Livingston's perseverance pays off
This is an online exclusive story from ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue 2014, which hits newsstands July 11.
Seven years later, after the long journey back, the vagabond existence, even his finest season in professional basketball, Shaun Livingston still won't watch the video. The memory is painful enough.
It was a common sight at the time: Livingston, the Clippers' 6-foot-7, 21-year-old prodigy, racing ahead of the defense, a blur of gangly limbs and tantalizing promise that had NBA cognoscenti comparing the point guard to Magic Johnson. As Livingston entered the lane that February night in 2007, Bobcats guard Raymond Felton offered a last line of resistance, darting between Livingston and the rim. Livingston reacted instinctively, rising off his right leg and moving the ball from his left hand to his right, preparing to scoop it into the hoop. But in the process of avoiding Felton, he didn't elevate as cleanly or as powerfully as usual, and he found himself leaning slightly to the right. As a result, he landed more quickly than he expected, similar to anticipating an extra step on a staircase. Unprepared for flat ground, his left knee buckled, then collapsed inward. The lower half of his leg snapped toward the baseline, whipping back then forth like a windshield wiper.
The ball bounced off the rim and the Bobcats went the other way with it. Livingston remained crumpled under the hoop, shrieking in pain. It was louder than the chatter at the other end. Louder than the groan of concern from the crowd. Louder, even, than Clippers announcer Ralph Lawler. Livingston drowned out every other voice in the arena. His friend Art Jones had been deep in conversation, his head turned away from the court, when Livingston's wails drew his attention back to the game. It had always been Jones' job to watch over Livingston. Years ago, when Jones was a teenager, he kept 2-year-old Shaun from wandering onto the playgrounds of Peoria, Illinois, while Jones' brother and Livingston's dad played pickup. From that point on, Jones became less a pal than a de facto family member. He guided Livingston through youth leagues, the AAU scene and the process of choosing the NBA over college, moving in with Livingston after the Clippers picked him fourth in the 2004 draft. The two called each other brother. That night, as he turned back to the court to spot Livingston writhing in pain, Jones saw his phone start blinking with texts from various Clippers staffers. He needed to get down to the floor. Right away.
Before Livingston was wheeled into an ambulance, one of the Clippers' trainers tried to brief Jones on the severity of the injury -- but the information didn't take. It wasn't until Jones and Livingston were sitting in the hospital room that they realized what was at stake. "You're going to need a blood test," Livingston's doctor said as she started to slip out of the room. "There is an artery in the back of your leg. If you damaged it, gangrene could set in. And then we'd have to amputate your leg."
He had dislocated his kneecap and torn three of the four major ligaments in the knee -- the ACL, MCL and PCL -- as well as both menisci. The blood test ruled out amputation, but "it was about as severe as you could get," says Dr. James Andrews, the famed orthopedic surgeon who would operate on Livingston.
The only glimmer of fortune was that Livingston had avoided nerve damage, which would have resulted in some loss of muscular control. Nerve damage is one of two issues Andrews refers to as the "kiss of death" for a rehabbing athlete. The other is the loss of nerve, in the psychological sense. In the weeks, months and even years to come, Livingston would not only need to go through a strenuous process of rebuilding his knee, but he would have to learn to trust it again, to believe that each leap wouldn't land him in another hospital bed. And he would have to summon that belief without any precedent for his injury. No basketball player had done similar damage to his knee, so there was no baseline for Livingston's prognosis. "I wanted to know how far it was going to be before I could play again," says Livingston, "and nobody really had an answer." Especially since one possibility was "never."
For a 21-year-old who was already the Clippers' starting point guard, it was a stunning turn of events. As Livingston lingered in that hospital room, his thoughts drifted toward another life -- one in which he'd have to enroll in school, invest his earnings wisely, find a path to replace the one that had led him to this bed. "How am I going to live?" he wondered.
