'You're a basketball player man': Isaiah Livers' path to the hardwood
Damon Allison recognized it instantly.
He saw something before Morris and Angela Livers did. He even saw it before Isaiah Livers himself.
“I said ‘This kid is going to be the first kid out of Kalamazoo Central to go to the NBA,’” Allison said. “Mo and Ang were like ‘He’s not even a Division 1 player.’
Allison, who was an assistant coach at Kalamazoo Central High School when the 6-foot-4 freshman first caught his eye, knows a thing or two about talent evaluation. He coaches the Michigan Mustangs AAU team, where he’s worked with players like Derrick Walton and Monte Morris.
“I know a player when I see one,” Allison said. “And I said ‘Isaiah’s a player.’”
Livers was raw — Allison referred to him as a “chunky little thing” — and baseball was still his preferred sport. Nevertheless, Allison knew right away what Livers could become on a basketball court.
Allison had a tall task ahead of him though. First, he had to convince Mo and Angela of their son’s potential and that Isaiah should join his AAU program. Then, Allison had to lure him away from the baseball diamond. Livers’s travel baseball schedule was nonstop. Finding time to squeeze in weekend trips to AAU tournaments wasn’t going to be easy.
As a trusted name in Michigan’s basketball circles — and especially in the Kalamazoo area — Allison’s assurances resonated with Isaiah and his parents.
“I had Dad eyes,” Mo Livers said. “I didn’t see what he saw. I was like ‘Yeah, I guess Isaiah’s okay.’ But yeah Damon started telling me he was definitely a Division 1 player and that he could prove it to me.”
Having already coached him as a freshman, Allison guaranteed Mo and Angela that Isaiah could draw Division 1 interest on the AAU circuit.
The following July, Livers joined Allison’s Mustangs for three weekend tournaments. College coaches only get five opportunities to evaluate potential recruits throughout a calendar year. Two of these “live” periods occur in April. The other three occur in the middle of July as high schoolers from around the country participate in national AAU competitions.
The Mustangs already had a talented roster with the likes of future Michigan State Spartans Xavier Tillman and Foster Loyer. Livers put them on another level. The team made deep runs in each of the three tournaments it played in. Livers showed enough promise in those three weeks alone to warrant immediate Division 1 interest.
“When we came back Western Michigan and South Dakota or some school like that started reaching out to Isaiah right away,” Allison said. “So then Ang said, ‘I guess you were right.’ Mo and I both, we still throw that in Ang’s face, ‘I guess your son is a Division 1 player huh?’ ”
Morris “Mo” Livers grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. In 1991, he left his hometown of South Haven to play basketball at Kalamazoo Valley Community College. A few miles away, Angela Shea, who grew up on a small farm in northern Michigan, was a student at Western Michigan University.
The two met, eventually got married and started a family right there in Kalamazoo. To them, it was the perfect place to raise their children.
“Kalamazoo is a bigger city but has that small-town feel,” Angela said. “Isaiah grew up on a street with a multitude of friends and it was safe for him to ride up and down the street, go to the parks, go to the neighborhood 7-11 with his buddies on bikes. … They’d play basketball in the street. It was a safe area. It was fine for them to go out and play. I wouldn’t see him sometimes until the streetlight came on.”
Isaiah was the second of Mo and Angela’s kids. His brother, Branden, is five years older and his sister, Kennedy, is a year younger than Isaiah. All three have gone on to play sports in college. Branden played football at Grand Valley State and Kennedy is currently on the volleyball team there.
Branden’s interest in sports rubbed off on Isaiah from an early age. Whenever Mo was in the backyard with Branden running through football or basketball drills, Isaiah would join them.
“Isaiah was always right there so I just put Isaiah with him,” Mo said. “I was like ‘Well, you get in here too. Come take some handoffs and I’ll show you the correct way to throw the football and catch it with your hands. Don’t catch with your body.’
