Chris Livingston is just trying to follow LeBron

by Andrew Favakeh

Exceptional basketball ability is a path out of Akron for Chris Livingston. It also brings the inevitable comparisons to LeBron James.

Chris Livingston tried to keep his head down. He knew LeBron James was coming to see him play. He was excited, but he wanted to stay focused.

He was throwing down acrobatic dunks in layup lines when James, surrounded by security, his longtime business partner Maverick Carter and a few friends, climbed up to the ninth row of the bleachers of the Desert Oasis Gym five miles from the Las Vegas strip.

As Livingston’s team huddled up for its first game of the July 2018 Las Vegas Fab48 tournament, he looked up at LeBron for the first time and allowed himself this thought: I’m going to make it out of Akron one day. Like LeBron.

Livingston is now a 6-foot-6 rising junior rated in the top five in the class of 2022, according to ESPN, averaging 32.5 points, 12.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.9 steals, and 1.4 blocks for Western Reserve Academy, a private boarding school. Back then, though, he was just an eighth-grader.

He had never seen LeBron in person, much less met him. With one minute left, Livingston checked out of the game having dropped 25 points, and crouched on the sidelines next to the bench, draping his wiry arms over his knees. As the clock winded down, Livingston felt a tap on his shoulder, and turned around.

“Keep working,” LeBron told Livingston, before disappearing through the tunnel. After the game, LeBron made an Instagram post, shouting out Livingston: Alongside a highlight video of Livingston was the caption: Keep going Young King!!! #JustAnotherKidFromAkron #striveforgreatness

“You never get to see an NBA great watch you play, let alone in front of your team,” Livingston told The Step Back in a recent interview. “But you can’t think too much of it, because I haven’t done much yet, haven’t made it anywhere, but it’s just like, I don’t think about it too much, though. I try not to.”

The next week, in early August 2018, Livingston found himself competing with and against LeBron in a private workout in an Akron gym, alongside Dru Joyce, LeBron’s former teammate at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School; an esteemed Los Angles trainer; and a few other NBA stars. Here, Livingston found what it might actually take to make it out of Akron.

It was a humbling experience. On one play, Devin Booker cooked him in the high post, and on another, D’Angelo Russell burned him. But, by the end of the workout, LeBron had seen, well, himself, in Livingston, and offered words of advice.

“Control the game, be the man on the floor, be the best player out there every night,” Livingston remembers LeBron advising him. “Improve the way I carry myself on and off the court. Obviously, he knows I have the skill, but he knows I have to keep working. Obviously, I haven’t made it yet, but he wants me to perfect me mentally to be a better leader on and off the floor.”

Chris Livingston didn’t fall for basketball right away. When Chris was five years old, his grandmother gave him an ultimatum: “You have to play a sport,” she said. Before long, Chris was competing everywhere against his twin brother, Cordell. In daycare. In their grandmother’s driveway, playing one-on-one to 33 points. When he participated in the Tiny Tots camp, a local basketball organization, at six-years-old, Chris officially fell for basketball.

That’s where Sonny Johnson, the head coach at Kenmore-Garfield High School, a public school in Akron, first saw Chris play. He walked up to Joe Livingston, Chris’ grandfather, and invited Chris to play for his AAU team in a tournament in Florida later in the week. Though Chris could not attend, it was the first time Joe realized Chris actually had a shot to make it out of Akron.

“He was the first to say this kid is going to be something special,” Joe said. “It added motivation to keep working, to further his development. To me, I had no futuristic goals for him, I was being a granddad and I wanted to do the best I can do.”

Joe had tried to make it out of Akron but never did. Years before, he had been the chosen one, a boxer with a 13-0 record, competing against the likes of Michael Doakes (who ended with a 53-6 career record and who held the WBA heavyweight belt in 1982 and 1983). But then, at 18 years old, the streets swallowed him whole. He became consumed in drugs, gangs — and his own hype. He wanted Chris to make it out of Akron because he never did.

Joe used boxing techniques to train Chris and Cordell. He focused on conditioning. He had them run the trodden hills at his alma mater, Akron South High School, had them do frog-jumps on the creaky bleacher steps, pushups on the dusty track. It’s not like he was just pushing them athletically, though. In daily conversations at their house in Northeast Ohio, he also reminded them what happens when you fail to make it out of Akron.

“I wanted them to learn from my mistakes, my negative experiences,” Joe said. “I would tell them my stories about what I did. Tell them you don’t want to do this, you don’t want to go down that road.”

