He Plays It Cool in a LeBron Spotlight

High school junior Chris Livingston is Akron's best basketball prospect since You Know Who. His connection to King James is real, but he can make it on his own.
Dan GreeneFeatured Columnist IPhoto courtesy Canton RepositoryOctober 15, 2020

Two basketballs patter semi-rhythmically in a small rec-league gym, the kind too tight for its court to contain the full arc of a three-point line. Bouncing one is Chris Livingston, a 6'6½" soon-to-be-11th-grader who is considered by most to be among the very elite players in the high school class of 2022 and by just about everyone to be the best player out of his hometown in nearly two decades. Bouncing the other is his twin brother, Cordell, a 6'1" potential mid-major recruit in his own right. Chris wears a navy T-shirt commemorating a tournament championship they won as middle schoolers. Cordell wears a black hoodie drawn up and snug around his face. Two men rebound as the brothers put up a series of jumpers and floaters on the gym's mounted hoops, bantering with and one-upping each other all the while.

It's a scene playing out in many such settings across the country on this late-summer afternoon, as young basketball players get in another session of training in the run-up to the approaching season. But this scene is in Akron, Ohio. And so, over these pedestrian proceedings, there looms LeBron James.

Not in the flesh, of course. But at midcourt, mounted behind protective plastic, hangs an image of an ascending, mid-dunk LeBron that stretches some 10 feet up the gym's cinder block wall. And while that too might not be a strange sight among America's basketball courts, in Akron the image is imbued with additional meaning. It was here, after all, that the four-time NBA MVP was born and raised. The Rust Belt city is peppered with reminders of its most revered product: St. Vincent-St. Mary High, the Catholic school James and his friends elevated into a national hoops power; the I Promise public elementary school James helped fund through his foundation; LeBron James Way, which runs through the city's downtown. There's even a LeBron James Grandmothers' Fan Club, hundreds strong, that meets monthly. The Livingstons' grandmother has been a member for six years.

TAKE MY TALENT @takemytalent

Chris Livingston dropped 3️⃣4️⃣ in the second half last night‼️ @SLAM_HS @WRA_Hoops @WACG_Stars #takemytalent https://t.co/R5w04oZPtF

Just about anyone around town will tell you that Chris Livingston is the best young basketball player Akron has produced since James. If you have heard of him, it is likely through such framing. There have been headlines like "Akron's Next One?" and "Chris Livingston Is Just Trying to Follow LeBron" and YouTube videos titled "Chris Livingston IS NEXT UP FROM LEBRON'S HOMETOWN!!" and "He's The Next LeBron! Chris Livingston Is LBJ's FAVORITE PLAYER And The New KING Of Akron." Even some around Livingston have been unable to resist. "Obviously, LeBron has been the standard," Livingston's former high school coach, Matt Futch, once told a local news station. "But that standard can be passed, and I think [Chris] has the ability to do that."

The comparison, however fair or not, stems from more than geographic coincidence. Livingston is the kind of athletic, versatile, high-motor talent that causes evaluators to salivate. He was the first freshman ever named Akron City Series Player of the Year (James, at a private school, would not have been eligible), averaging 24.0 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.0 assists while leading his high school, Buchtel Community Learning Center, to the final four of Ohio's state tournament. That summer he was named MVP at the FIBA Under-16 Americas Championship, where he and his U.S. teammates won gold. Last season, playing for Western Reserve Academy, 15 miles from Akron, he averaged 32.5 points, 12.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.9 steals and 1.4 blocks. His coach there, Thomas Adams-Wall, told the website Eleven Warriors that Livingston is "the most athletic human being I have ever seen in person, for real."

"As a talent, he's everything you look for in a next-level prospect," says Corey Evans, the former Rivals national recruiting analyst who was recently hired by the Oklahoma City Thunder. (Evans was interviewed for this story in August before taking the Thunder job.) Rivals ranks Livingston third in his high school class, behind Michigan State commit and Sports Illustrated cover boy Emoni Bates, and Montverde (Fla.) Academy big man Jalen Duren. But Evans allows that the hierarchy may be somewhat fluid. "Chris is kind of forgotten about at times, even though his talent is just as good as those guys," he says.

James forged his own link to Livingston two years ago in Las Vegas, when he attended one of Livingston's AAU games at the Fab 48 tournament that July. On his way out of the gym, James tapped Livingston on the shoulder and shook his hand. The media present took notice; soon there were national articles about the "the 14-year-old hoops prodigy LeBron James went out of his way to see" and videos crowing "LeBron James SHOWS LOVE TO THE NEXT STAR FROM AKRON!!"

"When that handshake happened, that was the blessing," says Futch, who coached Livingston at Buchtel in 2018-19 and played against LeBron in high school. After their meeting, James posted a video of Livingston to his Instagram page, hashtagged #JustAnotherKidFromAkron. His caption referred to Livingston as "Young King."

