If you were born in the 20th century, you most likely witnessed an American tragedy. On February 26, 2007, NBA point guard Shaun Livingston collapsed from a layup attempt and obliterated his left knee in what was arguably the most grotesque sports injury in United States history. Prior to the disaster, Livingston was heralded as a basketball prodigy, drawing comparisons to the multifaceted Magic Johnson. Since his axle snapped, it’s been an uphill climb to remain relevant on the court.
Livingston was born on September 11, 1985 in Periora, Illinois. Basketball came naturally, as he led his middle school to consecutive state titles (1999, 2000), and secured two championships as a Peoria Central High School junior and senior.
Despite a bumpy performance at the McDonalds All-American game, Livingston continued to make scouts drool over his size (6’7”), speed, quickness and court vision. The guard retracted his commitment to Duke and entered the NBA draft, and the Los Angeles Clippers used clever maneuvering to trade down and select him at 4th overall. With Marco Jaric, Randy Livingston and Keyon Dooling struggling to run point duties, Livingston’s arrival was an answer to fans’ prayers.
From the onset, Livingston was slow to adapt to coach Mike Dunleavy’s half court offense, but the signs of brilliance were apparent in every appearance. Whether he showed off his dribble, blocked a shot or lasered a bounce pass, he found a way to seduce the heart of bystanders. Livingston normally came off the bench, because Dunleavy liked his spark. The distributor even played a role in the 2005 Clippers Conference Semifinal run, logging 25 minutes a contest in the regular season.
Darkness arrived on February 26, 2007. With 8 minutes left in the 1st quarter of a home game against Charlotte, Livingston initiated a fast break and leaped for a contested finger roll. He planted his legs at full speed and his left knee disintegrated, which was apparent from his agonizing screams that haunted the Staples Center. The diagnosis was a torn ACL MCL, and lateral meniscus, a severely sprained MCL, and a dislocated patella and tibia-femoral joint. Along with Livingston’s knee, Clippers fans’ hopes were also shattered.
Livingston vowed to return to the NBA, but he faced an unprecedented rehabilitation. Like a baby, he learned to walk after many falls. Livingston’s primary concern was re-aggravating the injury. “(My biggest worry is) probably coming back too early and complicating the situation,” he remarked. “I want to take my time.”
20 months later, Livingston finally returned to the floor. In the 2008 offseason, the Clippers discarded their former savior and he signed a two year deal with Miami. Livingston played 4 minutes in the campaign opener wearing a cumbersome knee brace. He warmed the bench for most of the season before being dealt to Memphis for a 2nd round draft choice. The team immediately waived Livingston and he was forced to work in the NBA D-League. The burst in his step was history.
Livingston understood he needed to reinvent himself, at an age when players were regularly entering their prime, so he reserved the film room to develop his basketball IQ. He parlayed 3 weeks of minor league auditions into a late-season contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Livingston could now position himself on the court to make himself a lesser defensive liability.
Local supporters rallied behind Livingston, but the reality was that his place on the squad was unnecessary with the presence of prospect Eric Maynor. The Thunder waived him in December 2009, and the former lottery pick inked a 10 day agreement with the Washington Wizards. Livingston managed to stick for the entire season with a resurgence that surprised his NBA peers. In 26 matches, he averaged 25 minutes and scored 9.2 points on 53.5% shooting with unheralded leadership. Still, Washington moved to replace him.
Bobcats owner Michael Jordan recognized Livingston’s talent and signed the point man to a two year, $7 million pact. Finally, the man found stability. He played 73 games as a backup combo guard and provided excitement in an otherwise dreary Bobcats season. And again he was traded.
Livingston arrived in Milwaukie and reprised the same role for the Bucks, and this past offseason he was flipped to the Houston Rockets. The 7 year veteran played consistently in the preseason, but he was released following the James Harden blockbuster. He finds himself in familiar territory.
It must be noted that at 27, we have seen the best of Livingston. He admitted, “My knee is probably 80 to 90 percent of what it was before the injury. To me, I feel I’ve peaked.”
Livingston will land another NBA job, but his injury history and frailty (he plays at 175 pounds) make him a risk for a multi-year commitment. The journeyman never developed a 3 ball, as his career 23.1% accuracy from long range testifies, so he plays his best between 10 and 15 feet from the basket. This placement allows Livingston to feed cutters, but his lost step prevents him from driving effectively. He is a solid mid range shooter, however, landing 41.6% of his attempts in 2011, so his height creates natural separation. Livingston’s lateral movement will always be a negative, but his long arms allow him to produce turnovers.
To recover from catastrophe, you must accept reality. Livingston deserves credit for not sulking and remaining steadfast on an NBA return. As fans, we need to close the floodgates on his once-overflowing promise and acknowledge he cannot compete physically with elite guards. It may take decades to erase the memory, but someday we can smile when we think about Shaun Livingston.