ESPN The Magazine: Point Not Taken

Updated: February 5, 2007, 1:55 PM ET
By Ric Bucher | ESPN The Magazine

Editor's note: This article appears in the February 12 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

They're all waiting. The father who made him do push-ups at 5 a.m. when he was 9. The high school coach who battled with the young phenom, only to see him win two state titles elsewhere. The current coach who refused to trade him for a seven-time All-Star. The teammates who long for a new floor leader, current floor leader included. The notoriously chintzy owner who is -- was? -- all set to give him a seven-figure extension even though, three years in, he has yet to lock up a starting spot.

Shaun Livingston
Eric OgdenWill Livingston ever live up to his enormous potential?

Add to the list anyone who has seen Clippers point guard Shaun Livingston offer his tantalizing amalgam of speed, handle, court vision and defense. Then add one more.

"I haven't even scratched my potential," Livingston says. "I can be The Man. I have the skills and the tools to do it. I just have to play to my potential. I just have to be me."

If ever there was a time for that, this is it, what with the Clippers face-planting out of the gate and all that long-term money hanging in the balance.

So what's the holdup?

The long answer is one short word: fear. But not of success. Livingston's fear is that everyone will see him racking up stats and think it's all about the extension and the adulation. Or that even a hint of selfishness will prompt cold shoulders from his teammates. Or that he'll walk into the locker room one day and it'll be Richwoods High all over again, with sideways glances and newspaper stories about a hotshot who's all about himself.

"I want to show my team I'm for the team," Livingston says. "I want them to see I'm in it for them, not for me. Growing up watching the league, Allen Iverson was my favorite player. But once I got here, Steve Nash instantly became my favorite. He can take 30 shots in a game, and not one person thinks he's doing it for himself."

So Shaun Livingston has a conscience.

And it's killing him.

* * * * *

Patience in L.A. is growing as thin as Livingston, all 6'7" and 194 pounds of him. The grace period for the first point guard drafted directly out of high school? Expired. The pass for injuries that limited him to 30 games as a rookie? Punched. The fact that he's still the youngest active Clipper, even as a third-year guy? Nice try.

It is no longer enough for the former No. 4 pick to break the staunchest pressure effortlessly, make a lateral pass ... then loop through the lane to stand and watch. Not when, in terms of basketball IQ, Livingston is an Einstein on a squad of Spicolis. "He should be flirting with a triple-double every night," says coach Mike Dunleavy, even though Livingston's not averaging a single-double in any category. This time, if the Clippers, fresh off of last year's unprecedented brush with the conference finals, happen to find themselves back on more familiar turf -- the lottery -- Livingston will assuredly share the blame.

It doesn't help that Allen Iverson could have been wearing Clippers blue and red rather than Nuggets blue and gold had the organization included Livingston in a deal. "Untouchable, huh?" an angry fan shouted at GM Elgin Baylor at the end of a five-point home loss to Houston on Dec. 17, in which Livingston did flirt with a triple-double -- 21 points, nine rebounds, six assists -- but wasn't able to carry LA to victory.

Shaun Livingston
Eric Ogden"I just have to be me," says Livingston.

That fan is not alone. "You can see the potential," says power forward Elton Brand.

"I get frustrated when I watch him play, because he could do so much more," says Livingston's father, Reggie.

Reggie met Ann Baer, Shaun's mom, at a teen nightclub in downtown Peoria, Ill., where they danced well past midnight and shared a double-cheeseburger afterward. He'd found The One. They married two years later, and Shaun arrived a month after that. Ann was only 21; she wasn't ready for motherhood. But when the couple split after 15 months, she took custody of Shaun. Soon after, Reggie went to a babysitter's house and said he found his young son sitting at the foot of a bed with a dozen other kids running around the house. He scooped Shaun up and told Ann he'd be taking care of him from then on. She didn't put up a fight.

