Inside Nets Catalyst Shaun Livingston's 7-Year Recovery, in His Own Words

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Inside Nets Catalyst Shaun Livingston's 7-Year Recovery, in His Own Words
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Shaun Livingston. The story we can't get enough of this season.

You know the horror: a near-total demolition of his left knee in 2007. You know the heroism: making a complete comeback and now being offseason "priority No. 1" for Brooklyn Nets general manager Billy King.

But what you haven't heard yet is Livingston himself, in his own words, tell the full inside story of his injury, recovery and seven-year journey around the NBA.

Speaking with Bleacher Report, the 28-year-old point guard shared raw and intimate details, like first being wheeled into the hospital and feeling moved by a gunshot victim nearby; the most painful parts of rehab with pus and blood leaking out of his knee; going from a lottery pick to a breakout player to basically a year-to-year journeyman; and now, seven years later, finally feeling the healthiest he's ever been since the accident as a key playmaker for the playoff-bound Nets.

If you had to bet on Livingston, double down. On and off the court, he's always been an X-factor who has risen above expectations, and the NBA world will soon find out this postseason. With his consent, his story of recovery is presented here from his perspective, edited for clarity and length.

 

It's been a blessing for me to have this opportunity with the Nets. Coming in, I understood the opportunities that we had to win a championship. With me having a starting role on the team, I don't think that was expected from a lot of people, but I came in ready for whatever the team needed. I remember at the beginning of training camp, we all went around the room and said what we believed our role should be. I remember saying, "Whatever the team needs me to do, I'm all-in just to help." I just wanted to be there to help my teammates.

I was the same way growing up (in Peoria, Ill.). I just always had a knack for handling and passing the rock and making things happen. I found we had more success that way, as opposed to me always trying to win the game myself. I think that was just my nature and whom I was as a person, just doing what's best for the team, helping guys score, getting the assist, making the easy play.

I didn't necessarily care about the accolades. I didn't care about being the man. As a youngster, I got so much attention because I was ahead of the other kids—even when I was eight, nine years old. But I never was really seeking attention, so I didn't care about scoring 30, 40 points. It was just about the team winning and everybody just being happy.

Even as I kept growing, I was always handling the ball wherever I went, so my ball-handling didn't drop off. I was just different, and I always passed the ball, so I just think my instincts for the game never really changed. You would say, "OK, he's 6'7" now; he has to play forward or center." But I think the times were changing, with Allen Iverson and the whole streetball thing. Coming from that environment, I looked up to that. That's why I had the cornrows at the time.

I had those same cornrows in my breakout season with the Clippers in 2006-07. I finally had the mental part, the confidence, and I was understanding the game. Before then, I was injured a lot, so I didn't get a lot of game experience. Coming into that season, I felt like I was understanding the game on a different level—just the NBA game, just understanding how it played out. I was learning. I was getting better. I was getting the confidence from my teammates and my organization of being able to fulfill my potential, in a sense.

Playing with Sam Cassell at the time was huge for me—just his understanding of the game. He's won at the highest level. He was toward the end of his career, but he still had some left in the tank. I watched him manage the team, pick and choose his spots. He also had the ultimate confidence in himself; he feared nothing. I took a page from his book and just played free and wasn't afraid of making mistakes. I wasn't afraid of failing. A lot of people fear failure, and I think that holds a lot of people back. But a lot of times, it's possibly the best thing that could happen to you because you learn how to get back up, you learn how to do it better and you're stronger from that. Those things stuck with me through the next chapter in my life.

There were a lot of expectations of me during my 2006-07 season, but I just felt good about where I was. It was still an up-and-down learning experience, but coming off the playoffs in 2006, being my third year at the time, being able to start some more games, I was just feeling good about my teammates' confidence in me. I felt like I was moving in the right direction.

Then everything changed.

Jon Lopez / Special to Bleacher Report

***

I had dislocated my right kneecap my rookie year and missed 39 games, but I never had any issues with my left knee heading into the game against the Charlotte Bobcats on Feb. 26, 2007. It was about four minutes into the first quarter when I just went up for a routine layup. I lost my balance going up for the layup and when I came down, my leg just caved in. Usually when your leg goes in, it's supposed to come back. It just never came back.

As it caved in, it snapped—and that was the dislocation of the kneecap. When it pops, it's like a rubber band. That's the most painful part. While I tore three out of the four knee ligaments—not to mention a dislocated patella and tibia-femoral joint—the dislocation of the knee was the hardest part, because your knee is out of the socket.