Livingston had to wait two weeks for surgery so that some of the massive swelling could subside, an immobile state that tortured a player with the ballhandling wizardry and speed of a man much smaller. His greatest asset had been metaphysical, though. Livingston had that rare, marvelous trait: the ability to see plays before they developed. And his body worked as quickly as his mind, allowing him to create the angles necessary to deliver his prescient passes. "His basketball IQ at that age was amazing," says Elton Brand, a Clippers teammate. "I've never scored so easily as when I was playing with him. I loved playing with him."
Without his mobility, Livingston feared he wouldn't be able to act on that court awareness. In tearing three of the four ligaments, Livingston actually dislocated the knee joint and the patella. It was as if the knee had exploded. Andrews and Dr. William Clancy had to piece it back together like a model airplane. Even after surgery made the joint structurally sound again, two larger issues remained: recovering his range of motion and regaining his strength.
For an elite athlete, the body works against itself in the healing process. Similar to the way swelling develops at the time of an injury to provide fluid and nutrients to the damaged area, scar tissue forms after surgery. Much of the rehab process is about painstakingly breaking up that material to regain full range of motion. In Livingston's case, there was so much scar tissue that Andrews' team had Livingston on the rehab table the day after surgery. As pus leaked between the staples that held Livingston's skin together, physical therapist Kevin Wilk applied the full force of his muscles to Livingston's lower leg, sweating to bend Livingston's knee even 60 degrees.
"Because of the severity of the injury and the amount of structures that had to be repaired, the probability of getting stiff was five to six times greater than an ACL patient," Wilk says.
It was like a wooden leg. There was no explosion, no burst. It was just blah." -- Shaun Livingston
Twice a day, Livingston would wheel into Wilk's clinic and clench his teeth as the physical therapist attempted to bend his knee, inch by inch. Even if Livingston were able to regain full motion, it would be tougher still to recoup his strength. In just the two weeks from the injury to the surgery, his muscles around the knee shrank. His atrophied leg post-surgery resembled a stake driven through a melon: one long, skinny rod bisected by a bulging, swollen growth. Already at a disadvantage because of his slight frame, Livingston needed to build enough muscle mass to hold the kneecap in place, and then do more than that. He hoped to return to the NBA and, perhaps, the elite level that had once seemed preordained. "What did I really think?" Andrews asks now. "I thought we'd be very fortunate to ever get him back to high-level professional basketball."
Sometimes, that power never returns. Brand, for instance, tore his Achilles tendon the summer after Livingston wrecked his knee. His calf muscle atrophied and, after six years of training, it remained smaller than his opposite calf. "I couldn't push off to make a quick move," Brand says, "so I ended up jumping off two feet, which isn't as quick. With the athletes at this level, you're not going to score too many buckets that way." Brand, a 20-point scorer before tearing his Achilles, has not averaged more than 15 points for a full season since then.
Livingston's doctors and trainers also feared for his mental state. Upon returning to Los Angeles, a member of the Clippers' medical staff told Jones to closely track Livingston's pain medication. Given the strength of the pills and the devastation of the injury, suicidal thoughts were a potential side effect. When he heard that news, Jones says, "that was the only point where I cried." At night, Jones would tread silently into Livingston's room, lean over his bed and make sure his brother was breathing.
"I wasn't depressed," Livingston says today, "but it was depressing." Day after day, he'd lie in bed, leaving the house only to go to rehab. The meds couldn't fully dull the pain, and simply getting in and out of the passenger seat of his car was a challenge. He felt shaken by the injury, even irrelevant. To combat those negative thoughts, he focused on small goals. Within five weeks, he was able to toss his crutches aside and begin to walk. Two months later he graduated to the bike, four months after that to the pool and, eventually, to the treadmill for runs.
Livingston missed all of the 2007-08 season. The following summer, still with the goal of returning to the league, he was at last cleared for contact. This was Livingston's first major victory. It had taken him 16 months to gain it.
Shortly thereafter, at the Clippers' practice facility, Livingston faced off in a series of one-on-one games against forward Al Thornton, a lottery pick who had just finished his rookie season. Thornton won -- every single time. Livingston's leg "felt, like, mute," he says. "It was like a wooden leg. There was no explosion, no burst. It was just blah." He didn't know this leg, and he didn't trust it.
