Pressing on at 21
The night Livingston injured his knee, he was told that part of his left leg might have to be amputated. It wasn't, but he has a new outlook now.
July 29, 2007 - He can bend his knee without grimacing. He can use it to lunge sideways and to lift small weights. He can count on it now when he walks, which he does without a limp. It has been five months since the fateful layup, and the quiet kid with the thin, tight cornrows says his left knee "feels pretty good … considering what it's been through."
All of this would be fine if the kid were a college intern walking files into the offices of
upper management at a Century City law firm. But Shaun Livingston, though he is only 21, is not that kid; and his knee, which we really haven't heard much about since an awful moment at Staples Center in February, is not a typical knee.
This is a knee marked by two long, fresh scars. Once, it had been counted on for big things: to carry an NBA player to fortune and fame, and to carry an NBA franchise to heights it has never seen.
Strange, isn't it, how fast things happen, how suddenly life can change? Now, here he is, Shaun Livingston ready to tell us for the first time in detail what it is like when a knee fails and the big things that it was meant to deliver go wanting " or, maybe, could still happen. Here's what it's like to be Shaun Livingston on the cusp.
A comeback? Or curtains?
His story starts like a basketball fairy tale. Solid kid, working-class family, raised largely by a wise grandfather, he turns down Duke for the NBA. Come 2004, and the Clippers take him fourth in the draft and promise him $12.5 mill for four years, even though his best basketball has been played in high school gyms scattered across the plains of Illinois.
He is skinny " willowy more like it, 175 pounds hanging on a 6-foot-7 frame. But right
away it is clear that this kid has gifts. He's smart, savvy, a pass-first, shoot-last point
guard with feline dexterity uncommon for a player his height. He misses dozens of games because his body breaks down, and sometimes he looks lost, tentative, overwhelmed " trade bait. But the next minute, he steals, leads a fastbreak, dunks " and good God, you can see it, he's going to mature into a cross between Steve Nash and Magic.
Then, on Feb. 26, at a home game against Charlotte, it happened. He drove for a layup
and came down in a gruesome heap. It looked as if he'd been shot. It was so ugly " the
twisting and dangling of his knee and the sound of it " that TV commentators warned the squeamish to look away during replays, which, of course, were repeated again and again, along with speculation that a promising career might have ended before it really began.
We lost track of him then. He went underground. The details of his injury and his hopes for a comeback trickled out, but only in drops. Now, however, the healing is well underway, and we tracked him down.
"Yeah, there's uncertainty," he said the other day. Dressed in a gray T-shirt and white shorts, he sat on a table at a West L.A. physical therapy center. He thumbed through Forbes magazine and poked at a pack of ice cooling his knee. "I have to remind myself that I've been blessed," he said. "I mean, my life could be a whole lot worse." The injury, he
added, could have been a whole lot worse.
That last play had started so easily. "Just a regular layup," he said, shaking his head. He remembers dribbling downcourt fast, one man to beat. He remembers lifting to the hoop, the ball flying softly from his fingertips. He remembers coming down a touch awkwardly, his
left leg landing, and then " snap! " his knee buckling.
"Pure pain," he said. He scowled just thinking about it. "Sharp pain in my knee. Like a knife.
Pain so bad it's hard to even describe."
The next thing he knew he was in an ambulance with a Clippers trainer and Art Jones, a
longtime friend. Livingston was still in his white, blue and red Clippers jersey, soaked with
sweat. His knee was so swollen that he couldn't put on his warmups. It's just a dislocated
kneecap, he thought. Four weeks of therapy, and he'd be back on the court.
Outside the emergency room at Centinela Hospital Medical Center, in a gruff part of
Inglewood, he heard screams from another ambulance. He figured they were from someone
who had been shot. Jones leaned into his ear and spoke of how fortunate he was, how so many black men his age ended up in hospitals with bullet holes instead of bad knees. Shaun Livingston nodded. He understood.
Inside the hospital, his knee was scanned for nerve and artery damage. He and Jones still can't shake the memory of what the doctors said: Part of his left leg might have to be amputated. He tried to fathom it. Minutes before he'd been playing an NBA game. Now he had to think about having part of his leg cut off. "It was pretty devastating," he said.
"But, really, it was so crazy I just laughed. What else could I do?"
The way he figured it, everything was out of his hands. So he sat in a small, windowless room with Jones, eating Popeyes chicken and watching TV. On the screen were Clippers highlights. When a camera showed his layup, he turned away.
The scan showed his nerves and arteries were fine, but still, the next day he learned that his injury was something awful " the kind of damage one might suffer in a terrible car wreck, one of the worst knee injuries ever suffered on an NBA court. In addition to jolting his knee from its moorings, all at once he'd torn three major ligaments: the ACL, PCL and MCL. (Let's just stick with the acronyms; we assure you that all three conspire to hold your knee together.)
Shaun Livingston is still small-town Peoria, Ill. He regards the glitz of Los Angeles with
caution. He appreciates attention, but he doesn't need it. So it was easy to lie low. He
researched doctors and decided who would operate. He flew to Alabama and spent hours under a knife guided by Birmingham surgeon James Andrews, who stitched, refashioned and patched his knee.
The Clippers point guard came back to Los Angeles, holed up in his beige, two-story Westchester home and pondered. Sometimes he reminded himself that if he'd gone to Duke, then he'd be entering his senior season, and the NBA would still be just a goal. But if he'd suffered this kind of injury in college, the NBA would be a distant, maybe unattainable goal.
He grew more patient, because with this kind of thing he simply couldn't rush. He says he became wiser, because the injury reinforced what his grandfather had always taught " basketball was not everything.
"This was a big wake-up call," he said. It "shines a brighter light on my life, the decisions
I've made, how I live. I plan on playing again. The goal is next season, even though I know
maybe I have to sit out all year…. Not playing again is a scenario that I guess could
happen. Instead of thinking that way, though, I'm thinking more about taking my game to
So the kid with a deep voice and the smooth, latte-colored skin rises early and drives his
baby-blue Chrysler 300 over to the Select Physical Therapy center, where he throws
himself into rehab. No sprinting or jumping " not yet. But he's ahead of schedule. He rides a stationary bike, steps up on boxes, lunges from side to side and ices. His doctor says his comeback chances are good.
In the afternoons, he plans for life after basketball. He's sharp and observant in ways that make it easy to imagine him thriving off the court, maybe heading off to Duke to get a
degree, maybe joining that Century City law firm. He keeps up on financial trends and
keeps tight track of his money. He has purchased real estate in Chicago and talks about
getting involved in the movie business.
Still, for Shaun Livingston it is far too early to give up on what means most. When he falls
asleep, he dreams sometimes of playing again. The knee "is feeling good and I'm out there, just killing, just running things again. It's an NBA game, like at Staples during the playoffs. I'm doing my thing, just in that zone.
"That's what I want to be doing again."
Just a hint of what could be.
Season averages for Shaun Livingston, who was drafted in 2004:
Year G MPG FG% 3P% FT% RPG APG SPG PPG
04-05 30 27.1 .414 .000 .746 3.0 5.0 1.1 7.4
05-06 61 25.0 .427 .125 .688 3.0 4.5 0.8 5.8
06-07 54 29.8 .463 .313 .707 3.4 5.1 1.1 9.3
Career 145 27.2 .440 .231 .710 3.1 4.8 0.9 7.4