Shaun Livingston’s career nearly ended with a grotesque knee injury. Instead he’s a two-time NBA champion seeking another title
The awkward fall. The hushed arena. The stretcher on the court. The pain and the fear.
Everything about the scene of Patrick McCaw writhing on the floor during an NBA game this month felt all too familiar for Shaun Livingston, even 11 years removed from the play during which he could have lost his left leg and career at age 21.
For the record:
4:15 PM, Apr. 14, 2018An earlier version of this article said Dwight Howard, Devin Harris and J.R. Smith were the only 2004 draft classmates of Shaun Livingston still in the NBA. Luol Deng, Andre Iguodala and Al Jefferson are also finished the season as well.
Livingston followed McCaw, 22, and his stretcher to the ambulance to offer support as Golden State teammate David West placed a comforting hand on McCaw’s knee.
Livingston knew the weight of the moment. He too had been carted off, feeling fragile and frustrated as the world, even a game, kept moving.
“It was like déjà vu,” Livingston said. “As soon as they bring the stretcher out, it’s not even about basketball. Worst-case scenario kicks in: I hope he’s not paralyzed.
“One play can end a lot.”
McCaw was fortunate to emerge with a lumbar spine contusion, no neurological damage and a chance to return for the Warriors’ championship repeat bid that starts Saturday.
Given his more severe injury of a fractured patella and three torn knee ligaments, Livingston also feels fortunate to be part of this Warriors reign in his 14th NBA season.
Livingston went from nearly starting and ending his career with the Clippers to having only 30 active players boast more seasons played than him. He is one of only 10 players remaining from the 2004 draft.
“The advice I would’ve given my younger self is, ‘Be patient; just hold on,’” Livingston said. “I would’ve never guessed this.”
Livingston, who turns 33 before next season, also never gave up on it.
He missed a season while rehabilitating for 20 months. He was let go by six teams and traded by three others. He tried 10-day contracts and the D League. He did not play on the same team in consecutive seasons for eight years.
Livingston came into the NBA as the highest drafted high school player in 2004 with comparisons to Penny Hardaway and nearly left the game by 2007. Now, he is a key reserve for the Warriors, especially as they enter the first round without Stephen Curry.
“Shaun knows when to be aggressive,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said after Livingston had his second-highest scoring game (13 points) of the season against the Lakers when Curry was out last month. “He needs to score for us when Steph and Klay [Thompson] are out.”
The Warriors protect Livingston with a sub-20-minute role to keep him ready for each postseason, such as when he played the final 18 minutes of a title-clinching win against Cleveland in 2015. Even without Curry, Kerr keeps Livingston as a reserve to control his minutes and have his calming influence available for the end of halves.
“It’s just kind of ironic with how I came into the NBA with all the expectations,” Livingston said. “You would’ve thought coming in the way I did that my career would last long. You’d think I’d have my more peak years in the beginning or middle. Mine just came a little later.
“For the last six years, I’ve felt the best.”
People who survive head-on collisions would not want to watch a replay of it. That is why Livingston has never seen a YouTube video that has 2.7 million views.
“The mental hurdle is the hardest part,” Livingston said. “You’ve got to get behind the wheel after that car accident.”
McCaw was in fifth grade when Livingston’s leg folded under him like a buffet table leg. Many young players are unaware of Livingston’s fall on a breakaway and look it up.
“Yooooo, are you good?” Livingston said, imitating their reactions to him.
Livingston has played more than 70 games in five consecutive seasons. He has logged more regular-season and playoff games in the last five seasons (462) than in the previous nine (402).
The injury did not change his wingspan, which unfurls like Inspector Gadget. It only heightened the court vision and intelligence that made him a high pick when he did not have a notable mid-range jumper. Kerr considers him the Warriors’ best low-post player.
His effectiveness comes with year-round work. Livingston figures he would have to retire if he took a summer off.
Maintaining his physical ability requires constant attention to corrective exercises, weight training, diet and rest. Working with physical therapists for so long after his injury provided an honorary license and a blueprint for longevity.
An athletic dynamo gave way to an efficient, smart player.
“It’s like a gift and a curse,” Livingston said. “To have those injuries at a young age, it’s like, ‘[expletive].’ But if it’s not career-ending, it’s a gift because it gives you that awareness. Like, ‘Oh, [expletive], I’ve really got to take care of my body.’ As you get older, you see changes happening and beat them to the punch.”
When he won the first of two championships, Livingston said it felt like karma for all the terrible teams and horrible people he had endured.
It made the years with the Clippers worth it, although his memories and friendships are tainted by more than a horrific injury.
“I just had a hunch that this can’t be what the NBA is,” Livingston said. “Practicing at Southwest College. Cars getting vandalized. Then we move to the Spectrum Health Club and we’re sharing cubbyholes and lockers with members. This can’t be it. You go to other facilities to practice and you’re like, ‘Yo, they got all this?’”
Livingston looked at a comeback as climbing Mount Everest amid clouds. For a clearer view, he sought out NFL running back Willis McGahee’s doctors regarding his successful comeback from a knee injury that was more common among skiers. Livingston was not afraid of hard work, having grown up with a single father who repaired buses in Peoria, Ill.
He rode a carousel of opportunities with losing teams, where “it’s like looters in a riot” with players chasing numbers — stats and dollars.
He ascended and dipped. He ascended and plateaued. All along, the plan was for defense and playmaking to earn his way back to a winner.
“In my mind, this is how I was hoping it would play out,” Livingston said.
He had a breakthrough season in 2013-14 with Brooklyn as a full-time starter for the first time in his career. After that one-year contract, he had one NBA offer for another contract — Golden State’s three-year deal.
Livingston quickly accepted, pending a physical. He was worried, but not about his knee. It was an aching big toe that he did not realize was broken.
He shook and sweated with every lunge, feeling as though $16 million rode on the pain he was enduring.
“Bro, it’s OK, they are going to sign you,” then-Warriors trainer Johan Wang told him.
It was full circle from when he was riding to an Inglewood hospital in 2007 with Wang, then the Clippers’ assistant trainer, and his brother. That night at the hospital, a doctor told Livingston that his career might be over and that his leg might have to be amputated.
He was ready to run a race with no clear end in sight.
“Like Forrest Gump, I just took off and it paid off,” he said.
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