August 22, 2012

Tough road for ex-Peoria high school star

Milwaukee Bucks guard Shaun Livingston was the fourth overall pick in the 2004 NBA Draft. A Peoria native, he led Central High School to consecutive IHSA State Championships and was named Illinois Mr. Basketball and to the McDonald’s All-America team in 2004. After graduation, he withdrew a verbal commitment to Duke University and declared for the draft. In 2007, however, Livingston suffered a devastating knee injury, which the Los Angeles Clippers trainer called “the most serious injury you can have to the knee.” Since, he has played for six NBA teams, including the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder. Livingston is averaging nearly six points, two rebounds and two assists in 51 games this season.

TKS: Who were some of your heroes growing up?

SL: It was the mostly the local guys, mostly around Peoria. Guys were big on the Peoria Manual teams, Frank Williams, Brandon Hughes — they won a championship in the midst of great times. Guys like Kevin Garnett, Quentin Richardson … Darius Miles — guys that came up and played in the NBA, mainly guys who got a lot of national attention. And those Manual guys were kind of like local celebrities.

TKS: Your high school team won back-to-back state championships. What was it like winning a title on a downstate Illinois team?

SL: Man, it was great. It just felt like we were following a long line of tradition, growing up watching all the Peoria teams. Just kind of wearing that badge of honor. I mean, I think what’s really underrated in Peoria is the fact that everybody is representing where they’re from. It’s big. And in Peoria, because it’s a smaller city, a lot of players go overlooked. So we always played with a chip on our shoulder. We had a long line of Manual teams that won and even some of the other teams like Central and Richwoods, some of the other teams that won. There was a lot of competition growing up and we saw that and grew up under that. So once we got to high school, it was definitely kind of following the trend and tradition.

TKS: Who was the best player you played against before turning pro?

SL: We had a lot of good talent where I was from. One of the best guys I played with at the time, who was very underrated, was a kid by the name of Danny Ruffin. He was actually my teammate. But if we’re talking nationally — I didn’t really get the chance to play against LeBron James in high school. I was really impressed with DeAaron Williams (averaged 18.8 points, 8.2 rebounds at Limestone Community, led team to win over Livingston’s Peoria Central team).

TKS: Did you have to adjust your game when you reached the NBA?

SL: In a way, but more so just being so young, I didn’t really know what to expect. I didn’t really realize how athletic or springy I was — just really youthful. I just kind of bounced around and I could kind of wear on other guys, being young and having a high motor. So it was surprising to me. You come in and you don’t really know where you’re going to stand against the best athletes and talent in the world. It took me a year to really adjust. It was like, ‘okay, I can really blow by guys and really beat guys.’ But the biggest growing experience was learning how to play the NBA game.

TKS: Which coach has had the biggest impact on you?

SL: I learned a lot under (former Clippers Head Coach Mike) Dunleavy, obviously being a rookie, but probably more so Flip Saunders. I got the chance to get a lot of experience under him. I didn’t play as much when I was in Miami and Oklahoma City. Saunders was huge. He let me grow into my game, knowing the game and with his offensive schemes. It was a big confidence booster for me, allowing me to get a feel for the game. Also playing under Sam Cassell—he was a coach in D.C.—I had a chance to watch him and learn the NBA game. Watching how he played, how he controlled the game. Just the NBA game, learning how to run a team. It’s different than in high school and college. You’ve got to have a lot of the same qualities, but it’s different circumstances. In college it’s more 100mph, whereas in the NBA it’s more paced. It’s a game of runs.

TKS: Do you ever regret skipping college?

SL: No, I don’t. I feel like I made the right decision. I think college could have benefitted me in certain ways, playing under Coach K—you can only learn from that and get better mentally. It can push you. You can grow in a system and get better. But just with my individual circumstances and my situation, logically it just made sense for me to make that next move and learn on the go, because my stock was so high. And the next step was to be a No. 4 pick, turning that down just to come back and try be a 3 or 2 or 1 pick, didn’t seem worth it.

TKS: After your knee injury in 2007, many people said you would never play again. What was the key to your comeback?

SL: It was definitely hard. It was a learning process. I learned a lot about myself. It was a lot of hard work, a lot of ups and downs really. It was really a big roller coaster. It was lot of plateaus and progress, but also setbacks. I don’t want to call it luck, but being blessed. It was a testament of faith, just believing I could come back. I definitely had God on my side. I was fortunate, being so young and trying to bounce back as opposed to being in my 30s. And just a lot of work. I had a lot of great doctors and therapists.

TKS: What’s your future with the Bucks beyond this year?

SL: I don’t know. I can’t really answer that now. It’s just one of those things you have to play out. We still have some season left. We’re trying to make the playoffs right now, so it’s just one of those things that time will tell.

TKS: Brandon Jennings is a young, explosive point guard. Do you see any resemblance to yourself at that age?

SL: Yes, as far as being young at one time. He went over seas for a year before coming into the league, so it’s almost like he came directly out of high school. But as far as any other comparison, we’re definitely different players.

TKS: You have been in the league seven years now. Have you been able to pass any of that experience on to Jennings this season?

SL: Yeah, in a way–just trying to get him to look at the game from a different aspect and get guys the ball. He’s kind of grown into his own a bit more, so it’s different for me being off of the ball. Yes and no. Just trying to help out where I can without trying to preach.

TKS: The Bucks are vying for the eighth-seed in the playoffs, which means they would likely be matched up with Chicago. How could you guys beat the Bulls?

SL: It’d have to be a grind-out series. You don’t just come in and beat the Bulls. They’re not going to beat themselves. We’d have to slow it down to beat them. I think that’d be a tough series. You’ve got to really battle them. It’d be one of those 48-minute games you have to battle out. They’ve got a lot of talent. They’ve got a superstar, an all-star, a bench, a Coach of the Year. They’ve got all the pieces to win a championship. So it’s one of those things that we’re going to have to be playing at a really high level to beat a team like that, between their firepower and their discipline.

TKS: Have you thought about what you’d like to do after your career?

SL: Well, I took a broadcasting course over the summer and I’m going to take a leadership course next year. The NBA Player’s Association offers that kind of stuff. I just want to stay around the game, maybe be a general manager. Just stay around the game a little bit. I feel like I have a very high IQ, as well as some of the qualities to really put together a basketball team. I wouldn’t mind being around basketball in some shape.

TKS: Would you ever consider returning to the Peoria area?

SL: I don’t know, I don’t know. I’m definitely not going to rule it out. It’s where I’m from. I’ve got a lot of contacts out there, but it’s just one of those things I’ll have to deal with when it comes.

TKS: If you could pick one player to start a franchise with—Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant or LeBron James: who would it be?

SL: That’s tough. But if I’m starting a franchise, I’d probably go with LeBron. Just him being dominant, not missing that many games, especially with all his skills, his age—he’s still considered young. If you look at all that–and definitely him being one of the most dominant players in the league–I’d go with him. It’s a hard decision. If you want to go with a point guard, I’d pick Derrick Rose. But I think I’m going with LeBron.

Matt McKinney
Matt McKinney is a senior majoring in creative writing and minoring in journalism. His experience with journalism ranges from a year as co-sports editor for TKS to an internship with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he used his Spanish language skills to report a front-page story on changes to federal immigration policy. He has also written for The Galesburg Register-Mail and Knox’s Office of Communications. Matt is the recipient of the 2012 Knox College Kimble Prize for Feature Journalism and two awards from the Illinois College Press Association, including a first place award for sports game coverage. He is currently interning virtually with The Tampa Bay Times and will pursue his master's next year at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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