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Road To Recovery

Former Clipper Shaun Livingston's fight to overcome a devastating

March 29, 2009|Jeff Latzke | Latzke writes for the Associated Press.

TULSA, OKLA. — With a little juke and a fast first step, Shaun Livingston was gone. His defender was left at the three-point line while Livingston zoomed down a wide-open lane for a right-handed throwdown.

For some players, it would have been just another dunk in a season filled with them. For Livingston, it was a giant leap forward in his bid to resurrect an NBA career that was nearly cut short when he was 21.

Not only did Livingston launch himself into the air by pushing off with the same left knee that disintegrated in a gruesome and freakish play two years ago. He also returned to the hardwood with his legs still supporting him.

And the best news of all: He didn't feel the slightest bit of pain.

"It's surprising me," Livingston said. "This is all coming to me in new experiences. This is all stuff I was doing regularly when I was healthy, before my injury, but you just never know how something will affect you. It's good to have that back and know I have it and still build off that."

Livingston was down and out after shredding his knee when he landed after a layup attempt in a Feb. 26, 2007, game. He had gone from being the No. 4 overall pick straight out of high school in Peoria, Ill., to contributing to a rare Clippers playoff run to suddenly needing to learn to walk again.

There were times early on that the pain was so bad that thoughts of quitting basketball entered his mind.

He rehabbed throughout last season before the Miami Heat gave him a chance during training camp this season. He made the regular-season roster but played only 41 minutes in four games before the Heat dumped his salary in a January trade with Memphis. The Grizzlies waived him the same day.

Livingston finally landed with the Tulsa 66ers this month in hopes that some NBA team will see him toiling with the NBA Development League affiliate of the Oklahoma City Thunder and give him another shot.

The dunking has only come back in the last week.

"Usually when I was going through my rehab and I tried to do that, it was painful and the soreness would be lingering for a few days -- or at first, a few weeks," said Livingston, who is now 23. "That was frustrating. But now to be able to do that in a game situation and there's no pain, that's an accomplishment. It's progress."

Livingston's injury was one of those can't-believe-your-eyes moments that boggle the mind. Without colliding with another player, Livingston's leg gave out and twisted like a pretzel as he landed on the court. A YouTube video of the play has had more than 130,000 hits.

"I think it's a phenomenal story. We all watched that," 66ers Coach Paul Woolpert said. "Geez, when he went down, we all cringed. It was called a catastrophic injury. To see him come back and play at this level, I'm glad to be a part of it. I'm glad I get to watch."

Livingston, who had missed eight weeks after blowing out his right knee in his rookie season, tore three ligaments in his left knee and dislocated his kneecap. He said doctors couldn't explain why it happened.

"Nobody knows but the man upstairs," Livingston said.

Livingston has no intention of ever watching the replay of that fateful night, believing that doing so would do nothing to help him make the kind of plays he's making now.

At times, he looks like the same Livingston as before -- his white socks pulled up to the knees of his toothpick-thin legs -- except now there's a black brace on his left knee and his stringy dreadlocks have been replaced by a close-cut hairdo.

On Saturday night, he had the blow-by for a dunk in the first quarter and another dunk in the third quarter -- the first time he'd had two dunks in a game since he started playing again. He also had a behind-the-back assist on a basket by D.J. White and a nifty handoff after getting into the lane and jumping to fake a shot. And he can still find his way through a crowd to get to the hoop in transition.

"I don't think it'll be 100% until possibly next season or next year, but for me to show flashes, that's big for me," Livingston said.

The whole ordeal has taught Livingston to be patient and appreciate every chance he gets. Looking back now, he realizes he had the world practically in the palm of his hands and didn't take full advantage.

No longer does he have the luxury -- or desire -- to be lax and let raw talent carry him through.

"You do a lot of soul-searching in two years not being able to play, but it's good," Livingston said. "It's caused me to be persistent, just continue to work on my game and study the game and see that I'm passionate about it."

For right now, the D-League feels like the right place for Livingston. Unlike his stint in the NBA this season, his time in Tulsa has allowed him to show how far he's come. Through his first nine games, he was averaging 8.4 points and 6.1 assists.

"It's better to play, just because of what's happened in my rehabilitation process," Livingston said. "Now I'm at the phase where I can do all the weights in the world and all the rehab and therapy, but at the end of the day, playing is the only way it's going to get better from here on out."

That's not to say Livingston wouldn't jump at the chance to get back to the big time. If the right team came calling with 10-day contract, Livingston wouldn't hesitate to be back in the NBA by the end of this season.

"I want to get to the level where I'm playing a lead role on a team. If I have to play a backup role to get myself back to where I was, then that's fine," Livingston said. "But I want to be back to playing a lead role, an opportunity to play for a championship, win a championship, [be an] All-Star.

"All those goals that I had before, but it's a day at a time right now."

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