms?
At the time, Livingston was something of an undetermined force, an unknown (yet exciting) quantity. Expected to do great things but still ways away, Livingston was widely assumed to be scratching the surface, tapping into those gifts. The signs were there: The open court skills, the unselfish nature, an improving shot, the length (a very Gervin-esque 6-7, 180), and of course, the vision. Dreams of the next big lead guard, though, went by the way of Livingston’s twisted left knee.
Turn a negative into a positive. Livingston used the next two years to rebuild. Not just his knee, but his responsibilities. He taught us more about himself as an inactive, injured 22-year-old than he did as a high school All-American, a lottery pick, or a Next Generation guard. He looked inside himself. No more taking things for granted, no more “getting by” on talent and ability; it was time to give something – to himself, to others. Livingston started a foundation in his own name; he visited kids in hospitals, he talked to youth about health and fitness, he donated clothes. At a time when most would be filled with self-pity, Livingston realized there was more to life. Whether he played another game or not, Livingston made sure his gifts were going to count.
And all the while, his knee slowly strengthened. The smallest of challenges were suddenly disguised as defining moments – walking, then jogging, then running. Livingston’s first dunk attempt, roughly 20 months post-injury in the solitude of an empty gym, left him sore. For two weeks. Baby steps, they’re called. Yet it’s one thing to rebuild physically, but mentally? How does he not relive the injury every time he drives to his left? How does he not feel that pain every time he puts on his knee brace? How does a young man, with it all in front of him, not let the incident that motivates him suddenly turn on him and disallow progress? I had questions. I wondered. There’s got to be a barrier there somewhere. And then I stumbled upon a Livingston quote that erased all doubt: “I’m not a success story. But I will be.”
Los Angeles tore up Livingston’s contract as his rehab neared completion in the summer of 2008. Damaged goods. Despite the Clippers giving up on their investment, Livingston represented a riddle, an intriguing question mark. His hoops IQ surely wasn’t damaged, he still had time to build his body and get his knee right, so he could be considered a calculated risk, a low risk. A workout with Portland in September of 2008 led to a workout with Minnesota. Miami signed him (at the advice of off-season chum Dwyane Wade) and then began an odyssey in AGATE type. He was traded to Memphis for a 2012 second-round pick, was waived the same day, latched on to that juggernaut known as the Tulsa 66ers, and, in March of this year, was called up to the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team whose image was once a lot like Livingston’s knee – shaky. That’s seven months, six cities, two leagues, and one oh so fragile left knee that had out-YouTubed the man it was attached to.
Before the age of 25 Livingston’s career had been split in two: a portion spent as a hyped, promising and awfully talented guard; another as a guy without a permanent home or contract or expectations, someone just happy for some run in the D-League. Teams weren’t pursuing that teenage phenom, but rather, someone who had oodles of talent hidden inside an unpredictable body. There was a chance he could get hurt again, but there was a chance he might not. If Livingston still had it, if he showed adequate health and a semblance of those well-documented skills, then great; if he didn’t, then no harm done. Kevin Pritchard flew out-of-state on behalf of the Blazers to see a workout – and opted against signing. Pat Riley, perhaps the most intrigued of Livingston followers, beamed at the possibilities of perfect health accompanying vast skills – and kept him for only three months. The compliments, the lauding of his passing, the admiration at his will and determination in overcoming such a great injury, they came without commitment.
Thunder GM Sam Presti, whose middle name is process, a man fixated on building and developing and planning, closely monitored Livingston. And, like everything else he does in meticulous fashion, Presti had a plan. Livingston made a late-season audition for OKC, played summer league, stayed healthy, and came to camp feeling good. All that remains from the past is a scar and a brace; what’s in front is a chance to start over. Today, it appears Livingston is ensconced as Russell Westbrook’s versatile backup. A player who once had the world in front of him is now a reserve on a team headed by players (Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, and Westbrook) of the same plight.
There is, however, an underlying tone: Livingston isn’t satisfied in just getting back. It’s his career he wants back. Playing without pain, appearing once again on an NBA roster, those things are fine – he won the battle, but it’s the war he wants. Those dreams that disintegrated with his knee two seasons ago have been rebuilt. Hopefully, this time, it stays that way.