The Golden State Warriors were in trouble the other night in Game 1 of their playoffs with the Houston Rockets.
Then, suddenly, there was No. 34, bailing them out, making passes that needed to be made and gliding to the basket time after time.
Los Angeles NBA fans have been abandoned in May by the never-a-factor Lakers and the folding-like-a-dinner-napkin Clippers. Still, the Warriors of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are too good and too much fun not to watch.
So we did. And that’s when it all came rushing back, like a bad dream, or one of those moments we thought was suppressed for good.
No. 34 is Shaun Livingston.
The mind went to Feb. 26, 2007. The mental pictures were still there, horrible and horrifying. Clippers versus Charlotte. Just another game in the interminable NBA season. Just another loose ball scooped up and another drive to the basket for a layup.
But not just another landing.
We were maybe 20 feet away on press row in Staples. In a flash, everybody knew. Part of it was the scream. Part of it was the look on the face of then-Clippers Coach Mike Dunleavy, who seemed to sense severity immediately. Mostly, it was Livingston, curled under the basket in a fetal position, his left knee looking strangely as if it had sprouted another knee cap. On the side of his knee.
Unnecessarily it seemed, the game went on, as if it were actually important at this moment. Livingston’s layup had missed and Charlotte scooped up the ball and headed the other way, to be defended by the remaining Clippers. At that moment, it seemed so heartless, so insignificant in the face of what had just happened.
To his credit, the Clippers trainer, then and now Jasen Powell, didn’t wait. The game went on at the other end, but he was over Livingston before any whistle sounded.
All sorts of thoughts flashed through our mind. This kid is the Clippers’ future. He gave up a chance to play at Duke to turn pro right out of Peoria Central High School in Illinois. This could be the end of basketball for him. No college education. No nothing. What would he do?
There was also instant recall of the worst sports injury in our memory. A University of Wisconsin football player named Pat Collins made a tackle and suddenly was kind of pawing his way along the ground on his stomach in obvious agony, the toes on one of his feet pointed skyward. A completely dislocated ankle.
If possible, Livingston’s injury seemed worse.
The sad thing about sports, and life, is that we move on. Livingston’s story was prominent for several weeks, then drifted away, along with his career and our attention.
At the time, the Clippers’ head medical man, the late and renowned Dr. Tony Daly, had confided that this was the “worst kind of knee injury a person can have.” Livingston had dislocated his knee — his entire knee, not just his kneecap — and in the process tore three of the four major knee ligaments.
They got him to the hospital, after Dr. Steven Shimoyama gingerly maneuvered the knee back in place on the floor and reduced the incredible pain. Once in the hospital, Livingston was told that, if test results were not good, he might lose the leg.
One minute, you are 21 years old, the highest guard draft choice in league history right out of high school (No. 4 by Clippers, 2004), and the next you are left to ponder life with a prosthesis.
And even if they saved the leg, which they obviously did, you face multiple surgeries and more than a year of rehabilitation. That to be followed by more years of fear and doubt.
Once, you were being touted as a 6-foot-7 version of Magic Johnson, with a sky’s-the-limit career. Instead, as a later article in ESPN The Magazine said, your knee had been left in such shambles that it had to be put back together “in pieces, like a model airplane.” When you started your rehab, they tell you your injured knee has the range of motion of a 90-year-old man.
For a long time, Livingston’s comeback attempts seemed to end when he played a handful of games and was released. The tally was nine teams in seven seasons. He had a nice run with the Brooklyn Nets last season, then signed with the Warriors and is in their rotation, no small thing making it with the best team in the NBA’s regular season.
Now, here he was, saving Golden State’s bacon in a game it had to have. Livingston scored 16 points in the first half and 18 in the game. Thursday night, Golden State won again for a 2-0 series lead. Livingston made all four of his shots and also had four rebounds.
We knew he was back. We didn’t know he was back this far.
We wondered whether his special teammates from that 2007 Clippers team, Sam Cassell and Elton Brand, were watching somewhere. If Dunleavy stopped in front of the TV to take special notice and remember. Or maybe Ralph Lawler, who was certainly there that night and has seen it all with the Clippers.
Shaun Livingston will turn 30 on Sept. 11. He is not the next Magic Johnson, nor will ever be. But he did what many medical people, and most fans, assumed he couldn’t and wouldn’t.
With the Warriors, he has a three-year contract worth $15 million. In the NBA, that’s nice-contributor status, but far from star money.
Still, it’s hard to imagine there are many better comeback stories.
So, if you need a rooting interest now that the Lakers and Clippers have left us without one, check out Golden State’s No. 34.
If you wince a bit when he flies through the air to the basket, that’s allowed.
Follow Bill Dwyre on Twitter @DwyreLATimes