That moment could have -- maybe even should have -- shaken Livingston. But if anything, it had the opposite effect. Just cradling the ball in his fingertips again felt right. To sprint, compete, even take a foul, nudged him forward. "Even though I was carrying around that log of a leg, it was great," he says.
"It was like: 'Man, I'm back here. I'm back on the court.'"
But so much had changed while he was gone, including his position with the Clippers. Livingston's initial four-year contract was set to expire that summer. Before the injury, he would have perhaps been looking at an extension in the neighborhood of the five-year, $85 million deal that Dwight Howard, his fellow class of 2004 draftee, signed with the Magic. Instead, the Clippers acquired Baron Davis and offered Livingston only a minimum contract.
Livingston was dispirited, but he also understood: The Clippers couldn't wait forever. Without much of a commitment on the team's end, and after staring at the same doctors, trainers, dumbbells and ice tubs for more than a year, Livingston craved a new setting. So he turned down the offer and began searching for a new home.
Pat Riley called, promising little more than a chance in Miami -- a non-guaranteed contract with a team that had no investment in his recovery. Still, Livingston set off for South Beach and learned how to work with his new knee during training camp. Checking into his first preseason game in 2008, he allowed himself a moment: He was, officially, back. But that sentiment disappeared as soon as he tried to beat a defender off the dribble. "I wasn't the same," he says. The leg still felt wooden.
The Heat dumped him in January after he appeared in just four games. If he were to stay in the league, Livingston would have to adapt his play, at least until his knee fully recovered. In March 2009, the Thunder offered him another look. After playing for the D-League affiliate, then spending the last two weeks of the season in OKC, he learned he couldn't hesitate, freeze a defender, push off his left leg and dart toward the rim the way he once did. Now he used his size and 6-11 wingspan to get between an opponent and the hoop. Livingston began turning his body to shield his defender, backing into his man as an aging Sam Cassell had once done to him in Clippers practices. He could protect the ball this way, but the process exhausted him and narrowed his once-brilliant vision. Russell Westbrook called him Old School. He was 24 years old.
All the while, the knee required constant maintenance. He would have it drained periodically to reduce the swelling that would occur after each game. He received a platelet-rich plasma injection in OKC. But that just kept him on the court; it didn't recover his lost athleticism. He couldn't keep pace with the faster play. He appeared in just 10 of the Thunder's first 26 games in the 2009-10 season and scored in only four of them. Three days before Christmas, the team flew to Los Angeles to meet the Lakers. Livingston was lounging in his hotel room when the phone rang. It was Sam Presti, the team's general manager. Livingston had been released.
Jones was shopping at a mall for Livingston's Christmas gift when Livingston delivered the news. "I could just hear it in his voice," Jones recalls. OKC had a 13-14 record before the deal; the team would go 37-18 the rest of the way.
"That was the lowest point for me," Livingston says. "I wasn't able to make a team better. I was the weakest link."
As the days passed, Livingston began to ponder other options. He wouldn't quit -- he loved the game too much -- but maybe he should finish the season in Europe. Maybe he could latch on to an NBA summer league team.
Then the stupidity of Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton gave him a second chance. After the two Wizards were suspended in January 2010 for a now-infamous incident involving guns in the locker room, Washington needed a point guard. In late February, at the urging of Cassell, now a Wizards assistant coach, the team reached out to Livingston. Washington was brutally bad, on the way to just 26 wins, but that meant lots of playing time, lots of time to test his body, evolve his style of play. Livingston packed for D.C. Head coach Flip Saunders recognized Livingston's physical limitations and devised a way to harness the lingering brilliance in his game. Instead of tiring out Livingston by asking him to advance the ball upcourt, Saunders would often task his shooting guard, Randy Foye, with the duty. Livingston would then run the half-court offense, directing traffic from the perimeter or posting up against smaller guards down low. In his eighth game, against Orlando, Livingston dropped 18 points and eight assists; Saunders responded by moving him into the starting lineup for the remainder of the season. In 18 starts, he averaged 11.2 points and 4.9 assists. "I was putting people in positions to score," he says. "I was dictating. I was getting more comfortable, more confident."
