We’ll never know how great Shaun Livingston would have become.
by Jay King / @CelticsTown
“[Shaun] Livingston is really a magician with the basketball, possessing stunning court vision and superior ball-handling skills. And unlike most 6-7 guys who can play the point but are really combo guards, he’s a pure point guard with a knack for making his teammates better. In time, he could develop into a taller version of Jason Kidd.” — Scout.com, 5/21/04
I hated Shaun Livingston when he first entered the NBA.
You see, I’m a Blue Devil fanatic. (Please, don’t even mention Kyrie Irving.) My favorite player as a kid was Grant Hill, and Bobby Hurley still inspires me. I’m the only person in America who owns a J.J. Redick Orlando Magic jersey, and I spent half my childhood (rough estimation) trying to replicate the most glorious 2.1 seconds of Christian Laettner’s career. So when I heard about a 6-7 point guard with a “Next Magic” ceiling, and that he had committed to Duke, I couldn’t have been happier. This spindly, spidery wonder kid would join forces with J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams, and together they would set the NCAA basketball world ablaze.
Except, you know the rest of the story. Livingston didn’t play a single game at Duke. He decided to forgo college basketball entirely to enter his name in the NBA Draft, leaving Mike Krzyzewski to wonder, “What if?”
Sadly, that same question has become the chorus of Livingston’s NBA years.
“We’re never going to see another Magic, which is unfortunate because that means we’ll never see another ‘The Magic Hour.’ But the pre-injury Penny Hardaway … now there’s a comparison. Penny was a better scorer; Livingston is a better passer. Other than that, they’re eerily similar, right down to the passive-aggressive body language, lanky physiques and jawdrop/nuclear/freakish/world-class athleticism.Say what you want about Penny, but if Livingston evolves into a more unselfish version of him, this would be a good thing. And, yes, I renewed my season tix for a third year solely because of him, even though I was on the fence after the Clips fans did The Wave during consecutive playoff games.” – Bill Simmons, ESPN
On February 25, 2007, if you told me Shaun Livingston would soon be an NBA vagabond, I would have laughed in your face. Then I would have called you a liar and told you to stop speaking. Forever.
Why did I choose that day, February 25, 2007? It was one day before The Fall. One day before Livingston’s basketball future turned upside down. One day before watching his accident made me vomit a little in my mouth.
There were a lot of ways I thought Livingston’s career might play out, but as a vagabond? A nomad? A player bouncing from team to team, looking for a role and a situation he can thrive in?
Not Shaun Livingston.
He was special.
Let’s flash back for a second. It’s 2006, and the Clippers actually mean something in the NBA scheme. Not just because Blake Griffin is some evolutionary mixture of Shawn Kemp and Karl Malone, either. The Clips are on their way to the Western Conference Semifinals. (I know, it’s difficult to imagine the Clippers in the Playoffs, let alone actually winning a series.) But these Clippers are talented, and they are exciting. I actually find myself rooting for the Los Angeles Clippers. Definitely never thought this would happen.
Elton Brand is at the pinnacle of his powers, and Sam Cassell still hasn’t retired his big-shot, big-balls dance. Cuttino Mobley’s heart still works properly, and he is a hell of a basketball player. Chris Kaman is starting to show promise, and Vladimir Radmanovic still has a pulse. Corey Maggette is injured for much of the season, but returns for the Playoffs. As always, he can put the ball in the basket (and draw an obscene amount of free throws). These Clippers aren’t your father’s Clippers. They are legit.
Livingston tickles my point guard fetish. He is impossibly long, able to see over any defender who tries to stop the young toothpick. He is quick, too, and explosive. And he plays both ends of the court.
But length, athleticism and defensive capabalities alone can’t describe why we are so eager to see Livingston’s future unfold. His game holds a flare you have to see to understand, and a panache shared only by the great ones. The game comes easy to him, it is not difficult to see. He sees plays progressing in a way few others can. He has unique physical skills few point guards in the game have ever possessed, but that isn’t the only thing which sets him apart. Livingston displays a feel for the game you can’t teach.
And he is only 20 years old.