Chris Livingston (left) stands in the Uninterrupted offices with siblings Cydnee and Cordell.
Chris Livingston (left) stands in the Uninterrupted offices with siblings Cydnee and Cordell.Courtesy Livingston family

There is a danger to all this, obviously—to the way that the modern multimedia hype machine plays an endless game of telephone that can transform comparison, however circumstantial, into a non-negotiable standard. Basketball history is dotted with promising young players who struggled to shoulder the expectations that came yoked to early fanfare, for which many of them never asked. But some think that in Livingston's case, two potentially conflicting ideas can be true: that the LeBron comparisons could create an unfair benchmark for his success, and that the full breadth of his talent is relatively underappreciated on its own merits.

"People are gonna throw the lazy comparisons out there that he's the next LeBron," says Evans, the former Rivals scout. "That's just not fair to the kid. But it also gets us discussing Chris Livingston—which is warranted."

To get an idea of Chris Livingston's youth, consider this: He has never set foot in a world where LeBron was not playing in the NBA. Chris and his brother were born the week after LeBron's preseason Cavaliers debut, in October 2003. Five years later, Chris picked up his first basketball, at the behest of his grandmother, Pam, who insisted each of her grandchildren take up an activity. Chris took to it quickly. By the time he was playing Tiny Tot ball (at times, incidentally, with Bronny James), he was eschewing the lower hoops used by the league in order to make buckets on the regulation rims from which they hung. While some peers struggled to dribble at all, Chris took rebounds for coast-to-coast scores. In winter, swaddled in his coat, he would bounce a ball for hours on end in his family's garage, having already been stopped from doing so in the kitchen.

Chris was only a fifth-grader when a local camp published his first mixtape. "I was showing everybody, man," says his mother, Julia, who is currently finishing her pharmacist residency. "Every new one I posted to Facebook." Around the same time, Livingston's AAU coach, Carlos Carneal of the We All Can Go All-Stars, saw him play for the first time and immediately told Julia her son was a future pro. "I knew it right then," says Carneal, who also coached Kings forward Marvin Bagley III and Cavaliers guard Darius Garland. "He'd get the rebound and get like three dribbles—before everybody could get to half court, he'd be laying the ball up."

UNINTERRUPTED @uninterrupted

This dunk by Chris Livingston is straight up unfair!! 👀 #NextGen https://t.co/abK315ZcNO

In fifth grade, Livingston told his newly hired player development coach, David Lane, that by seventh grade he would be dunking. "I was thinking to myself, No way," Lane says. A 5'10" Livingston wound up notching his first dunk during an AAU game in Vegas—as a sixth-grader. (To hear Livingston's grandfather, Joe, tell it, Chris was a little surprised too: "He got up in the air and it almost looked like he was confused, like, What do I do up here?")

That first mixtape was only the beginning. Attention on the youth circuit ramped up after the publicized meeting with James, which came in the summer between the eighth and ninth grades. "People started knowing who I was," Chris recalls. "People definitely started going at me." Criticism came too, with detractors nitpicking play outside of open court even as he helped lead Buchtel to a state semifinal as a ninth-grader. And there were, of course, the comparisons. "You would hear people asking, ‘Well, is he as good as LeBron was?'" says Futch, Livingston's coach at Buchtel that season. "‘Can he do this or that?'"

There are a few ways a teenager could take this kind of scrutiny and celebration. Livingston's handling of it might be best illustrated by the private workout LeBron held with him in Akron not long after their Vegas meeting. James took Livingston through a series of drills over several hours at his alma mater's gym—LeBron James Arena—while Livingston's brother, grandfather and sister, Cydnee, looked on. "Things like that, I dunno, I can't explain it," Livingston says. "You would think you would be nervous or something like that. It's something you won't forget, so you're just in the moment and try to do your best and remember why you're here. So I wasn't nervous."

"He showed no emotion," says Joe Livingston. "He stood next to LeBron just like he's standing next to anybody else."

When they were done, James used Cydnee's phone to call her mother, who was at work. "I know Chris so I was like, 'Please excuse him—he's not a kid of many words,'" Julia says. "I said, 'Even when he's excited it doesn't really show. Please forgive him if he's kind of quiet and shy.' And LeBron was like, 'It's OK. I was a kid once too.'"

Months later, Julia was curious: Had Chris and LeBron stayed in touch? Her son said that they had, texting from time to time about advice for beginning high school ball and the importance of controlling one's pace on the floor. Until then, Julia had no inkling that her son was occasionally exchanging messages with the most famous basketball player on the planet. He hadn't brought it up.

It's not that Chris doesn't understand LeBron's status. Julia says her sons have watched More Than A Game, the 2008 documentary on James' St. Vincent-St. Mary team, "a million times." Chris' bedroom wall still displays the front page of the Akron Beacon Journal from the day after LeBron announced his return to Cleveland in 2014. It's just that, unless he's debating basketball or playing Xbox with his friends, Chris' emotional volume skews toward the lowest of decibels. "A lot of people look at his demeanor like, 'Does he talk?'" says Reggie Lewis, the Livingstons' trainer. (His extroverted twin brother balances this out. "Cordell's the icebreaker," says their current Buchtel coach, Rayshon Dent.)

