Full disclosure, I’m rooting for the Warriors in the NBA Finals. It’s easy to do, for several reasons. They’re the undisputed best team in the NBA with a 67-15 regular-season record. Stephen Curry is the best shooter of this generation and one of the best of all time. And with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love both out for the series, along with the Warriors’ 1-0 series lead, things are looking good.
For many, rooting for the Warriors is easy because they’re playing LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It’s hard for me to deny that I often root against him, for reasons you can read about here if you care. But unlike anything you might see on SportsCenter, this isn’t about LeBron. This is actually all about Warriors backup point guard Shaun Livingston, who has played an important role this year.
Livingston was drafted fourth overall in the 2004 NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Clippers, which was the highest that a point guard had ever been drafted straight out of high school. At 6’9” with tremendous ball handling ability and court vision, he drew comparisons to Magic Johnson.
He was only 19 years old when he came into the league, but he had Sam Cassell as a mentor. He was a big part of the future of the Clippers and performed well in 2006 in helping the Clippers win their first playoff series since the team moved to California from Buffalo. With Livingston, Cassell, Elton Brand and Corey Maggette, the future was bright for the Clippers.
But then came that fateful game against the (then) Charlotte Bobcats. Livingston was streaking down the court for a layup when he landed awkwardly on his leg. If you don’t know the play I’m talking about, it’s the one that makes the Paul George injury look like a paper-cut. There’s a wonderful piece about Livingston from Grantland that you should read, if you’re interested in something more in-depth about the injury. Here’s a description from the point of view of the team doctor, Dr. Steven Shimoyama:
“He could tell that Livingston had sustained a severe knee dislocation and wanted to lessen the agonizing suffering immediately. He prepared to pop the knee back into place, knowing the potential problems if it did not lock back in on the first attempt. Each subsequent attempt would have a lower rate of success than the last. The dislocation impaired the circulation to Livingston’s foot; gangrene could set in if Shimoyama failed. Worse, failure could necessitate amputation.”
Livingston’s career trajectory was altered that day, and as a basketball fan it’s hard not to feel for the guy. He missed the entire next season and then was released by the Clippers, which tells a sad story of their view of the odds of him ever playing again in the NBA. He went from point guard of the future to unemployed, 22-year-old former lottery pick.
I can remember seeing the highlight of the injury and the sinking feeling it gave me. It broke my heart, for more than just the obvious reason. You see, Livingston grew up in Peoria, Illinois, and I grew up about 70 miles away in Springfield. When I was in grade school, my tiny, Lutheran-affiliated grade school had a group of other tiny, Lutheran-affiliated grade schools in the general area that they played in sporting contests.
That meant I, all 5’7” and 110 pounds of me, had to play against Livingston’s Concordia Lutheran basketball team. Fortunately (or unfortunately), I was one of the taller kids on our team in eighth grade, so I didn’t play on the perimeter much. Without boring you with the details, I’ll simply say that we lost the game to his very, very talented team (eventually the state champions in our division). But what happened after is what made the lasting impression.
While his teammates cheered and celebrated in a way that was uncommon for kids in the late 90s in our league of tiny parochial schools, Livingston came over and congratulated us on a game well played and shook hands with our players individually. He wasn’t arrogant, when he had every right to be. After all, he was a future NBA player in a league mostly made up of 5’4” private school kids. He was gracious, even in beating a clearly inferior opponent.
That incident, plus the fun thought of watching an NBA superstar who I could say I once shared a court with in organized basketball, made me one of his biggest fans. As I watched him resurrect his career in short stints after being released by the Clippers, I knew he’d never turn into that superstar. The quickness was gone, and even prior to his injury he wasn’t destined to be a great shooter.
He’s only averaged 6.8 points and 3.4 assists over his career, but things have taken a turn for the better lately. After changing teams 10 times from January 2009 to July 2013, he eventually landed with the Brooklyn Nets last season. He played in 76 games while starting a career-high 54 and averaging 26 minutes played. It was his best overall season of his entire career, and it earned him a three-year, $16.6 million contract with the Warriors in the offseason.
He’s been the primary backup for the league MVP, getting into 78 games (a career high) and playing nearly 19 minutes per game. He’s playing a major role on one of the best teams in NBA history, which is far more than most expected after that dark day back in 2007.
I’ll be thrilled if the Warriors win the NBA championship because they’re coached by one of my favorite former Bulls, Steve Kerr. I’ll be thrilled because I enjoy when a team nobody picks before the season wins, which is the case with this Warriors team. And I’ll be thrilled because Steph Curry is so damn likeable.
But mostly, I’ll be happy for Shaun Livingston.