By Cheryl Magness
In 2016, Concordia Lutheran School, a Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) K–8 grade school in Peoria, Ill., dedicated a major expansion of its facility, including a new gym, stage with sound system, and storm shelter.
NBA player Shaun Livingston of the Golden State Warriors was at the ceremony. Livingston, who graduated from Concordia in 2000, gave $1 million to the capital campaign to fund the expansion.
Kirk Wessler, a member of Christ Lutheran Church in Peoria and former sports writer and editor for the Peoria Journal Star, relates the details of Livingston’s gift to the school in his 2016 feature story, “Shaun Livingston and the Friendship Worth More than $1 Million.”
Wessler tells of Livingston’s childhood in Peoria and his grandfather’s desire that he be in church. So even though the family was not Lutheran, Livingston began attending Trinity Lutheran Church in downtown Peoria because it was the closest church within walking distance.
“At Trinity,” writes Wessler, “Shaun would be baptized, with longtime Concordia teachers Tom and Ruth Ruppert standing as his godparents. He would enroll at Concordia for kindergarten, which was taught by Ruth, and years later, in eighth grade, star for a Lutheran Sports Association state championship basketball team coached by Tom.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Livingston went on to become a star player on his high school basketball team. He went directly from high school to play for the NBA, but in 2007 sustained a catastrophic knee injury that nearly ended his career.
Now, 12 years later, he has three NBA championships with the Golden State Warriors and is looking for a fourth.
But Livingston hasn’t forgotten where he came from.
On Feb. 28, Livingston was honored as a Hall of Fame Laureate by Junior Achievement (JA) of Central Illinois. According to JA, the honor is given to those who “serve as inspiring role models for young people and epitomize leaders that inspire the next generation with their passion, values, and commitment.”
Because the Golden State Warriors’ game schedule prevented Livingston from attending the Feb. 28 ceremony, Shaun’s father, Reggie Livingston, accepted the award on his behalf. Shaun asked Jo Freudenburg, widow of his former pastor at Trinity, the Rev. Gerald V. Freudenburg, to serve as presenter.
Asked why he invited his former pastor’s wife to present his award at the JA ceremony, Livingston said, “I have known Mrs. Freudenburg since kindergarten. She represents a Christian community in Peoria where I felt supported, was accepted and thrived.
“I am grateful and honored that she spoke on my behalf.”
Wessler explains a little more about Livingston’s connection to the Freudenburg family in his 2016 story:
“Gerald Freudenburg, who died in 2010, was the head pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church from 1970–95. He and Jo had four daughters before [their son] Jerry came along. …
“But Jerry was born with spina bifida. He is passionate about sports, but due to limitations from his birth defect … [he] can’t play. …
“Shaun knew Jerry long before Jerry knew him, hardly surprising given their 18-year age difference. Shaun was a little kid, attending church at Trinity, and Jerry was the head pastor’s son, the young man in the wheelchair.”
In spite of that age difference, a friendship was forged — a friendship that has lasted over 20 years.
As she presented Livingston’s award at the JA banquet on Feb. 28, Jo Freudenburg outlined the depths of Livingston’s loyalty to his Peoria roots:
“Life wasn’t always easy for Shaun. When you’re the MVP tournament after tournament, two-time state champion, Duke University signee, [you] skip college for [the] NBA, there are temptations. He fought against those temptations, overcame them and stayed on track. Now that he is playing basketball on the ultimate stage, he hasn’t forgotten where he came from.
“When our son, Jerry, was very sick, Shaun told us how he had been praying for him every day. Then he followed that by insisting that he fly Jerry from Florida to Peoria for the ‘Evening with Shaun Livingston’ [fundraiser for the Concordia Lutheran School capital campaign]. … Shaun’s love and care to my son … has given my son the feeling that he is valued.”
‘My friend, Shaun Livingston’
Wessler tells of the illness that almost killed Jerry Freudenburg and the role Livingston played in his recovery:
“A bladder infection had spread to [Jerry Freudenburg’s] kidneys and lungs, and his organs were shutting down. In a Florida hospital, the former Peorian lapsed into a coma. His family spread the word among friends: Pray.
“His mother, Jo, who still lives in Peoria, prepared for the worst but never wavered in her faith, and today she laughs with pride as she tells what happened:
“‘Jerry came out of the coma, and the doctor told us that when he was able to talk, the first thing Jerry said was, ‘I’ve got tickets to the Warriors game (against the Orlando Magic). And I’m going.’ The doctor said he never saw anybody work so hard to rehab.’
“No way Jerry was going to miss that game,” Wessler writes. “He had to go. Had to see one of the people who had been praying for him. Had to smuggle a batch of macadamia chocolate chip cookies into the arena and give them to the Warriors player he calls ‘my friend Shaun Livingston.’ …
“‘I know how hard Shaun had it,’ Jerry says. ‘If he can come back [from his knee injury], I can, too.’
“Shaun shakes his head to hear that: ‘Amazing! He almost died!’”
Full disclosure: this reporter was a member of Trinity, Peoria, in the ‘90s while Shaun was attending Trinity and playing basketball for Concordia. At the time, my husband, Cantor Phillip Magness, was Trinity’s director of parish music as well as director of a community children’s choir, the Peoria Area Youth Chorus.
Shaun sang in both Trinity’s children’s choir and the Peoria Area Youth Chorus. Often, while attending church alone, he would go up to the church balcony and sit with my husband, who would be there playing organ. My husband also remembers playing basketball with Shaun.
“A group of adult men would meet for some ‘geezer-ball’ on Sunday nights,” Magness recalls. “We had one rule: no kids. But we made an exception for Shaun.
“I remember a couple of the older high school boys who had come up for the time slot after us complaining that we let Shaun on the court. Our answer was simple: ‘But he’s Shaun! He can play anytime, anywhere.'”
After Rev. Gerald Freudenburg’s death, Jo Freudenburg gave Shaun the cross her husband used to wear while preaching.
Legacy of caring
In a videotaped response that was played at the JA banquet, Livingston reflected on his life — from his childhood in Peoria to his school days, basketball career and ongoing philanthropic work — and concluded, “My greatest accomplishment is being a father [and] being a husband. … The [Shaun Livingston] Foundation [is] a passion. … Our mission is … to help inspire the next generation … to leave a legacy … to inspire others. Thank you, Junior Achievement, for inducting me into the Hall of Fame.”
Freudenburg’s speech to JA sums up the pride that Trinity — and the entire city of Peoria — still feels at being able to say they knew Livingston when he was only dreaming of the NBA:
“Shaun continues to give back to the Peoria community. For example, he provided the weight room at his alma mater, Peoria Central High, and Concordia’s beautiful gym. Every summer Shaun partners with the ‘Pride of Peoria’ in providing free basketball camps to over 300 youth in the area. He also awards scholarships for less privileged minority students to attend Concordia.
“Along with the Peoria African-American Police League, he sponsors a bicycle ride to encourage positive police interaction. He provides Thanksgiving meals and Christmas gifts to deserving families and many other acts of giving and caring.
“Shaun is an excellent role model for our young people today. He is also a devoted husband and father. He is an outstanding example of the kind of person young people in junior achievement aspire to be.”
Posted March 13, 2019