Joe effectively acted as the father Chris had never met. With Joe’s pushing, Chris started to believe in himself, started to believe he could make it out of Akron.

“I feel as though he’s kind of a father figure,” Chris said. “He helps me a lot through me and my brother’s workouts and things like that. I feel as though he helps me a lot, and he just wants us to be great as people, as men on and off the court. He’s been there from the jump, his love for us, so he pushes us, takes us to workouts, things like that. Talks to people about basketball that needs to be talked to, communicates with people, so I feel that I’m very appreciative of him.”

Chris’s mom, Julia Livingston, did everything in her power to shield her sons from the influences of Akron — the gangs, the drugs.

Every morning, she would read news articles from The Akron Beacon Journal about, say, how a robber was jailed for his crimes, and think: That could be Chris. Then, she would show Chris, and warn him: This is what happens when Akron consumes you. She would also monitor who Chris hung around. Monitor whether his friends, mentors, coaches possessed the right intentions.

In 2015, a fifth-grade Chris saw Julia, who had graduated from Kent State with a bachelor’s degree, enroll in Northeast Ohio Medical University’s pharmacy school. He saw her attend classes, study 40 hours per week, and intern at Cleveland Clinic-Hillcrest Hospital in Mayfield Heights, and still make time to be a loving mother. She embodied hard work.

In 2019, she graduated.

“When she was struggling, we all were,” Chris Livingston said. “So when she picked it up, and really went to work, put her head down, doing her thing, it’s inspiring because no one expected her to do what she’s doing.”

When his family could afford a trainer in fourth grade, Chris elevated himself to new levels. He added a variety of advanced moves to his bag: drop-hesitations, hang-dribbles, pro-steps. By the time he started playing on the AAU circuit as a fifth-grader, there were YouTube videos of his highlights, alongside the caption: “5th Grader Chris Livingston has BIG POTENTIAL.” Some fifth-graders might bask in the glow of the recognition. Not Chris Livingston.

Scrolling through the videos, he would feel proud, then stop and think: I haven’t made it out. Not yet. 

Livingston started to play against older competition on the AAU circuit and on the middle school team. He wanted to challenge himself. In matchups against Toledo Elite, he always demanded to defend Emoni Bates, the number-one recruit in the 2022 class (one game, in eighth grade, he outscored Bates 53 points to 41 in a win). LeBron nicknamed him “Young King.” Livingston embraces the nickname because it serves as a measuring stick he has to reach on and off the court.

Flying back-and-forth for AAU tournaments, middle school games, and training sessions, Livingston admitted he would get mentally fatigued. But he wouldn’t give up.

In sixth grade, Livingston averaged 17 points, 10 rebounds and 3 assists, leading his middle school team to the state championship. He also threw down his first dunk in an AAU game, a rim-grazer, catching the surprise of onlookers (he’s in sixth grade?). At this point came the inevitable comparisons to LeBron. (One video from D-Rich TV, an Akron-based channel, was captioned “Chris Livingston Is Akron’s Next “CHOSEN ONE”). He was uncomfortable with the hype, the interviews. He simply wanted to ball; the court was his safe haven. That summer, he revamped his shot mechanics, from a side-winding, slow-release to a straight, quick release.

“Every year, he added something to his game,” said Marcus Grimes, his middle-school coach. “Whether it was ball-handling, changing his shot. The most important thing that made him who he has become, is his motor. He can just go and never get tired.”

In seventh grade, he averaged 22.5 points, 10 rebounds, 3.5 assists, leading his middle-school team to another championship. Scholarship offers started to pile up (Ohio State, Florida, Indiana). He focused on improving his pace — not too slow, not too fast — which would enable him to play both guard positions. (He’s played point guard both years in high school.)

“Before, he was just an athlete to me, but now, he can really handle the ball,” Reggie Lewis, who started training him in eighth grade, said.

By eighth grade, opposing defenses, well aware of his exploits, started to suffocate Livingston with box-and-ones, double-teams, and even triple-teams. It didn’t matter. Livingston averaged 33 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 assists, leading his middle school team to a championship in the top league. He wasn’t just motivated on the court, but in the classroom, where he was named the valedictorian. Education offered another potential route out of Akron.

“When you go hard at him, he just gets better and better,” Grimes said. “It’s just rare, these guys are pushing him around, and next thing you know, he’s the one dominating, he’s the one winning. He’s just automatically driven. I don’t know where he got it from, but that’s him,” Grimes said.

In his freshman season at Buchtel High School, Livingston averaged 23.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 1.5 assists, and led the Griffins to a 20-8 record and a State Semifinal appearance. His play earned him a selection to Team USA in the U16 FIBA Americas.

