By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 7, 2010; D03
Nearly 40 minutes after the Washington Wizards lost to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night, Shaun Livingston stepped out of the training room, where he had been soaking in the hot tub and receiving treatment for his surgically repaired left knee. Livingston had just scored six points with two assists in about 15 minutes of late-game, mop-up duty and grabbed a seat in the same locker room stall that used to belong to Antawn Jamison.
It's a grueling postgame ritual for Livingston, but one that he will gladly repeat, so long as he continues to have the opportunity to play NBA basketball.
"Playing is where my fun is," said Livingston, who has had to endure many joyless days and nights since shredding three knee ligaments and dislocating his knee cap with a gruesome injury suffered on Feb. 26, 2007 -- three years to the day before he signed a 10-day contract with the Wizards.
Livingston has played just 26 NBA games since the injury, including the past four with Washington. And, no matter how well he fares with the Wizards or anywhere else, Livingston understands his career will never be about what it is, but what it could have become.
"The reality is that's going to be with me my whole career and even after my career. It's going to be the 'What if?' 'The guy that could've been,' " said Livingston, the No. 4 overall pick by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2004. "But I came to that realization a long time ago when I was laying in a hospital bed. A lot of people can't accept what happens to them. Certain things, it's like, I've already accepted that. My job is to make the best out of what I have right now and my opportunity. I'm thankful for it."
Sunday's game against the Boston Celtics will be Livingston's last before his contract expires, but Coach Flip Saunders has already said the team will likely keep the 6-foot-7 point guard around much longer. The 24-year-old Livingston still provides considerable intrigue for the Wizards (21-38).
"We'll continue to try to get him some time," Saunders said. "Shaun gets assists where he makes something out of nothing and he's the one guy on our team who can do that. He can really pass. He sees guys opening before they even know they are open. That's why everyone thought at the time, before he got hurt, that he had a chance to be one of the greatest at his position."
The injury robbed him of the athleticism and quickness that made him a can't-miss prospect when the Peoria, Ill., native entered the league directly out of high school. He drew comparisons to Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd.
Despite the hype, his career didn't take off immediately, as injuries forced him to miss 73 games his first two seasons. In his third season, Livingston was on the verge of putting it all together, averaging 9.3 points and 5.1 assists in 54 games before a frightening accident in which his leg bent in the wrong direction while he attempted a fast-break layup against the Charlotte Bobcats.
"He went down right in front of our bench and soon as it happened, I thought 'Oh my God. How bad is this for this kid?' " Clippers General Manager Mike Dunleavy, who coached Livingston his first three years in the league, said in a recent telephone interview. "He had big-time promise. I coached Magic Johnson and other than Magic, I've never seen or been around a guy with that size, the vision, the ability to deliver the basketball, IQ, understanding of the game. He really got it."
Livingston missed the next season recovering from his injury, and although the Clippers declined to make him a $5.8 million qualifying offer, Dunleavy said the team tried to bring him back at a lesser price. "We were not disappointed one iota with that pick, anywhere along the way," he said.
But the Clippers signed Baron Davis that same summer, and Livingston instead went to Miami, kicking off his status as an NBA vagabond. Miami later traded him to Memphis, the Grizzlies cut him, and he wound up with the Tulsa 66ers of the NBA Developmental League before signing with Oklahoma City the last month of last season.
But at each stop along the way, Livingston has shown flashes, even as his knee hasn't always cooperated. He had surgery in November to remove staples from his reconstructive surgery in 2007. Livingston returned, but was cut on Dec. 22 after the Thunder acquired former Virginia Commonwealth guard Eric Maynor in a trade with Utah. He said he spent the next two months working out and training in Chicago and Florida, waiting for another call.
"I thought it was going to work out for me in Oklahoma City," said Livingston, who averaged one point and 1.4 assists in 10 games with the Thunder this season. "It was an opportunity for me and I tried to make the most of it. It didn't go as I might have planned, but what does?"
"It's a mental challenge, being young and being out, but I've had challenges in my career. My career has been challenged," Livingston said. "I'm taking it a day at a time. I can't tell you where I'm going to be or where I'm going to end up, but this is something that I enjoy doing it and I'm living my dream out."