October 18, 2018

There is a finite, almost minute point in the arc of an NBA star’s career when his last name becomes no longer necessary. Kobe. LeBron. Larry. Wilt. Oscar. Steph. Michael. It is a useful economy of words for fans, writers and talking heads that allows ongoing discussion of the game’s legends and their place in the overarching order of things. Their greatness is defined beyond their given surname.

On that arc too is often a more treacherous point; an otherwise tragic event that prevents promising young men from ever reaching orbit in the ethereal hierarchy of stars we align in our minds.  Grant Hill. Ralph Sampson. Bill Walton. Fantastic players all, but their discussion still requires name identification, not as a slight toward them but out of respect for those few orbiting above.

Shaun Livingston was the highest drafted high school guard in NBA history when the Clippers selected him fourth overall in the 2004 draft. Longtime voice of the Clippers, Ralph Lawler, spoke of the electricity surrounding Livingston’s arrival in a 2013 piece for Grantland by Jonathan Abrams:

“Having Shaun join the team gave you a reason to be excited to come to the gym each night, Lawler said. “You could see him grow. You could see him work on his shot. You could see him getting stronger and you thought this guy had a chance to really be special and be the type of player you could really build a franchise around.”

An autograph signing, legitimate high-school phenom, Livingston first decided to play college basketball for Duke. “The main thing about Shaun was his ability to pass the ball,” Krzyzewski told Abrams. “With his height, he was able to see some things that a normal point guard wouldn’t see. Even with his height, he was able to penetrate and make plays. He’s a beautiful player. Passing is one of the main things in our game that takes it to a whole other level. Shaun could do that as well as anybody.”

But after consulting with the NBA, and after conducting an eye-popping workout for scouts in Chicago, Livingston chose to enter that year’s draft. Famed trainer Tim Grover, who coordinated the workout, explained to Abrams what everyone saw in the skinny point guard. “In an hour, he made about two shots,” Grover said. “He was so nervous, but then we started to go through some ball-handling stuff and some passing stuff and he just mesmerized everybody. He had all the stuff that you couldn’t teach. You can teach someone how to shoot a basketball. But you can’t teach them how to see the court, how to pass the ball.”

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His play alongside Elton Brand with the Clippers early in both their careers gave the city’s second most popular NBA team reason for optimism. Livingston’s unselfish style and natural tendency to involve his teammates (not to mention a propensity for gasp-inducing passes) drew comparisons to L.A.’s more extroverted and legendary purple clad one-named point guard. But then came the night in February 2007; the point in the arc of Livingston’s career that would change his trajectory forever.

At risk of writing perhaps the most obvious sentence ever, I’ll posit that injuries in sports are common. Giant humans, finely tuned to maximize speed, explosive quickness and mind-blowing strength all together in a predetermined, confined space is in itself a recipe for disaster. And sometimes just a case of bad luck or misfortunate timing can lead to disaster. It was the latter scenario that Livingston was confronted with.

An awkward plant on a layup attempt after a steal on a cold night in February almost cost Shaun Livingston his leg. “My leg was deformed. My knee joint was dislocated and out of place,” Livingston told Marc Spears in a recent piece for The Undefeated. “It was painful. Ten seconds felt like an hour,” Livingston recalls. “It was only like 10-15 seconds. But until they put my knee back into place, it was excruciating for sure.”

Clippers’ team doctor, Dr. Steven Shimoyama, knew immediately the severity of Livingston’s injury. The dislocation was cutting off circulation to Livingston’s foot and not properly resetting it quickly could’ve led to gangrene and amputation. Fortunately, Dr. Shimoyama was successful in his first attempt to pop Livingston’s knee back into place. But that was only the beginning of his long road back. I just couldn’t move it, Livingston told Spears. “Stiff. It was like I had a spare leg. All of my quad was skinny. It was like a pole with a pineapple in the middle of it.”

One awkward plant led to months of rehabilitation and a journeyman’s life of just trying to find a spot on an NBA bench for the kid whose high school team had to hire security for to keep the fans at bay just a few years prior. Shaun Livingston’s, like so many others’, arc toward the NBA’s pantheon was forever interrupted in an instant. But it wasn’t the end.

For the next several years Livingston bounced around the league. The Heat, the D-league, Oklahoma City, Washington, Charlotte, Milwaukee, Washington again, Cleveland, and Brooklyn before finally landing with Golden State prior to last season. On the plane ride home last summer after winning an NBA championship with the Warriors, Livingston had time to reflect on his arduous journey. “I didn’t cry, but there were emotions,” Livingston told Spears and The Undefeated. “My adrenaline was too high. I was too pumped. I couldn’t sleep. I was just up thinking about how far I had come. While watching guys sleep with the trophy, everything was going through my mind like the path that I went through — playing with different teams, being in different cities.”

And in Game 1 of this year’s Finals on Thursday night, Livingston helped Golden State defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers with a team high 20 points. While the Cavs focus their full attention on shutting down Golden State’s superstars, Livingston’s play during this series will be critical for the Warrior’s chances at a repeat. And as the rest of the world watches LeBron and Steph battle to be the face of the league, it’s nice every so often to see glimpses of the lanky point guard from Peoria who came into the league with so much promise. While he’ll never orbit with those one-named legends, it’s compelling and inspiring to sometimes just watch Shaun.

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Travis Hale

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