"Chris takes everything like water off a duck's back," Julia says. "He's so..." She searches for the right word. "He's so...unbothered." She laughs.

"Anything that bothers him, he internalizes it," says her father, Joe.

The burden of his common association with LeBron, Chris says, is not one of those things. "I feel like expectations come with it, but it's not pressure," he says. "I don't really take expectations as a bad thing. That comes with success, so that's a good thing." And it's not like he is running from it: Last summer he posted to Instagram a graphic of himself and James superimposed next to each other, their poses parallel.

In general, he doesn't post much on social media, though he does read it. Sometimes he and Cordell will read through people's comments and crack up at their ridiculousness. Julia has had to tell Chris that any adults messaging him—which there have been for a few years now—need to be referred to her first. Some opt to contact her with unsolicited advice and unclear motives. "We don't really need that from strangers at this point," she says. "I just feel like it's kind of shady."

She's heard stories from locals about how in LeBron's last years of high school he was hounded by autograph-seeking strangers, some of whom even showed up to his school. Joe has suggested his grandson decline signing for anyone he doesn't know except children; some solicitors have even mailed requests to the Livingstons' home. But the storm of noise around a highly touted basketball prospect doesn't usually make landfall until their latter seasons of high school. Even if one is to come, this pre-junior period is typically the preceding quiet.

"People keep saying to me, 'Be prepared, because things are coming,'" Julia says. "I'm just sitting here like: 'OK.'"

The path of Livingston's immediate future remains within his hands. He received his first college scholarship offer, from Ohio State, just before ninth grade. By January of his sophomore year, he'd heard from enough schools to clutter the frame of an Instagram post; since then, others, like Memphis and South Carolina, have entered the picture. (Cordell has drawn interest from Detroit Mercy, Tennessee State and Cleveland State.) Chris knows he would want to go to "a player-driven college," where the program can best push his development. But given the realities of pandemic travel and campus life, he has yet to visit schools or meet staffs in person. He's not in any hurry to narrow his choices. "I think I've got time," he says.

Overtime @overtime

Class of 2022’s Chris Livingston living in the LAB 🤯 (via whois.chriss/IG) https://t.co/ByQKsLdlN5

Chris will have more than just college as an option after he graduates high school. (He and Cordell actually attend Akron's NIHF STEM High, which has no athletic programs, so they play for their home district of Buchtel.) He's followed how elite 2020 prospects like Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga recently chose to jump straight to the NBA's G League, which now offers $125,000 contracts to select players between high school and the NBA. "I think those are smart moves," Chris says. There is also the possibility that the NBA may lower its age limit from 19 back to 18, as has been heavily speculated in recent years. Were that to happen by 2022, Chris says he would "for sure" consider the option of going straight to the NBA.

"Everything's on the table," Livingston says. He notes how a year at Duke boosted Zion Williamson's popularity and brand. "Anything that has something to do with my future, I've been thinking about."

He got a taste of running with pros in August 2019, when a connection with a trainer landed him a spot in a summer pickup game with Devin Booker, Ben Simmons and Trey Lyles, among others. Afterward, Livingston says Tony Snell and Joakim Noah pulled him aside to offer pointers about coming off screens and daily workouts. "The goal is not to be the best 15- or 16-year-old in the country," Livingston recalls Noah telling him. "Take this as a good sign, but it should make you want to work even more."

Lewis, Livingston's trainer, has worked with NBA stars too. Asked how Chris stacks up with them, Lewis first answers with a question of his own. "Do you want the humble answer or for real?" he says. "Athletically? He's there. Skill: That's the thing. Give him a year, year-and-a-half, and he'll be there. He'll be ready."

As good as Livingston is now, much of the acclaim and expectations around him—including all the LeBron talk—center on what he might yet become. That goes for his own expectations too. "I haven't achieved nothing real yet," he says. He focused this offseason on further sharpening his shooting, a skill scouts say must become more consistent given its necessity in the modern NBA. And there remain other areas of his game that need honing, like playing off the ball and refined defensive tactics. But given the advanced state of Livingston's talent, he should have plenty of time to address finer points. Says Evans, "I don't know if he really needs two more years of high school basketball, honestly."

Julia would be happy with a range of her son's potential futures. Right now, she says, hearing from college coaches still feels like an honor. "That's always the ultimate goal—free education," she says. "Anything after that is like icing on the cake." She remembers a particular school assignment of Chris' from sometime around the second grade, when students were asked about their goals. "He put, 'I want to live long enough to be in the NBA,' or something along those lines," she says. At 17, he is poised to make it there sooner than most. And if he does, the path from Akron might look familiar, but it will be his own.

Dan Greene is a freelance writer in New York. You can follow him on Twitter @thedangreene.


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