Even though the Wizards selected John Wall with the top pick in the 2010 draft, teams took notice of Livingston's new role and recovering body. Charlotte offered Livingston two years and $7 million, the kind of permanence Livingston hadn't sniffed since his Clippers days. But the Bobcats didn't utilize him as the Wizards had, and he was traded to Milwaukee, which turned out to be just another temporary stop. In fact, over the next three seasons, Livingston was traded twice, cut twice and played for four teams, finishing out the 2012-13 season backing up Kyrie Irving in Cleveland.
He was no closer to living up to his old potential. Instead, he was a backup point guard who struggled in transition -- a hired hand that teams constantly thought they could replace with a better option.
Last summer, Livingston flew to Miami to work with a strength and conditioning guru named Manny Sumner, whose clients included Julius Peppers and Joe Johnson. Through much of his recovery, Livingston had avoided working with these types; he didn't think his knee felt up to the task. But Sumner asked him point-blank: "Have the doctors cleared you? Have you finished your rehab?"
"Yes," Livingston responded.
"Then we're going to treat you like a healthy athlete," Sumner said. "We're not going to hold back."
His knee had been structurally sound for six years now. That was no longer Livingston's problem. Fear was. Sumner believed Livingston could revive some of the athleticism that had died in 2007. But he had to be willing to challenge his knee without worrying about its collapse. Sumner created circuits that combined quick-twitch exercises like ladder and box drills with sled work, which emphasized overall leg drive. Livingston's knee didn't falter. In fact, Sumner says, "He had a motor like I've never seen."
One afternoon that summer, Livingston answered his phone and heard Jason Kidd on the other end, expressing the Nets' interest. Lured by the chance to play for a contender, Livingston signed a one-year deal with Brooklyn. He showed flashes of his old self: breaking the 20-point mark against Portland (in November), Milwaukee (in December) and Indiana (in February). Two days after the Indy game, he piled on 13 points, eight assists, seven steals and six boards against Philly. Livingston had moved into the starting lineup, and in the playoffs, he sank two free throws to seal the Nets' Game 7 first-round win over the Raptors. He checked D-Wade and LeBron in the second round while putting up 11.4 points and 3.6 assists a night. He had finally broken through. "It was the best year I've had in terms of consistency," Livingston says, before adding: "Way better than before the injury."
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In perhaps the greatest sign that Sumner had truly broken through with him, Livingston summed up the season by saying, "I feel like I could have given more."
The Warriors believe he could do just that. On Tuesday night, news broke that they had agreed to terms with Livingston on a three-year, $16 million contract. A team that views itself as a championship contender will commit the bulk of its available cap space to a guard that has played for seven franchises over the past six seasons. "You look at what everyone expected me to do coming into the year, and then you look at the deal that came in, and it's sweet," Livingston says.
The three-year deal -- longer than any contract since he was a rookie -- certainly drew him to Golden State, but so too did the fit. He can relieve Stephen Curry or play alongside the All-Star point guard. He can defend three positions and use his court vision to find a bevy of shooters. And maybe, with the full support of a franchise finally behind him, he can even keep improving by playing a freer, looser, higher-risk style than he was willing to employ while simply fighting to stay in the league. After all these years, he could once again be an impact player. "It's a remarkable situation," Dr. Andrews says. "There's no scientific answer to it."
What the Warriors will find is a player who is not all he once was but is close enough. His game is now a marriage of athleticism and wisdom -- less strenuous, more strategic. Still, those old flashes have been shining through since his first moment as a Net.
In Brooklyn's first preseason game last October, Livingston caught an outlet pass near midcourt. With the burst of a single dribble, he advanced inside the 3-point arc, past two defenders and into the teeth of two more. It had once been a common sight: Livingston, racing ahead of the defense, a blur of gangly limbs and tantalizing promise. Now he powered off his left leg -- that leg -- and elevated, streaking through the air to flush the ball between two Wizards. Upon seeing the dunk, the Nets' reserves bolted out of their chairs, their cheers louder than those in the rest of the arena, their expressions revealing exactly what they were thinking.
Was that really Shaun Livingston?
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