The oak fought the wind and was broken. The willow bent when it must and survived.
In the Hulu Theater of Madison Square Garden, high hopes immersed Shaun Livingston. It was 2004, draft night. Livingston was expected to join a very elite club that included as members Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and LeBron James. But none of the 26 high schoolers drafted before Shaun Livingston was a point guard. Shaun Livingston and fellow draftee Sebastian Telfair were trying to make draft history on June 24, 2004.
Six years earlier in 1998, 19 year old All-Star Kobe Bryant shattered the myth that only big men could thrive in the NBA without a college career. But Kobe was a scorer, not a point guard. A point guard bypassing college was foolhardy. The learning curve was too steep. Point guard is the toughest position on the court. Coach on the floor, making teammates better, offensive threat, defensive skill, mental toughness are just some of what is required plus a little bit of arrogance. College was considered a must.
But there are exceptions to every rule. Shaun Livingston was that, a prodigy from Peoria, Illinois. He was Mr. Basketball in his state, a 6-7 playmaker with a 6-11 wingspan and sick handles. He had length and athleticism. He was explosive around the rim. His body needed some work as did his jump shot but he was close to a 5-tool player and was classified as the top point guard in the nation and the second best player overall. Livingston initially was going to Duke. And then, he did a U-turn.
Perhaps it didn’t matter to Shaun Livingston that the best point guards had college tutorials. Magic Johnson- two years. Isaiah Thomas- two years. Bob Cousy-four years. Jason Kidd- two years. John Stockton-four years. Livingston was trying to reinvent the wheel. But often when that happens, change for change sake, the wheel just breaks.
Historically, the Los Angeles Clippers were clueless, particularly on draft night. They passed over Kevin Garnett and drafted Antonio McDyess. They passed on Kobe Bryant for Lorenzen Wright. When they drafted Michael Olowokandi in 1998 with the overall first pick, they could have drafted Dirk Nowitzki. The next year they drafted Lamar Odom, who as soon as he could, got of town. In 2000, the Clippers drafted Darius Miles, a high school player who was short on maturity and high on athleticism and dunks. The problem was he didn’t think the game. The Clippers drafted another high school player, Tyson Chandler, but they should have drafted Pau Gasol. They traded Chandler to the Bulls.
The year before drafting Livingston, the Clippers drafted big man Chris Kaman. Livingston was to be a compliment to Kaman; Livingston wasn’t a project, His rookie year, Livingston played in 30 games and averaged 5 assists and 7 points. He wasn’t much of a shooter and barely took any threes. The next year, he doubled the amount of games he played but took less shots. The third year, when high school players usually thrive, Livingston averaged 9 points and 5 assists.
And then February 26 happened, and another Shaun Livingston U-turn.
It was a routine game in the dog days of the NBA season. It was a fast break and a missed layup at the Staples Center against Charlotte. Livingston in midair landed at an awkward angle and then there was the scream. It curdled the blood. Agony and trauma filled the Staples Center into a deathly whisper. It was funereal. The entire arena was silent as if they knew this was more traumatic than another Clippers draft pick going down in flames. This was the end of the Clippers future.
At the hospital Livingston was cautioned. Amputation was a possibility. Torn ACL. Torn PCL. Torn lateral meniscus. Injured medial collateral ligament. Dislocated patella. Dislocated tibio-fibular joint.
Shaun Livingston was 21 years old on the worst night of his life.
Shaun Livingston is the greatest comeback story the NBA has seen, from near amputation to NBA champion. Resilient, he defied the odds of his doctors when he walked again after months of therapy. Then he ran. Then he got on a basketball court.
The Clippers basically cut him, deciding not to extend a qualifying offer a year after the injury. That summer doctors cleared him to play and he joined the Heat. He was a shell of himself. Livingston was traded to Memphis and then waived. Then it was OKC’s D-League team that offered him a contract. He signed with the Thunder but was waived again. Washington, Charlotte, Milwaukee. Same thing. The Rockets waived him.
Livingston was now 26 years old. Washington took another chance on him before they waived him. He played in Cleveland post LeBron James.
Six years after his injury, and five years of trying to regain his career, Shaun Livingston signed with the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2013. Brooklyn needed a backup to Deron Williams but Livingston filled a need in the starting lineup, a strong defender who had an ability to score. 23 points against Portland. 20 points against Milwaukee. 24 points in Indy. 25 points in Philly. It was not who Shaun Livingston was supposed to be, that phenom point guard, but it was the next best thing. After a restructured knee, and years of trying to make it back, Livingston proved he had a place in the NBA. He could make an impact on defense and had a stellar mid-range game.
Golden State was looking for backup guard help and signed Livingston the following season. They were not taking a flyer on him. They signed him to a 3-year $16 million deal. In the Warriors first championship, Livingston was their best defender with a defensive rating of 104. In their three titles, Livingston made 54% of his shots, mostly mid-range. Winning the title in Cleveland in 2015, Livingston played 32 minutes, a miraculous circumstance considering eight years earlier he feared losing his leg.
Shaun Livingston by the numbers isn’t real impressive. 833 NBA games in 14 seasons. 48% field goals. 17% 3-pointers. 2.4 rebounds. 3.0 assists. 0.4 steals. 6.3 ppg. His best offensive rating (118) was this past year when he played in pain for 64 games and made 51% of his shots. His best defensive rating was (104) his first year in Oakland.
But Shaun Livingston’s resilience is extraordinary. He was waived enough times to make other players quit. Greg Oden couldn’t go through another rehab and another team and mailed his dream in while Livingston continued to reclaim what he lost. What he lost he could never recover but he reinvented himself. The old Shaun Livingston was a dream that died; the new Livingston made an impact for a championship level team as a quality role player.
Because we honor stars and those who achieve under pressure, what happened to Shaun Livingston, and how he made it all the way back and won three rings, gets swept under the rug. We often don’t honor those who inspire others not to quit, to keep getting up after getting knocked down. Mike Tyson said everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Shaun Livingston’s plan kept getting reworked and he never lost his humility, faith and confidence. He was the quiet player that escapes notice, edged out the frame by the superstar. He wasn’t a star. But he was super at not giving up. Resilience is a skill just as shotmaking is a skill. Most would never have stuck it out all those years. But Livingston believed in himself and kept his eyes on the prize. And then the prize was a championship parade. Three times.