From there, Clippers team physician Dr. Steven Shimoyama ran over to me and fortunately put my kneecap back into place after several tries. I still tell him to this day that he saved my career by being able to do that at that time, in that moment. I would've probably had to drive to the hospital with my kneecap out of place—and there could've been more damage. So for him to put it back into place—he did it within 10 seconds—the pain had kind of subsided. But obviously there was damage to everything else.

Because I had hurt my right kneecap before, as I was being wheeled out of the arena, I was like, "I'm going to get through it, whatever. It's just a dislocated kneecap." But they took an MRI at Centinela Hospital Medical Center to make sure everything was intact. That's when I started to realize how severe it was because I didn't have to do an MRI for my right knee. In addition to the MRI, I had to do a blood test because if the popliteal artery behind my knee was cut or damaged, it could've cut off the blood supply to my lower leg. And that could've led to an amputation.

I actually heard the word "amputation" in the hospital. That's when I really knew how severe it was. I was like, "Where am I at right now?" One, I was upset because I think that should've been a conversation in itself, but being at a public hospital in the middle of Inglewood, it's like they were just doing their job. But I put everything into perspective. I saw somebody that had just been shot that was getting wheeled in, so I was like, "OK, here it is, I have a knee issue and this guy is fighting for his life." I had a good perspective, but my experience really tested me.

Jeffrey Bottari/Getty Images

I would've never thought that this kind of injury would ever happen on a basketball court. In fact, the doctors told me that my accident was like what you see from a car accident. I was told it was just a freak accident, the way I came down. Obviously I'm very loose and long and double-jointed in a sense, but when I lost my balance, it could've just happened to anybody. I couldn't control it.

In the days after, it was very hard, and you ask yourself, "Why me? Why did it happen to me? What did I do wrong? How could I have done it better?" But at the end of the day, it's going to happen. I'm a believer in God, I'm a believer that he puts us where he wants us to be. It's not about my purpose, it's about his purpose. So in having that, that helped my mental ability to adapt and to accept what happened.

I didn't have surgery right away in Los Angeles. I had to ice my knee for two weeks to keep the inflammation down before I had surgery on March 13, 2007, in Alabama. During that time, I did some research on doctors as far as what they had accomplished and whom they worked on, and their success rate and how their patients came back. I consulted with some people, and we decided that orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews and his colleague Dr. William Clancy were the best. I had actually worked with Dr. Andrews before on one of my previous injuries, so I was familiar with his cutting-edge research and operations.

As for Dr. Clancy, people in the industry called him the "father of ACL reconstruction surgeries," as he invented the method of taking a patellar tendon graft to replace a torn ACL. To improve my chances of recovering, I just wanted to put myself in the best position to succeed. So Dr. Clancy and Dr. Andrews operated on me at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Birmingham. They were great with me. A lot of times, infections can set you back, and with my injury being so severe, that was a cause of concern. But I didn't have to deal with any of that.

Then there was Kevin Wilk, one of the best rehab specialists in the country, who worked with Dr. Clancy and Dr. Andrews. I met Kevin before the surgery, and I saw him the day after when I had staples in my knee, and I'm still leaking pus, blood, everything. I remember Kevin saying, "We're going to get your flexion back. We're going to get you back. That's what we do." He was confident from Day 1.

He was sitting there sweating and taking his glasses off, cranking on my leg. That was probably the most pain that I've ever been in—worse than the injury, because he's just cranking on my leg. Out of surgery, my knee was huge, and once the scar tissue gets bound down, it's basically like concrete. So they needed to break it down in the beginning. I'm sitting there leaking; it's almost like popping a pimple or something. The key was to get my mobility back early on.

Jon Lopez / Special to Bleacher Report

While I was in Alabama, everybody wanted to work with me. It's just because of the injury I had; you don't find multi-ligament tears like that. So for them to have the opportunity to work with me, it pushed them as well, being able to see how far that they could push me, how much flexion I could have, how quick they could get me back to doing some movement. It was an honor working with Kevin because he's great and has worked with some of the best, including Scottie Pippen, Chris Webber and Vince Carter. I only had the chance to work with him for about three weeks, but during that time, we definitely got a lot out of it.

While I would go back for checkups with Dr. Andrews, I was in L.A. for the rest of my rehab, working at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic with Judy Seto, now the head physical therapist for the Lakers. I worked with her for probably about a year nonstop. That was the real grind and the real process. At my house in L.A. today, not only do I still have the first crutches from my injury and the brace I wore when I returned to the NBA, but I've also got some of the slips from Judy showing my progress report during my rehab. It's cool just to look back and see how far you've come.

During my rehab, I don't think there were any setbacks because there was really no timetable. While the initial window for my recovery was eight to 12 months, nobody really knew exactly how long. It was just about taking my time. Pretty much, it was a given I was going to be out that whole year. As things progressed, they wanted to try to get me back around April 2008. That's what I was pushing and striving for.