Reggie dropped out of community college and worked the swing shift at McDonald's while his grandmother Marie Crooks watched Shaun. Later, Reggie and Shaun moved into an apartment with Reggie's father, Frank, so they could afford the $400-a-month tuition for Shaun at Concordia Lutheran, a private, predominantly white school. Reggie, having been bused to a suburban, all-white school in the 1970s, wanted a similar opportunity for his son. But he also wanted Shaun to see "both sides of the coin," so after third grade, he moved Shaun to Roosevelt Magnet, a public school as rough as Concordia was gilded. But by the time Shaun was in sixth grade, there were questions about the school's ability to motivate him, so Reggie had him transferred back to Concordia.

All the while, father and son spent every free minute molding Shaun into a point guard. He dribbled blindfolded and two balls at a time; he dribbled a heavy ball and through cones and in the snow. Shaun even pounded the rock as he hung out the window of a moving car, a drill Reggie picked up from a tape of Pistol Pete Maravich. Training started in the early morning hours so Shaun could still sing in the choir, play drums, quarterback his football team, pitch for his baseball team, help out at a local soup kitchen and go to church. "I raised him the way I wanted to have been raised," says Reggie.

Shaun's pickup competition was always older, so Reggie taught his son that a kid who could handle and distribute would always get picked, no matter how young he was. By fourth grade, Shaun was a major draw at the local, 2,000-team Gus Macker 3-on-3 tournament. By eighth grade, he was rated the best ballhandler in the country by BasketballPhenoms.com.

None of which meant squat to Bobby Darling, the coach at Peoria's Richwoods High, the school Reggie had handpicked for Shaun. Richwoods is just what it sounds like: an affluent school with a proud tradition in both athletics and academics. It's the kind of school that prides itself on being bigger than any individual.

So it didn't play well when Verdell Jones, Reggie's close friend, tried to give Darling advice on how to handle a talent as rare as Shaun's. "We didn't get off to a great start," Darling admits. "His camp had visions, and Shaun was a shy, fragile young man when I got him."

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A broken foot followed by a broken wrist as a freshman limited Shaun to 16 games off the bench. He started as a sophomore, but walking pneumonia stifled his effectiveness. And because Richwoods had gone to the state tourney without Livingston, Darling felt no particular urgency to use him as anything more than a press-breaker off the bench. Jones, though, kept pushing for more, and soon Shaun was being labeled a prima donna by his teammates. "That hurt," he says. "I've never forgotten it."

Until then, the embraces of teammates had always been a substitute for the ones Shaun never got from the usual sources. "Basketball was my mom," he says flatly. Worse, by this time, Shaun and Reggie weren't getting along. Reggie looked at the sacrifices he'd made and the successes Shaun had previously enjoyed and wondered why all of a sudden his son was taking the counsel of others in his circle. Meanwhile, Shaun wondered why Reggie was spending time with girlfriends who saw his son as a third wheel. Before his junior year, and against Reggie's advice, Shaun transferred to Peoria Central. A few months later, he finally had it out with his dad and moved back in with his grandfather for his senior year.

Asserting himself off the court led to a greater presence on it. He won two state titles at Central and was named Mr. Basketball as a senior. Despite Reggie's desire that he fulfill a commitment he'd made to Duke in November 2003, he declared for the NBA draft. It could have been the right move too -- if only he hadn't looked back.

* * * * *

Point guard Sam Cassell was a big reason for the Clippers' success last season. There's nothing like a braying, bowlegged, bald man with two championship rings to keep a team loose and focused at the same time. He was the one who convinced Brand to take crunch-time shots, who kept Cuttino Mobley and Chris Kaman in line, who persuaded Dunleavy to let the team run.

But a year later, the league is a beat quicker and the 37-year-old Cassell another step slower. And that was before he developed a sore left heel in November. He knows the torch has to be passed. Then again, he's not just going to hand it over. Livingston has to snatch it.

