One of the most exciting NBA Championship series in recent times was the one that ended the 2015 season. Not only was the competition fierce and the outcome unpredictable, but there were also a number of uplifting personal interest stories involving many of the players. The best of which, in my view, was the story of Shaun Livingston.
For those unfamiliar with his story: On February 26, 2007, only three years after being selected fourth overall in the NBA draft, Shaun Livingston drove for a contested layup against Raymond Felton, of the Charlotte Bobcats. Following his shot and while the ball banged around the rim, Shaun landed awkwardly on his left leg. His knee twisted in a gruesome fashion, dislocating his knee – tearing his ACL, PCL and MCL and both menisci in the process – and dislocating his kneecap as well. This was an injury that no prior NBA player had ever sustained, let alone come back from. As he lay on the ground writhing and screaming in pain, no one would ever imagine, least of all, I suspect, Shaun himself, that he would not only return to playing NBA basketball, but that he would one day be a crucial player on The Golden State Warriors 2015 Championship team, as well.
WARNING! The following video shows the knee injury that Shaun Livingston sustained. It is graphic and may be upsetting to some.
How did he get to here from there? I don’t know Shaun Livingston. I’ve never had the pleasure to meet or speak with him, so I don’t know the details firsthand. But as a sports medicine surgeon who has cared for athletes at all levels, I have treated athletes who also have sustained similarly devastating injuries and managed comebacks. The hurdles one encounters on the path from injury to return are often similar. In Shaun’s story, there are lessons that many other injured athletes facing the same challenge can learn. So let me give you some insight on what Shaun may have faced and how he may have overcome these obstacles.
1. Move from “Why?” to “What’s Next?”
Often, the first emotion experienced, after such an injury, is disbelief. When Shaun fell to the floor, in addition to the intense pain he would have experienced, he likely felt shock at what had just happened. After all, he had made the same move hundreds, possibly thousands, of times and he had never been injured like this before. Later, once stable and aware of what had occurred, Shaun likely wondered “Why this time?”, “Why couldn’t I have done something differently?” and ultimately, “Why me?”.
Worrying about “Why?” prevents you from getting to “What next?”, a more useful concern and the real start of your recovery. Shaun clearly pushed himself from “Why?” to “What next?”, and you will need to do so as well.
2. Fear is normal – Don’t let it stop you
Sean was likely frightened by the unknown. Not only the unknown of what the treatment entailed but also the ultimate end result. This is a common emotion among recently injured athletes. They are often dependent on their athletic abilities for much of their sense of self worth. For professional athletes, who are also dependent on their abilities for their livelihood as well, their fear is often understandibly magnified. As a result, this concern can become overwhelming.
Shaun’s particular case was likely even more worrisome due to the severity of his injury. He had a dislocation of his knee (further complicated by a dislocation of his knee cap). Knees that are dislocated can get blood vessel injuries. Such injuries can necessitate an amputation. Additionally, nerve injuries can occur. These can lead to a poorly functioning leg. Obviously, either of these would have been devastating and would almost certainly have prevented Shaun’s return to basketball, ever. Shaun obviously overcame his fear. This enabled him to move forward. If Shaun could do it, with the severity of his injuries, you can too.
3. Get a road map and be part of the solution team
Fear is understandable – But it can often be put to rest by an appreciation of the treatment plan and a “buy-in” by the athlete to that plan. I imagine Shaun’s surgeon spent considerable time explaining the course from beginning to end so that Shaun would have a good overview of the path ahead. This is critical. A map makes any journey easier.
I also find that athletes respond well to a shared decision making process. A plan in which the treatment is fit to the patient, rather than the patient to the treatment. This gives the athlete some ownership of the outcome. It makes the plan not just “mine”, but “ours”. The injured athlete is once again part of a team. This is a position athletes understand, are comfortable with and thrive in. So, don’t remain on the bench, define the path ahead and get back in the game.
4. The recovery will be long, tough and painful – Take it as a challenge, not as a burden
In Shaun’s particular case, multiple structures in his knee were torn. Consequently the necessary surgery was extensive. Furthermore, the postoperative treatment for this type of injury must be very slow and deliberate. Often even weight bearing on the surgical leg is not possible for weeks, if not months.
To an athlete, this level of restricted ability and subsequent dependancy can be demoralizing. Additionally, the recovery is often lengthy and frequently there are unexpected setbacks. Usually the recovery requires frequent and painful physical therapy sessions and early on, a need to relearn how to perform even simple, everyday activities. As a result, significant anxiety and even clinical depression can occur. Shaun may or may not have experienced this degree of despondency, but whatever level of sadness he experienced, he surely was able to overcome it and keep going forward. Don’t let your recovery keep you “down” – Get up and keep going (and get help if you need it).
5. You will be bad before you are good but “good” may be just around the corner
The recovery from an injury such as Shaun’s, can take over a year for the final result to be reached. Shaun was likely many months into his recovery before he could even jog, let alone sprint, cut or jump. It was nearly a year and a half before he was cleared by his surgeon to play basketball again, and by his own account, many more months before he felt as though he could play to his satisfaction. The dedication and perseverance needed to overcome an injury like this cannot be overerstated. Those recovering from such injuries need to remember that like most difficult challenges, the break-through point is often just around the corner. So, don’t stop working “until the final whistle blows”.
6. Perseverance and hard work can lead to victory
Shaun ultimately returned to the NBA. Even then, however, he still was viewed by many as “not good enough”. As a result, Shaun moved from one team to another, playing on nine different squads from 2008, when he first returned, until 2014. A once 4th pick in the draft, couldn’t even make a team. And yet he kept pushing on. Ultimately he was picked up by Golden State and didn’t just fill out their roster but with dedication and more hard work, he became an impact player on their Championship squad. If you stop before your recovery is complete, you won’t fully recover. Keep working…and when you’re done…work some more.
Now Shaun Livingston is a World Champion (in more ways than one). His story is not just a “feel good” tale, but a lesson for all injured athletes. No matter how bad the injury, how slow and difficult the recovery and how far away success appears to be, it can often be achieved. It will take work, dedication and a “can-do” attitude. But with all that, you too can once again be a champ.