“He was probably about 7 or 8 when I started showing him. … He always just watched his older brother who really set the mark for all the kids. He was really good at all the sports and so we’d all go watch him and they all thought they had to be good because he was.”
Following in his brother’s footsteps, Isaiah began playing a number of different sports. Baseball was his first love, but football and basketball weren’t far behind. In addition to playing Little League and Pop Warner, Isaiah would also arrange casual games with other kids in the neighborhood. That non-stop motor Livers has exhibited over his three years in Ann Arbor originated on the streets of Kalamazoo.
“He didn’t sit still,” Angela recalls. “He wanted to always go do something. He always seemed to be the person who got everyone together to get a football game going or a video game tournament — they had so many of them downstairs in the basement. All the neighborhood boys, all night. … It seemed like a lot of the neighborhood kids would congregate at our house. Isaiah’s always had a big personality that people are attracted to.”
Despite playing pickup basketball games with his friends from a young age, Livers didn’t start playing organized basketball until the fifth grade. For the remainder of middle school and his freshman year at Kalamazoo Central, Isaiah played all three sports.
“We had the motto that most parents have — if you start a sport you have to finish it,” Isaiah told The Daily. “You have to think about it from the parents’ view. They’re paying for the start of the sport and if you just don’t finish it, you’re not getting value out of it. That was something that kinda stuck with me. There were many times where I wanted to quit playing baseball, quit basketball or quit playing football. But I always knew I had to finish it out because that’s what my parents raised me to do.”
Eventually though, Isaiah knew he couldn’t do it all. As a junior, Livers was a standout on a good Kalamazoo Central basketball team. He had been playing AAU for a few years by that point. His name was drawing more attention and schools from around the country came calling.
As the recruiting process was heating up, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find time for both basketball and baseball. Livers’s football career had already run its course and he knew either basketball or baseball was likely next in line. In order to fully capitalize on his abilities, he would have to focus on one.
“It was a lot of tug of war,” Mo said. “I would have to drive, his mom would have to drive and we would meet the coaches half way between. He would have weekends where he would play a baseball tournament and when he got done with that, he would get in the car and we’d drive halfway to Indianapolis and meet the AAU coach and he’d go play basketball for the rest of the weekend. So his weekend was packed. This kid never saw the weekend. He was gone all the time. When he was done with travel baseball he would go to AAU. Because he was so good, the coaches, they were fine with it.”
Isaiah made that choice midway through his junior year. He decided he would play one more season of high school baseball — but only as a pitcher — before fully directing his attention to basketball and, as Angela instilled in him, school.
“School wise he’s always been good at that on his own. His mom, she don’t play with that,” Mo said with a chuckle. “We always tag-teamed, I would always handle the sports and she would deal with school. And she does not play when it comes to that. She couldn’t care less about basketball, you better get that school work done.”
Added Allison: “I’d say he got all his athletic ability from Mo and all his brains and education from Ang.”
Saddi Washington knows his way around Kalamazoo.
The former Western Michigan guard knows all about Taco Bob’s and the original Sweetwater’s Donut Mill on Stadium Drive. He’s good friends with Allison, who also graduated from WMU, he used to play with Kalamazoo Central head coach Ramsey Nichols and he had watched Isaiah Livers play since he was in seventh grade.
So, when Washington left Greg Kampe’s staff at Oakland University to be an assistant under John Beilein in May, 2016, Michigan’s chances to sign Livers immediately increased. Kameron Chatman had just transferred to Detroit Mercy, giving the Wolverines additional room to target another forward. Washington knew Isaiah would fit the bill and began reaching out to the Liverses.
“Saddi had some home cooking when it came to the Kalamazoo ties,” Alisson said. “Saddi did his job and worked to get him.”
The Livers family up to that point had been Michigan State fans. Michigan was barely even on their radar.
Spartans’ coach Tom Izzo and assistant Dwayne Stephens had made frequent visits to Kalamazoo since his sophomore year and by all accounts, Michigan State was the favorite to sign him.