He reaches for it in the third quarter of a Dec. 29 win over the Kings. After the young point guard is nearly invisible in the first half (one point and one assist in 12 minutes), Cassell, his heel relegating him to street clothes, begins to bark orders from the bench. "Sam," Livingston says, "I got this. Let me handle it."

And he does. He nails jumpers, mixes in drives and fires laser passes that lead to layups, and the Clippers saunter to a 102-93 win. Livingston even shows a mean streak when he yanks down Mike Bibby by his ankle after being knocked over on his way to the hoop. "We looked more like a team tonight," he says afterward. "I pushed, attacked, explored, and they responded."

Shaun Livingston and Sam Cassell
Barry Gossage/Getty ImagesThe passing of the torch at the point guard position hasn't gone as smoothly as possible.

A week later, though, his bravado has evaporated again, and the Clippers disappear right along with him. Livingston fails to take advantage of an eight-inch advantage over the Hawks' Speedy Claxton and winces or curses after every one of his nine misses in a 2-for-11, eight-point outing during an 86-74 loss in Atlanta. "It's not like we're not going to listen to him," says swingman Tim Thomas. "But he has to learn to be vocal. That comes with the job." In the postgame locker room, Cassell, who was in uniform but didn't play, stands six feet from Livingston. He says, for everyone to hear: "It's not X's and O's. We're missing leadership, missing direction."

Two nights later, in Oklahoma City, Cassell shows everyone what he means. When the Hornets, minus Chris Paul and two other starters, jump out to a quick lead, Dunleavy pulls Livingston for Cassell. The energy surge is immediate. "Yeah, boy!" Cassell yells at Brand after a quick bucket. "Take the move away from him!" he scolds Mobley after a drive by Desmond Mason.

The Clippers pull away in the fourth as Cassell scores 12 of his 31 points. Livingston finishes with nine points and seven assists, but his presence is barely felt down the stretch. After the game, the old vet takes a final shot. "When you have the ball in your hands, people from your team are looking for you to do something with it," he says. "You can't be afraid to take chances. If Shaun is open, no matter what time is on the clock, he has to shoot. He's got to understand that aspect of professional basketball."

Livingston is not around to hear him this time. But he's listened to versions of it before. Maybe the words sting for a moment, but they never seem to stick, and he always finds a way to make peace with Cassell, just as he has with Darling, whom he went back to visit after his rookie year. And just as he has with his mom, whom he agreed to meet after she abruptly reached out to him when he was 16.

This is, at heart, still a fragile 21-year-old man-child who wants there never to be hard feelings. When his mother told him he had a second younger half sister -- he already knew Reggie's 12-year-old daughter, Sarah -- he had portraits painted of Sarah and 17-year-old Blair and hung them outside his bedroom in his Playa del Rey house. "When I come up the stairs, regardless of what kind of day I've had, they're here with me," he says.

And he's not giving up on his relationship with Reggie, who says it's no accident that Shaun's December surge coincided with his visit. "I could tell him what he needs to work on, but he's got to come to me on his own," Reggie says. "We're going to sit down after the season and talk. Two years, and he'll be where he needs to be. He'll be a leader."

But that's the problem: Shaun doesn't have two years. The Clippers may have resisted the Sixers' AI overture earlier this season, but more recently they were prepared to send their stalled point guard and Mobley to New Jersey for Vince Carter and Marcus Williams. Only the Nets' insistence on getting Corey Maggette, not Mobley, torpedoed the deal.

So for now, his teammates will continue to marvel at the ease with which he breaks pressure and whips passes, even as they plead for him to do more. Meanwhile, the Clippers will meander along, possibly making the playoffs but coming nowhere close to last season's run, and Livingston will stew and curse himself when he doesn't live up to expectations.

And everyone will wait.

"We're not winning, and maybe that would change if I took more shots, but I'm still going to play the right way," he says. "I feel I have to."

At least now you know why.

Ric Bucher is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Ric Bucher

NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer