If Shaun Livingston had merely kept his leg and learned to walk again, that would have been enough. If Livingston had been cleared to play basketball, perhaps just recreationally, as a way of maintaining a relationship with the game for which he showed so much promise, that would have been enough. If Livingston had made it back into the NBA, even just to step on the court for a single second to prove he’d done it, that would have been enough. If Livingston had started a single game, or played a single season, or won a single championship, that would have been enough.
Livingston retired from the NBA on Friday, 15 years after he was drafted and 12 years after the knee injury that seemed almost certain to keep him off a basketball court for the rest of his life. He spent his final five seasons with the Golden State Warriors, winning three championships as a pivotal part of one of the best teams in basketball history. He accomplished so much more than enough, destroying every best-case scenario for what seemed possible after what happened to him.
If you’ve never seen Livingston’s injury, you’re lucky. Maybe it’s safe to watch now, knowing that everything turned out OK. Maybe not. There is no preparing for watching a human leg snap like a plastic straw bent by a fidgeting toddler.
Livingston was a thrilling prospect before the 2007 injury to almost every part of his left knee, a phenom the Clippers picked fourth overall out of high school in the 2004 draft. Livingston was a 6-foot-7 point guard with a flair for whistling passes that nobody watching thought would be possible. He was a teenager with an old-school vibe, with an occasional Afro that pushed his height to 7 feet, and seemingly no awareness that the NBA had introduced the 3-point arc in the late 1970s. His body didn’t make sense, with outrageously skinny arms and legs that seemed like they had been stretched in Photoshop. How could those chopsticks support that human?
Apparently, they couldn’t. What’s stunning about the injury is how routine of a play it was—not a crashing play with violent contact, just a routine layup with soft defense. Livingston tore his ACL, PCL, and meniscus, sprained his MCL, and dislocated his kneecap. It was as if there had been a small car crash localized entirely on the middle of his left leg. Doctors checked for gangrene and considered amputation. At 21, a promising NBA career seemed over after just two and a half seasons.
But the leg was saved, and Livingston learned to walk again. Sixteen months after his injury, doctors told him he could play basketball. Twenty months after his injury, the Miami Heat signed him. While it was a triumph that Livingston took the court again, it seemed clear he wasn’t the player he once was: Livingston played just four games with the Heat before they traded him for a top-55 protected draft pick (a.k.a. nothing) to the Grizzlies, who waived him.
It took 20 months for Livingston to work his way back onto the court, but I’d say the actual recovery time was closer to seven years. That’s how long it took him to resemble the player he was before the injury. But with each step along the way, he got closer. After the Heat, he played for the Thunder’s D-League team, and got a few call-ups. After the Thunder, he was deemed capable of playing real NBA minutes, albeit as a late-season signing of a Wizards team tanking for John Wall. After the Wizards, he found his first full-season gig, playing 73 games for a 34-win Bobcats team. And then the Bucks, and the Wizards again, and the Cavaliers. With each stop, he regained more power, going from a charity signing in Miami to a bench guy to a rotation guy to an occasional starter.
It became clear he was all the way back in 2013, when Livingston signed with the Nets. He proved a defensive stalwart and willing passer on a team with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett. The Nets started the year 10-21 but rallied to the postseason after Livingston entered the starting lineup.
And then the Warriors came calling, and that’s when the years of hoping without reason paid off, as Livingston found a meaningful role on basketball’s preeminent team. The dynasty-era Warriors often seemed like this inhuman monolith, a basketball supernova that your fandom or hatred couldn’t alter in the least. They were going to dominate. Aside from LeBron James’s superhero miracle in the 2016 Finals and a pair of season-ending injuries in 2019, that’s what they did.
On this team of untouchable gods, Livingston was a lovable human. His style seemed entirely countercurrent to the Warriors: On a team that redefined how the NBA thinks of 3-pointers, Livingston was a guard who never shot them. In 102 Golden State playoff games, he attempted zero honest 3-pointers, taking just five attempts from beyond the arc, all of which were from beyond half court at the ends of halves and quarters. All missed.
Livingston was the master of the midrange. He took 44.5 percent of his shots with Golden State from between 10 and 16 feet. On average, just 9.6 percent of total shots in the 2018-19 season were from that distance. He loved putting his back to a smaller guard and taking a turnaround jumper as if it were uncontested. I don’t feel like checking what Livingston shot on those midrange shots, because I don’t want to ruin my belief that he hit 100 percent of them.
Oddly, he fit in Golden State. While defenses scampered to cover all the galactic 3-drilling geniuses, Livingston glided through empty spaces for 13-footers and silky layups. He stuck the landings this time.
From time to time, he was critical. He had an 18-point night in Game 1 of the 2015 Western Conference finals, finishing second in scoring as the Dubs took a 1-0 lead in Golden State’s first championship run. He started seven games in the 2016 playoffs, and put up 20 points in Game 1 of the 2016 Finals. He went 8-for-10 that game: a layup and nine midrange jumpers.
It was his second-highest point total in his five seasons with Golden State, regular season included, and it powered the Dubs to a 1-0 lead. (Don’t ask about the next six games.)
Did Livingston have the career he would’ve without the injury? No, almost certainly not. He posted career highs in points, assists, and rebounds the season he was injured. A budding superstar before the fall, he never averaged 10 points per game in his career.
But even with the injury, Livingston had a pretty great career. He outlasted two of the three players picked ahead of him (Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon) by several years, and seems significantly happier about everything than the third (Dwight Howard). Even if he had made an All-Star team or two in his 20s, it’s hard to imagine a better finish to a decade-old career than five years as a role player on the perennial champs.
Like one of the perfectly threaded bounce passes of his youth, he hit bottom and, somehow, even though nobody watching thought it was possible, bounced exactly to where he was supposed to be. Was it as high as he could’ve gone? Does it matter?
Livingston made me rethink what it means to be successful. We will all fall. But the only thing that makes one a failure is hearing what others think we’re capable of and agreeing, something Livingston never did, even at his lowest moments.