Illini’s Livingston deals with adversity through brother in NBA

Brian Yu The Daily Illini Illinois’ Sarah Livingston (4) shoots the ball during the game against Michigan at State Farm Center in Champaign, Ill. on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014. The Illini lost, 63-70.

By By: Stephen Bourbon

When the Illinois women’s basketball team hosted Michigan on Feb. 16, the game was bigger than usual for freshman forward Sarah Livingston.

While the Illini lost the contest and Livingston didn’t play well — no points and four fouls  — it was special for who was in the crowd that day. Her brother, Shaun, point guard of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, was in attendance to see her play collegiately for the first time.

The world sees Shaun Livingston, the former fourth overall pick in the 2004 NBA Draft who went directly out of high school as a lanky, 6-foot-7 point guard and never realized his untapped potential because of a devastating knee injury. To Sarah, he’s just her older brother.

Sarah is nine years younger than Shaun, and that age difference was sometimes a barrier when the two were younger.

“I think when I was younger, it was harder for us to relate to each other because the age difference was so big,” Sarah said. “But now even though he travels, we call each other every week, and we’re texting almost every day.”

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    Back when Sarah was just getting into sports as a kid, Shaun was already excelling at them. had Shaun as the No. 2 overall prospect coming out of high school. Shaun was named to the roster of the McDonald’s All-American game, a contest reserved for the top high school prospects in the nation. At 170 pounds, Shaun was a long, pass-first point guard with a gift for handling the ball and running a team.

    Being so lean, there was concern at his lack of strength and how it would translate to the NBA.

    Shaun committed to play at Duke; however, instead of playing with Coach K and the Blue Devils, Shaun decided to jump into the NBA straight from high school and was drafted by the Clippers fourth overall. The idea of her brother being one of the next NBA superstars did not dawn on Sarah until the family went to Madison Square Garden for the draft. That made things sink in a little more.

    “I was completely oblivious to the fact that he was good, like NBA good,” Sarah said. “I remember going to all of his games and I wouldn’t really watch any of his games — I was in third or fourth grade, so I wasn’t really that interested — but I would play under the bleachers and do little kid things.”

    While Shaun was a top-tier basketball prospect, Sarah had merely flirted with the idea of playing basketball starting in fifth grade. However, volleyball was her primary focus.

    Sarah broke the Morton High School record for aces in a career and ranks second all-time in kills. Her prowess on the volleyball court was not to be overmatched by her production on the basketball court, though, as Livingston finished fourth in school history in points and second in rebounding.

    In senior year, it was time to pick between her first love and her new passion. Livingston had an offer from Southern California to play collegiate volleyball, or multiple offers to play basketball, including Illinois, DePaul and Oklahoma State.

    Sarah would pick the in-state Illini and trade out hitting lines for free throw practice.

    “I’ve really fallen in love with the game of basketball,” Sarah said. “Just the coaches here made me feel like I was really going to grow as a person and a player here, and I wanted to see where basketball could go.”

    Sarah hit a midseason wall and lost much of her playing time when conference play started this season, but her struggles pale in comparison to what her brother endured.

    Coming into her freshman season at Illinois, Sarah was looking to compete for a starting position on a roster that returned only two forwards, neither of which averaged more than eight minutes per game last season.

    Along with classmate Jacqui Grant, Livingston battled throughout the preseason to earn the starting job at center as the team’s two tallest players.

    Grant eventually earned the starting spot and has thrived this season when healthy. She is averaging 13.4 points per game and 6.0 rebounds per contest and played some of the best basketball of the year as conference play began.

    As Grant’s play flourished, Livingston’s minutes waned. After playing 12.7 minutes per game in the nonconference season, Livingston was stuck with the first two DNPs of her career in January while averaging a meager 4.2 minutes per game in the Illini’s first eight conference games.

    While Sarah merely had her playing time cut, Shaun has dealt with the possibility of never playing the game again.

    On Feb. 26, 2007, as a member of the Clippers, Livingston took a steal and sprinted down the court with his loping strides. He went up for a layup, expecting contact from a defender that never came. When he landed, his left knee flew to the right and everything beneath splintered to the left as his leg buckled at a 90-degree angle inward. As play continued after the missed layup, Shaun remained down, clutching at the remnants of his tattered knee. It is one of the most horrific sports injuries to date, and many believed it would be career-ending.