We don’t know exactly what Livingston’s future holds, but almost everyone agrees his potential is off the charts. There is greatness within this tall, wispy, afro’d Lil’ Penny, from Peoria, Illinois.
“Forget about what happens in Round 2 — this is the one guy who could single-handedly alter the Lakers/Clippers big brother/little brother dynamic in Los Angeles. And yes, after Games 4 and 5 of the Nuggets series, we need to adjust his ceiling from ‘Penny Hardaway in the mid-’90s’ to ‘Magic without the charisma.’ Not saying he’ll get there … just saying that’s the new ceiling.” – Simmons
If you saw it, you remember it.
Livingston stole an errant pass from the Charlotte Bobcats, and took off for the opposite hoop. He’d assuredly done this a million or so times in his basketball career, and this time shouldn’t have been any different. He was going to beat his defender down court and lay the ball into the basket for two points. No big deal.
Only this time, Livingston, attempting to avoid defender Raymond Felton, rose into the air a little awkwardly. He missed the layup, and when he landed on the court, his leg snapped underneath him like a Kit Kat bar.
Livingston had been injured before, but this was different. This was enough for ESPN to offer a warning before showing the highlight (more like lowlight). This was enough for me to regurgitate part of my lunch.
Said Clippers physician Dr. Tony Daly, “It’s probably the most serious injury you can have to the knee.” Daly added, “I’ve seen people who’ve had this done by other people and it hasn’t worked out.”
NBA.com’s description of the injury was almost a five-paragraph essay: “Livingston suffered tears to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), medial collateral ligament (MCL) and lateral meniscus. Livingston also suffered a patella dislocation, in addition to the previously diagnosed tibia/femoral dislocation.”
The sickening fall was enough to make even an ER surgeon squeamish. There was even some talk the leg might have to be amputated. The amputation didn’t turn out to be necessary. But in its place was a rehabilitation period that seemed like it would never end.
The injury occurred on February 26, 2007. Livingston wouldn’t play in another regular season game until Oct. 28, 2009.
By then, he barely resembled the blossoming talent who had captured our imagination.
“He’s playing at the speed of the YMCA league. We’ve got to get (him) to play the speed of the NBA.” — Larry Brown, 12/11/10
There’s no shame in the path Livingston’s career has taken. That Livingston successfully made his way back to the NBA at all is an accomplishment in itself. That he hasn’t made it all the way back to “Next Magic Johnson” form isn’t disappointing. It’s expected.
Livingston’s return reveals heart, and his willingness to play a bit role on a sub-.500 team shows an endearing lack of ego. He’s making the best of a situation that seemed doomed almost four years ago, when doctors pondered whether his leg would need amputation. Livingston’s even playing pretty well. He should be proud of where he is, coming from where he’s come.
But the injury robbed us of Livingston’s prime. It robbed Livingston of his prime.
The thing is, we never know what The Willowy Wonder would have become. Would he have been the next Magic Johnson? Would he have led the Clippers back from the depths of NBA embarrassment? Would he have won titles, or MVPs, or redefined the point guard position? Would he have been Jason Kidd with three more inches? Penny Hardaway with a pure PG’s mentality? Would he have returned Showtime to L.A., this time for the Clippers?
Once in a while, Livingston makes a move that shows a glimpse of what could have been.
He stutter steps, and his defender lunges one way while Livingston explodes the other. Livingston’s rangy legs cover ground like a cheetah, and three steps after his move begins, he is at the hoop. His right arm extends like it could reach the top of the square, and for a second Shaun Livingston could be 20 years old again, with NBA greatness in his sights and a realm of possibilities at his fingertips. He keeps rising, and that long arm keeps extending, and the world is the way it should be, and Shaun Livingston is fulfilling his potential, and that defender never stood a chance.
But then Livingston lands, and he is in Charlotte rather than L.A. He is coming off the bench, and he has never made an All-Star team, and it looks as if he never will. He is playing efficiently and providing a steady hand, but there is little spectacular about the player Shaun Livingston has become. The panache that once left us breathless is mostly gone.
In its place is the one question which will likely haunt Shaun Livingston forever.