During a fifth-grade game against his childhood friend, Denzel Livingston discovered his talent as a shooter. It had been a down game for Livingston, but now he just needed to find a way to get the ball in the hoop one final time.
As the clock wound down, a lucky bounce put the ball in Livingston’s hands. He made the shot, and, as Denzel’s older brother Jarel recalls, “We all went crazy. We just picked him up and ran all over the court.”
Last December, a 21-year-old Livingston took part in a similar celebration when his tiny university, San Antonio’s Incarnate Word, flew into Lincoln, Nebraska, and defeated the Nebraska Cornhuskers of the Big Ten Conference. The stunning victory made ESPN's Sportscenter and put UIW — which two years ago wasn't even a Division I program — on the map nationally.
Now Livingston hopes the momentum he picked up as a senior in college, when he ranked fourth in the nation in scoring, will be enough to get his name called at the NBA draft on June 25 in Brooklyn.
How He Got Here
Livingston's life hasn't been all buzzer-beaters and nationally important upsets, though. He grew up in inner-city Houston, Texas, where basketball distracted him from other temptations. His three older brothers always made sure to keep young Denzel in school and playing basketball.
“We kept him out of trouble and kept him out of the wrong crowd. We did everything we could to keep him out of the street life and all that,” says Jarel, who is six years older than Denzel. “I used to take him to play basketball with me when we were younger. I would always pick him on my team, and he would play against people my age. The one thing he always knew how to do was shoot the ball.”
Livingston recognizes all his family did for him. “A lot of people don’t have a support group like I do,” he says. “Whenever I wanted or needed something, they were there for me. I can never thank them enough.”
Livingston attended Waltrip High School, where he led the Rams to three playoff appearances. As a senior he led District 21-4A in scoring. Still, no one offered Livingston a scholarship. Schools worried about his size — he was 6’ 3” and 137 pounds — but one school and coach looked past that.
“I saw him in an All-Star game at the end of [that] year, and I saw he could shoot,” says Incarnate Word coach Ken Burmeister, whose school was at the time classified as Division II. “He was lacking some weight and strength for Division I. I thought we could put the weight on him.”
In his first two years of college, Livingston provided steady production. Strength coach Bryant Porter taught him how to eat and take care of his body. Finally, in his junior year — the same year Incarnate Word made its debut in Division I — Livingston added weight to his small frame and transitioned into a star.
He led his team with 20.3 points per game and filled the stat sheet by averaging 6.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.5 steals, and 1.4 blocks. Livingston also earned All-Southland Conference Defensive Team honors.
“We gave him the opportunity to show his talent,” says Burmeister of Livingston. “He had his moments as a freshman and sophomore, but as a junior, he was able to put it all together with the other players. He kept improving every year.”
As a senior, Livingston ranked fourth in scoring in NCAA Division I, with 21.5 points per game. He made the Southland Conference first team, earned first-team all-district from the National Association of Basketball Coaches, and ESPN’s Dick Vitale recognized Livingston as his player of the week in mid-February.
“I ended up with a chip on my shoulder to prove a lot of people wrong for not taking me,” says Livingston about not being offered a scholarship anywhere else. “I ended up at the right place.”
Preparing for Draft Day
At a small high school gym in San Antonio, a little less than two months before the draft, Livingston was training hard, polishing his game with drills for an hour.
Just days before, the Utah Jazz had granted Livingston a workout. Now, he was trying to improve his game while putting things in perspective.
“The whole process is unbelievable,” says Livingston. “I learned a lot about myself and the NBA skill level at the workout. Now I have to work on what I learned to get drafted. Getting drafted would just be all my hard work coming together, and it would be a dream come true.”
Since working out for the Jazz, Livingston has worked out for the team he grew up rooting for, the Houston Rockets, and also the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, and Memphis Grizzlies.
Livingston went from making a game-winning buzzer-beater in fifth grade to proving people wrong and earning national attention at Incarnate Word. Now, Livingston continues to work hard and hope an NBA team sees the same potential Burmeister and Incarnate Word saw.
“He’s always been a scorer,” says Burmeister. “I think his best skill is his defense. He plays very good defense, especially off the ball. He’s long, he gets big steals, and he can rebound.”
Not getting drafted won’t stop Livingston, however. If his name isn’t called on June 25, he hopes to play for a summer league team and sign as an undrafted free agent. He worked too hard to stop if he’s not drafted.
Whatever happens, his brother Jarel believes the world better be ready for a show.
“Watch out,” says Jarel. “When Denzel gets that opportunity, he’ll make the most of it, and he’ll prove a lot of people wrong, because where we come from, you gotta work for it. When you have the heart and the talent like he does, you know you can make it.”
Photos: Nati Harnik/AP