“I was a Michigan State fan growing up,” Isaiah said. “… Michigan was actually late. Me and my dad were never really like ‘Michigan this, Michigan that,’ but we took the time and left all that out and we looked at which school was going to have the best style, best campus and best fit for Isaiah.”
After practice one day, Washington approached Mo Livers. “Hey, I know y'all like State but just give me a chance,” Mo remembers Washington saying. “Don’t do nothing, just give me a chance.”
Once Washington had gotten the ball rolling, Michigan formally reached out to Isaiah that spring. Beilein called him during one of his baseball games. Isaiah made sure to return the phone call later that night.
“Most athletes will say that it gets annoying but it was kinda fun to see different schools reach out to you and say different things,” Isaiah said. “You could kinda go back and compare all your notes on all the conversations you had with them. It was fun because it was just random. They didn’t say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna give you a call at this time.’ They would call at crazy times.”
The Livers family visited Ann Arbor in July and Isaiah committed to the Wolverines just two weeks later.
“The way that it felt,” Angela said. “Their type of integrity and the way they base their premises on academics first for the team. That’s always been very important to me. I just think it all just kinda fell into place. It just felt like the right place for Isaiah to be after we left there. There was really no looking back.”
Livers and guard Eli Brooks committed to Michigan prior to their senior campaigns. Jordan Poole, now a member of the Golden State Warriors, joined Livers and Brooks by signing with the Wolverines later that fall.
During his senior year, Livers excelled across the board, averaging 18 points, 14 rebounds, 4 assists, 2.5 blocks and 1.5 steals per game. He was named Michigan’s Mr. Basketball — narrowly beating out his former AAU teammate and friend, Xavier Tillman.
Three years, 82 wins, two Sweet Sixteens and a National Championship game appearance later, Isaiah Livers is beginning his senior season at Michigan. He’s seen it all during his three years in Ann Arbor.
“He’s had a really good career, man,” Mo Livers said. “When I was at the national championship game his freshman year, I was shook. I was like ‘What’s he doing out there? He’s playing in the national championship!’ He’s eclipsed all of our dreams. He’s on a whole other level. He’s going to take away great memories.”
Livers tested the NBA Draft waters this past offseason but ultimately decided to return. The abrupt ending to last season, the uncertainty of being evaluated during a pandemic and his desire to graduate all fueled the decision.
“I still had one year,” Livers said. “I wasn’t really rushing to get out and go to the league so quickly when I felt like my season had gotten cut short last year. Going in and out with injuries too didn’t really help so all the signs were pointing at me to come back. I knew it was meant to be.”
From his parents’ perspective, as much as they want to see Isaiah fulfill his dream of making it to the NBA, they knew another year in Ann Arbor would only help his cause. Angela specifically, was a big proponent of him finishing his degree.
“As long as Isaiah graduates with a college degree, to me he’s a success,” Angela said. “Playing in the NBA, that’s something he wants to do. I don’t have any expectations for that. All I want him to do is get his college degree and be a formal member of society, be able to support himself and be a good man and a good husband. Those are my goals for him. These are his goals. ... All the extra, it’s just extra you know.
You gotta have a backup plan. When the ball stops bouncing you gotta have a plan. There’s no reason why you can’t finish your degree.”
In the meantime, Livers knows he has unfinished business on the court. For as much as the Wolverines have accomplished during his career, he feels like this iteration of Michigan is as talented and deep as any he’s been a part of. Livers wants to win a Big Ten and national championship and give back to the school that’s given so much to him.
“Michigan means a lot to me,” Livers said. “I’ve learned a lot. A lot of guys just go to college to play basketball and go off and then get to the next level. But I really came here, met new friends and really met a new family. ... It’s taught me to be a man.”
With another year to improve his game, Livers is well on his way to becoming the first NBA player out of Kalamazoo Central. He just needs to get his degree first, of course.
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