    For Sarah, it was a nightmare in the most literal sense.

    “It was really scary,” Sarah said. “They were on western time, and I fell asleep with the TV muted watching his game in my room. I was sleeping, but I had a really bad nightmare and I woke up, sweating. I looked at the TV and, like, instantly after I looked at it, he went up for his layup and I saw the whole the thing. It was wild, just the weirdest thing to wake up to.”

    Shaun had torn his anterior cruciate ligament, posterior cruciate ligament, medial cruciate ligament and lateral meniscus as well as dislocating his patella and tibia-femoral joint.

    “We didn’t know what was going to happen, his knee was completely destroyed,” Sarah said. “I remember ‘amputation’ was being tossed around. I was really scared.”

    The initial fears of amputation were unfounded, but Shaun still had a long road to recovery ahead.

    “It made me realize every day could be my last day playing,” Sarah said. “And obviously, it was really hard for our family at the time, but watching him go through that made me realize that your days of playing basketball are limited and precious, and I think that really made me appreciate my health.”

    Livingston would work his way back from simply learning to walk again to running to playing basketball. Through years of rehab and hard work, Shaun was able to play again at the beginning of the 2008 season, nearly 20 months after the injury.

    After five years of 10-day contracts and being waived by different teams, Livingston has finally found a home with Brooklyn — starting 31 games this season while Deron Williams has sat out with injury.

    Things started to change for Sarah after a 19-point loss at home to Indiana on Feb. 2.

    Head coach Matt Bollant, looking for a spark after a disappointing defensive effort, reconfigured the lineup. With Grant sidelined due to mononucleosis, Livingston slid into the starting lineup along with fellow freshmen Ashley McConnell and Taylor Gleason.

    Livingston recorded two points, two rebounds and a steal in her first career start. She built on that performance and put together her best game of the conference season against Minnesota. The freshman put up 10 points and three rebounds to go with two blocks and two steals.

    Even with the lineup change, Sarah has by no means figured it all out. She has started each of the past five games and is scoring 3.8 points per game, as opposed to 0.4 in Big Ten games prior. She still plays like a freshman at times and is experiencing growing pains along with her teammates in an inconsistent season for an Illini team in the midst of an eight-game losing streak.

    “It would have been really easy to think, ‘Oh, well maybe this season is going to suck,’” Sarah said. “But I talked to (Shaun) a lot and he said, ‘You can come back from anything, this is just a few games you’re struggling. Imagine me struggling for years. It definitely made me realize you can overcome anything, whatever it is.”

    Moving up in competition with basketball has made Sarah lean on her older brother the professional basketball player more than ever. As Sarah started playing Division I basketball, their bond of being on the basketball court is stronger than ever.

    “He’s a really big influence in my life,” Sarah said. “This year, I’ve talked to him more than ever. The game is speeding up, everything is bigger, faster, stronger. I’ve definitely turned to him for advice on everything.”

    Shaun sits on the back of a seat in ‘A’ section of State Farm Center after the loss to Michigan, his wiry legs sprawled into the row beneath. Wearing an Illinois hoodie with the hood pulled over his head, he has rare time off with the NBA All-Star break. With a stable gig in Brooklyn, Shaun’s future is more assured than it has been since before the injury, nearly seven years ago exactly.

    Sarah’s narrative on the court is still to be written.

    In the first time seeing his sister in orange and blue, Shaun wasn’t concerned with the lack of production in the contest from Sarah.

    “Rarely do you see players have their best year as a freshman or as a rookie. You have to kind of learn the game,” Shaun said. “You’re learning the speed of the game and learning the system. High school to college is different, so she just has to learn the system for college, and I think she’ll be fine.”

    Even now, the sibling comparisons can be made because of the success of both Sarah and Shaun, nothing has changed in their relationship.

    “I’m one of her biggest fans, we have a real brother-sister relationship,” Shaun said. “We call each other and check on each other. Obviously, it’s long distance, so I don’t see her every day, but I support her, she supports me.

    “But before anything else, we’re brother and sister.”

    Stephen can be reached at [email protected] and @steve_bourbon.