Given everything we know and can reasonably surmise about where the organization was and the people in charge of it, it seems safe to say that the Los Angeles Clippers didn’t have anything specific in mind when they drafted Shaun Livingston out of an Illinois high school with the fourth pick of the 2004 NBA Draft. It wasn’t an inexplicable pick by any stretch, as Livingston really was by wide acclaim one of the most promising players in that draft. It was the penultimate year in which high school players were allowed to enter the draft, and Livingston was the second of eight American high schoolers to get drafted over the first 19 picks. The first of those, and first overall, was Dwight Howard, who arrived looking and playing and acting more or less like Dwight Howard and has continued in that vein to diminishing returns to this very day. The rest were, like Livingston, decidedly teenaged propositions.
So they could have been anything, and whatever they were at the moment they pulled on a goofy cap and stood towering and smiling over David Stern, was something they were unlikely to be very for very long; some sense of what they might become or when or how they would get there was probably latent in what they were then, but much clearer in retrospect than it could have been at the time. Livingston, when the Clippers picked him—right after Ben Gordon and right before Devin Harris—was a spindly bundle of potential and loud tools.
He was 6-foot-7 and had mantis limbs and a rapidly expanding afro and while the things he’d done on tape and against other teenagers suggested that he could, as some people guessed, become a Penny Hardaway-type all-around star, he could also have become pretty much anything else. The other teenagers that followed him in that draft give a sense of how wide this spectrum is—Robert Swift got addicted to heroin and nearly died; Sebastian Telfair’s mistresses keep interrupting his trial on gun charges; Al Jefferson made an All-Star Team and $137 million; Josh Smith became a star in his hometown and a hugely rich albatross in Detroit and is now getting in fights with Royce White during Big 3 games; J.R. Smith, honestly it’s still hard to say. The Clippers, who would be owned by Donald Sterling for another aimless and intermittently shameful decade, were about to enter a brief period of spunky competitiveness on the court, but they sure didn’t know what Shaun Livingston would be or how he would contribute. There was no real way to tell what he even was.
When Livingston sustained one of the most horrific injuries in the history of his sport in February of 2007, it wasn’t much clearer. He’d missed 101 of 246 career games to that point with various injuries, and what he’d shown in terms of flashes still amounted to intimations as to how his tools—length and swiftness and quickness and skill—might someday fit together. When his left leg imploded during a game against the Charlotte Bobcats—the leg was broken, his kneecap impossibly dislocated, his meniscus and anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments torn and his MCL severely sprained—it looked like the end of a career that hadn’t really even started in earnest. Livingston finally retired on Friday, after learning to walk again and then learning to play again and then bouncing between nine NBA teams in 10 years before landing as an integral contributor to an era-defining dynasty. All of it was astonishing, both because of how far back Livingston had to come even to begin again in earnest and because of how he kept going after he’d won the career he managed to win for himself.
There’s another, quieter achievement under the various numbers and moments and bullet points that accumulate over a long career, which is that Livingston outlasted his own remarkable comeback story. The various features written about his comeback are worth reading, because Livingston himself is an intelligent and engaging person who had plenty of time to get good at telling the story that he was dealt and because the story itself is pretty amazing no matter how it’s told. “The knee was all deformed, bloodied up,” Livingston told Marc Spears in a story for The Undefeated. “I just couldn’t move it. Stiff. It was like I had a spare leg. All of my quad was skinny. It was like a pole with a pineapple in the middle of it.” That is, let’s say, a jarringly vivid way to describe something that happened to your own body, but the clinical list of the things that erupted and collapsed in Livingston’s leg against the Bobcats honestly does the job pretty well, too. But also these stories are old, now. Spears was writing in 2016. Rodger Sherman celebrated his comeback in dayenu form at SB Nation during the 2015 NBA Playoffs; the post appears with an editor’s note explaining that it was being recirculated because Livingston had just scored 18 points off the bench in Game 1 of that year’s NBA Finals. Tom Ley wrote about him here in 2013, before he’d found his way to the Warriors.
The Warriors didn’t stop winning during those years, and made the Finals in every one of the five seasons he played with the team. Livingston didn’t stop playing well, either—he’s been roughly as good, and always slightly better during the postseason, in each of those years. Livingston is not retiring because he’s hurt again, or because he’s worried about getting hurt again, but for the same reasons that other basketball players tend to retire, which is that people can only do this sort of thing for so long before they get tired or bored, or because they want to spend time doing other things. For all that Livingston accomplished on the floor and in getting back to it, this last humble bit might be the most remarkable. Livingston was unfinished and then he was finished and then he rebuilt everything, and every element of that was remarkable in its way, and unique to him. And then he just kept going, and when it was time to go it all felt implausibly normal—for the first time, at the very end, he was like any other NBA player.