Kirk Wessler: Time, talent on Shaun Livingston's side
It’s funny to hear Shaun Livingston talk about age and aging.
One minute, he’s talking about a physical makeover. Right now, his hair is braided into cornrows that dangle almost to his shoulders, and when he lets it go into a full-blown Afro, he grows at least four or five inches, from 6-feet-7.
"I need a new look; maybe chop it off," Livingston says. "I’ve had my young period, but I’m getting older now. ...
He looks around the NBA and realizes that for the first time since he entered the league out of Peoria High School, as the fourth pick in the 2004 draft, he’s older than most all of the rookies.
But Livingston also looks around the NBA for the first time as a free agent, a man in search of a team willing to take a chance that he’ll recover from one of the most grotesque knee injuries you’ll ever see. That’s when he realizes, he’s only 22.
"I have youth on my side," he says.
Livingston was in Peoria this weekend to visit family and friends before heading to Chicago on Monday. There, he’ll work out at the Hoops Gym, run by Michael Jordan’s longtime personal trainer, Tim Grover. Over the coming weeks, reps from NBA teams will be invited to watch Livingston work out and evaluate what kind of a contract, if any, they should consider offering him.
"I think they’ll be surprised how mobile I am," he says.
At the same time, Livingston concedes, he’s not close to being ready to take on an 82-game NBA season.
He hasn’t played in a game since Feb. 26, 2007, when he tore the anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments, the medial collateral cartilage and the lateral meniscus, plus dislocated the patella in his left knee, while on a breakaway layup for the Los Angeles Clippers. The past 16-plus months have been all about surgery and rehab. Only recently did he resume playing basketball against a live opponent, and then only one-on-one. Livingston says he does that for 30-45 minutes, two or three times a week. The rest of his time is spent trying to get stronger and doing solitary drills.
If you wonder why any team would take a chance on him, stop. It’s called skill. The package of Livingston’s innate court vision and basketball IQ, complemented by extraordinary handles and ability to deliver simple and impossible passes with equal aplomb is on par with the best in his sport. That he brings those point-guard attributes to the court with a 6-7 frame and a 7-foot wingspan is a bonus.
The risk is all in Livingston’s health.
That’s why the Clippers didn’t exercise their option on his contract for next season. Neither they nor any other team is willing to pay $5.8 million — the minimum to sign him for the fifth year of his rookie contract — to a player who most likely won’t be able to handle more than backup minutes next season. But for fewer dollars, the Clippers have said, they’d like to have Livingston back on their roster.
Would he like to return to them?
"Yes and no," he says.
"Yes, because of the fact that Elton Brand will be back, and they picked up (veteran point guard) Baron Davis. Playing under Baron Davis the first year, I think, would help my post-rehab program. The doctors estimated I’d need a year to rehab, and it might take another year in addition to get back to the 82-game NBA grind. And I want to play for a winning team that has a chance to get into the playoffs.
"No, because there could be a better fit and situation for me, in terms of team and style of play."
If Livingston looks as good as he believes, however limited he remains, other teams might be willing to take a chance, too. If Livingston eventually comes back strong and durable, capable of running point as a starter in 2009-10, a lot of teams might love to have him. If the price is right.
It’s all business.
The sudden halt to his career has given Livingston "thousands of hours" to contemplate his life, on and off the court. "Reality hits hard," he says. "But that’s life. I think it’s allowed me to become stronger mentally, to evaluate things more seriously."
He has hooked up with a partner — "I want to keep him anonymous for now" — to learn aspects of the movie business and says he’s careful with his money, as well as the company he keeps. In basketball, though he still considers himself a point guard, he realizes that the injury — even when fully recovered — is likely to make it tough for him to guard Chris Paul-like points, and a position change might become necessary. That will require expanding his game.
Livingston is confident, though. He knows plenty of people — insiders and outsiders alike — have doubts about him. That’s fine. "I’ve fought that since coming out of eighth grade," he says.
"I just have to work harder. I’ll need to use my brain to compensate for what I’ve lost athletically. But if I don’t believe in myself, who’s going to believe in me? And really, I feel blessed."
Kirk Wessler is Peoria Journal Star executive sports editor/columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org