Shaun Livingston never feared the worst.
Not on that fateful March night in Los Angeles after Clippers fans watched the man that was to be their future crumble to the floor in what is perhaps the worst knee injury ever suffered on an NBA court, or when doctors later told him that the injury might require a partial amputation of his left leg.
Retirement? Funny, it never crossed his mind.
"It didn't factor in that this was a career-threatening injury," Livingston says, matter of factly. "I wasn't reading any articles or watching TV. I was just keeping to myself and my family, and praying about it. I was thinking of it as something that happened, I'd be out for a little bit and bounce right back."
Now that optimism appears to be paying off. Though a source within the Clippers organization says the team expects to have Livingston back in March, almost one year after the 21-year-old point guard tore his MCL, ACL, PCL and lateral meniscus -- and dislocated his patella and tibia-femoral, to boot -- during a contest with the Bobcats, Livingston believes he can do better.
"I would love to be back sometime in January so I can have most of the season to get my team to the playoffs," he says. "Is that a realistic goal? I don't know yet. We still have some steps to get through and test it out."
Those tests take place at the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic in L.A., where Livingston has bunkered down in a five-days-a-week rehabilitation program.
"Rehab is going good," he says. "I'm actually making progress as far as running in the pool, getting my technique back and retraining my body in terms of basketball movement in the pool. The next step is to start running on the treadmill."
With Livingston, there's always a next step. The step he was expected to take last season in supplanting 37-year-old Sam Cassell as the team's floor leader. The step toward realizing the potential the Clippers saw when they selected the highly touted, Peoria (Ill.) Central prep star fourth overall in the 2004 NBA draft. A step that the long-armed, 6-foot-7 point guard with superior court vision and ball-handling skills has failed to climb due largely to a series of injuries.
As a rookie, Livingston missed 39 games with a dislocated right knee and another 12 when he tore cartilage in his right shoulder. Last season, he sat out the first 21 games with a stress reaction in his lower back before suffering what Clippers physician Dr. Tony Daly would call "probably the most serious injury you can have to the knee," an injury so graphic that media outlets would prompt weak-stomached viewers to turn their heads. Admits Livingston, "I've been unfortunate. I've had some freak accidents happen."
A freak injury, though, is a random one -- with an emphasis on one -- as in, an unforeseen, atypical, nonrecurring deal. An athlete can suffer from an injury or two, and safely refer to them as freakish. But a jock who misses huge chunks of time with four injuries in a three-year career -- a career in which said jock has yet to play a full season -- often goes by another term: injury prone.
That's exactly what this gangly kid with a soft voice has become, and he knows it, and he even knows why, so he's taking measures that he hopes will exterminate the injury bug, or at least keep the critter at bay.
"I think it's because I'm very slender, and in the NBA, there's an everyday grind. So I'm in the gym every day, working out, lifting weights, just trying to fill out," he says, before hedging his bet, adding that he isn't sure if he'll raise his playing weight from 194 pounds of seasons past. "Genetically, my mom and uncles are tall and slim. And I'm a point guard. I need to guard fast guys. I need my speed and agility as well. That's part of my game."
Livingston will be present when the Clippers start training camp Tuesday, but he admits that his time on the shelf has nudged him to consider a life outside the game, which now includes what he calls a more "proactive" approach to his 3-year-old namesake charity and investments in both real estate and movie producing.
"The injury allowed me to spread my wings and think outside the box a little bit, take a step back and game plan for five to 15 years from now," he says.
In the meantime, the Clippers have addressed Livingston's absence by acquiring journeyman point guard Brevin Knight to spell the creaky Cassell and drafting Marist's Jared Jordan, a player many draft pundits hailed as a playmaker, an attribute often used to describe the Clippers' incumbent point guard of the future.
Livingston, for his part, isn't concerned with the incoming competition.
"They've brought in guards before," he says. "I think they'll give me a fair shot to compete. Even the best guards in the league compete, day in and day out. It's going to cause me to step up my game."
Like most of his teammates, Cuttino Mobley has kept close tabs on the ailing youngster, and while Mobley appreciates Livingston's forward thinking, he also stresses caution.
"I wouldn't rush him because it's a major injury, and you want it to heal as best as possible," Mobley says. "He's been through a lot, but he's young and he's got a really, really bright light ahead of him."
Elton Brand, who is also expected to be on the shelf for most of the season due to a torn Achilles injury, has been keeping watch on his fellow ailing Clip, too, and he couldn't be more impressed.
"Shaun's going to be ready," he says. "He's a young kid, an intelligent kid, and he's working it the right way to get back out there. He's still got a future."
Livingston couldn't agree more.
"I still think I have a shot to come in and make a major impact and be the Clippers' lead guard of the future," he says. "I still feel like I have a future, and my future is their future. That's how they want me to feel. That's how they want me to think.
"It's up to me where I take it from here."
Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles. His Media Blitz column appears in ESPN The Magazine and regularly on Page 2. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.