So what kept me going for more than a year? Man, a lot of faith and then just my family, who were my amazing support system. I always say, "That's the most important thing for somebody, especially when you're young." We're always a product of who we're around. For me, that was my father, Reggie; my grandfather, Frank; and my best friend, Art Jones, who lived with me at the time in L.A. Those three were in my corner; also my mother, Ann.

They just kept me positive every day, because there were days when you're not positive. The reality is you're not going to be sitting there happy 24 hours a day. There are going to be ups and downs, peaks and valleys, and I definitely had those. But the key is how you are in the down times, how are you in the low points where you don't want to get up, you don't want to go to rehab or you feel like you just don't want to go on anymore. But that's where you make the most progress in the whole process.

Also my roots in Peoria motivated me. Like in Chicago, we're all in the same state and we're all in the same kind of Midwest pedigree of having a hard hat, working 9 to 5. I watched my father and my grandfather go to work every day, and they taught me how to be a man, be persistent and understand life. I was taught that things aren't necessarily given to you, and that helped me as an adult. It helped me in situations with adversity, especially coming from a tough environment. I went to high school at Peoria Central—tough kids, tough neighborhood and I just learned a lot from that. A lot of times, it's about surviving—and I did through my injury.

***

I remember the moments when I said I was going to play again. There were two of them. Once I got on the bike, that was the first time that I could get my flexion back. Before, I couldn't get on the stationary bike and pedal because my knee wouldn't bend much at all. So that was a sense of relief. That might have been like five, six weeks after the surgery. And then like five, six months after that, I was able to run on the treadmill for the first time. I was like, "OK, I'm making progress," because when I first started, I couldn't even see any muscles around my leg. My leg above my knee was tiny; it was all atrophied. There was no girth—and I was already skinny.

My progress continued in 2008, and on June 16—about 16 months after the injury—I was cleared to play. Then in October, the Miami Heat gave me a shot. That was all Erik Spoelstra and Dwyane Wade. Erik believed in me. He watched me a lot in the film room when I was on the Clippers, and he was a fan of my game. And then with Dwyane, we had the same agent at the time, Henry Thomas, and he vouched for me. It was great to see the Heat give Greg Oden a shot this season after his knee issues. That's what the Heat organization is all about; it's like a family environment.

Even though the Heat signed me, it was hard because you go from being one of the main staples of a team, the Clippers, to now you're just kind of like a fringe player. I didn't understand it. It was the first time for me to go through that, but I understood that was a possibility because there weren't a lot of teams that were interested in me. But once I came back, it was like, "Look, I'll have to be a fringe player to play again." So there was no question that I was going to do it. I was willing to do whatever it took to get back to where I was in L.A.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

It took a while for my knee to finally feel healthy again—not until 2010 when I was with the Wizards. My knee would still swell up before that. But I was pushing through it, and then toward the end of the 2008-09 season, I started to feel better. I remember I played 42 minutes on April 9, 2010, and I was like, "Wow, I can play all these minutes." I had 25 points in a win over Boston, along with seven assists. Then we played Atlanta and Joe Johnson the next game. They beat us at home, but I played 40 minutes and scored 15 points to go along with seven assists. I had never played that many minutes back-to-back, and I barely ever played in a back-to-back. So that was the turning point, when I knew that I could do it.

My recovery was still tough because I had to move every year to a different city, sometimes more. Once I got injured, that was the tip of my career—when I started to bounce around year to year, different teams. The biggest part is just the mental aspect of it, not knowing if you're going to be with that team the following year, sometimes being on a non-guaranteed contract. I was in a totally different position coming out of high school being the No. 4 pick in 2004 and the cornerstone of a franchise to going to minimum deals, 10-day contracts and the D-League.

Then there was the cost of moving. You've got to pack up, sometimes you've got to close out the rent or your 12-month lease, and then you have to move to another city. In 2012, I was in three different cities—Milwaukee, Washington and Cleveland—so you talk about three different rents. It adds up. You might say, "Well, you make a lot of money," but it costs a lot of money as well. That's probably the biggest financial challenge. But the overall process was a humbling experience for me, and I'm thankful for it.

Thinking back on those years, I played with a lot of different characters. I especially enjoyed playing with Stephen Jackson. I appreciate his mentality. He's a warrior, so you just respect that. You always learn from that and you carry that into how you want to approach the game. So I enjoyed myself just being around the camaraderie of the different teams. But I didn't enjoy losing.

As far as coaches, Flip Saunders was great for me—just the way he thought about the game. He challenged me mentally and my IQ, which was very important to me because of my athleticism being where it was at the time. Scott Brooks was also good. I played with him his first year as head coach in Oklahoma City in 2008. He was very honest and open. I definitely appreciated the time I spent there in Oklahoma City; I learned a lot.