In the first game with Team USA in the U16 FIBA Americas, Chris Livingston looked like anyone but himself. He missed shot after shot, going 3-of-11. So when he saw the opportunity for a statement, he tried to make one by throwing down a two-handed dunk over a defender, slapping the ball as it swished through the net, and getting in his opponent’s face.

He was called for a technical foul and benched for the rest of the game.

After the game, Mike Jones, the Team USA coach, sat down Livingston and lectured him.

“It was a bad look on Team USA management, the Team USA coach, I got yelled at for it, talked to about it,” Livingston said. “They told me what I did wrong, how to better myself. I had to sit out, they said, because I have to earn the Team USA jersey back.”

The next game against Mexico, Jones benched Livingston. Instead of sulking, he cheered on his teammates from the bench.

“It helped me put my pride to the side,” Livingston said about the technical foul. “Because I wouldn’t have been put into that position to even play if my pride wasn’t to the side, learning from my mistake. I feel as though my mindset grew. I realized: This is bigger than me.”

Over the next four games, Livingston went on a scoring spree — recording 13, 14, 17, and 23 points — guiding Team USA to a Gold Medal and earning tournament MVP.

After the game, Livingston opened Twitter to a notification from LeBron, reading: “Akron boys are just built a certain way!! Congrats lil bro #330.”

LeBron’s tweet thrilled Livingston. It was someone from the “same city, same situation” showing love. What resonated with him most, though, was this line: “Akron boys are just built a certain way.”

Away from the court, Livingston finds solace in his bedroom — drawing anime (especially Goku from Dragon Ball Z), painting (self-portraits, his initials and his number 24), and calculating math problems (his favorite subject). Wherever he is, he’s probably listening to rapper Never Broke Again YoungBoy because, as Cordell put it, “you can hear the pain in his voice.”

“He’s shy, he won’t talk to you until he gets to know you,” Carlos Carneal, Livingston’s AAU coach since fourth grade, said. “But when he steps out on that court, he’s a whole different person. Chris doesn’t think anybody else out there is better than him if I’m being honest with you, sir. He steps out on that court, he turns into a whole different person.”

Resiliency got him to this point — and could determine just how far he goes. One game his sophomore year, on Jan. 9, 5-5 Western Reserve Academy faced off against undefeated International Sports Academy, which had Meechie Johnson (Ohio State commit), Charles Bediako (Duke commit), Keon Ambrose (Alabama commit). As Livingston walked through the tunnel, fans showered him with criticism: You’re overrated! All you can do is dunk! You’re a ball hog!

Livingston thought: I’ll show them. His team lost, 72-61, and he scored (only) 18 points. His teammates, though, saw him give it his all. They knew he was coming months before the school year. They expected a lot out of him. After all, he was the “Young King.”

“Chris is not a guy of many words, he lets his actions but I remember one guy was talking stuff to him,” Cameron Baker, Western Reserve starting point guard, said. “So everyone knew at that point, he’s gonna bring everything he has to the table, attacking the rim, playing defense, lifting the team up, just being a leader by example.”

Every morning, one hour before practice, Chris would be firing shot after shot with Grandpa Joe and Cordell. Every afternoon, three hours after practice, he would still be there.

“I would go to baseball practice after basketball practice and he would be in the gym shooting for three hours after,” said Michael Mylott, Western Reserve starting power forward and captain who recently committed to Bradley University to play baseball. “He’s crazy. He has a crazy work ethic.”

Every year, Livingston faces stingier competition. One game, against star-studded Hill High School, Livingston didn’t score in the first half. (He had to sit because he had three fouls in the first quarter.) In the locker room, Reggie Lewis, a Western Reserve assistant coach, asked: “What are you doing?”

“It doesn’t take much for Chris to get aggressive,” Lewis said. “He doesn’t say much. He said, ‘I gotchu.’”

Livingston finished with 36 points, but Western Reserve Academy lost 95-75. In the locker room, he felt defeated, as he often did, since Western Reserve finished the season 13-16.

Livingston knows he can improve. Get comfortable in his skin during interviews. Improve his leadership. Slow down, find his spots. And he’ll have to if he wants to reach his goal.

“I don’t just want to make it out [of Akron],” he said. “I want to be one of the greatest to ever play in the NBA.”

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I am a rising senior at Butler University. I am a reporter and associate sport editor for the Butler Collegian, the student newspaper. I also write for SB Nation's Liberty Ballers and a write longform features for The StepBack.