Larry W. Smith/Getty Images

Even Spoelstra. I learned a lot from watching him. His work ethic was pretty crazy. Just watching the amount of time he put into his craft, being the first one to arrive. He was the one that was working the whiteboard. Usually that's the assistant coaches. He put in a lot of work, so to see him have success, it feels good to watch him. That was his first year, in 2008, and he was the youngest head coach in the league at the time. I saw how hard he worked, so I can appreciate that.

***

I had a solid season in 2012-13 in Cleveland, just showing that I was healthy and having some good production. But they wanted to go in a different direction in free agency. That's when Jason Kidd called, which was a godsend, because it was a vote from the coach. It could be the GM, it could be the assistant, but they don't make the rotations, they don't sub guys into the game. The head coach does that, so just to have his vote of confidence, for him to believe in me, that was definitely a plus coming here to the Nets.

While I first became a full-time starter in early January to replace Brook Lopez, who was injured, Jason also wanted a two-point guard lineup with me and Deron Williams. He knew it had been successful in New York last season, when Jason was playing there, and even when he was in Dallas. When you look at the teams that they had in Dallas, when he played on and off the ball, he was still able to manage the game with his IQ, and he was always a threat and understood what the team needed.

Sometimes you say you have a point guard, shooting guard, small forward—those are the typical lineups—but the game's changing and it's always about trying to have that advantage. And I think if we play to our strengths and use our advantages, it's been us playing small, being able to switch, being able to get up and down a little bit, as well as executing, using our IQ and our veteran savvy.

Now, I feel great. In the past, I couldn't jump as high, I wasn't as fast and didn't have the same burst of speed. I played with my intangibles, like my IQ and height. But I put a lot of work in physically and mentally, and just to see it pay off and for me to be in my prime right now, I feel good about my legs, I feel good about my body. It's really helped with my confidence—just being able to do things on the court that I haven't been able to do in years. Any time you feel good about your body, it gives you confidence. Going into work, you just feel more active and more alive.

These days, I don't do as much treatment for my left knee. It used to be a lot. Now I have a routine that I stick to, so mentally I'm there for the game. I'll definitely get a nap in before I get to the arena, just to make sure I'm rested. Then I get to the arena, put my gear on, stretch my calves and go put some shots up.

Jon Lopez / Special to Bleacher Report

Once I do that, I change, get in the hot tub and the cold tub, I do contrast for probably about 15 minutes back and forth, back and forth, and then that will either be my reading time before the game or I'll watch film with the coaches. Then I go to chapel an hour before the game, and once I finish, I get taped and then I'll finish reading. We've got a team meeting about 30, 40 minutes before the game, and then from there it's time to get ready to go.

As for reading, one book for me this season was Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. That was a pretty good book. It's kind of like a lifelong journey of just finding yourself and coming into your own and being in the present. It helped me mentally when I was struggling on the court in December. Professional sports is not just physical; it's more mental.

These days, I'm reading Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don't by Jim Collins. It's personal motivation. I was talking with our strength and conditioning coach, Dr. Jeremy Bettle, about taking good companies and making them great just by doing the little things, and that's something that I saw with the San Antonio Spurs with their model of success. For me, it's a learning process. I'm always striving to get better, and reading has kind of helped me this year to grow.

Right now, I'm just trying to live in the present and enjoy this time. I want to continue to progress and accomplish new things. I'm focused on the goal at hand—winning a championship. That's No. 1 first and foremost, but also this journey that I'm on, understanding how far I've come, just to relish it, it feels deserving in a sense.

I feel more adventurous in my life because I have the power of persistence, belief and confidence in myself. I never want to be content, so it's always that balance of I want to continue to get better. I want to continue to represent my city, represent where I'm from, my family, my family name—I want to make them proud. You always want to give back and make sure that people understand that you appreciate them. So when somebody helps you out giving you a job, you give them reference.

I'm the same way with fans. They come up to me asking about my injury and telling me the respect they have for me. Some ask me for advice or any pointers, and I help them get through their time. So I definitely understand the value of my story. I think it's a great story and I'm trying to use it—not just for myself, but use it to help others. You might say, "What's my purpose in life?" Mine is to help others, and I've been the same way on the basketball court.

It was great for me to make the comeback and be playing in the NBA again, but that was only half the story. The other half is I want to continue to get better and push myself to see how far I can go—where are my limits and how can I push through them? I think when I finally take a step back, it will come full circle as far as going through that time in my life. Right now, I'm still trying to write the book. I'm still trying to write my story.

 

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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