Isaiah Livers stood on the bench in sweats, hands in his pockets and a long expression on his face. Michigan’s season was coming to its end and Livers could only watch helplessly as the waning moments of his collegiate career faded into the abyss.
He dared to follow the arc of Franz Wagner’s last-second 3-point attempt, a heave that carried with it the Wolverines’ fate.
The shot fell short. Livers bowed his head.
Two-and-a-half weeks earlier, on March 12, Livers’s season had already ended. A well-orchestrated Maryland fast break caught Livers, the lone man on defense, in an awkward position; he committed a foul and came up lame. He didn’t know it yet, but he had just suffered a stress fracture in his right foot, an injury that would ultimately require surgery and six months of rehabilitation.
A day later on March 13, Livers hunched forward in his chair, eyes darting around and eluding the camera. He walked through the aftermath of the injury — upon learning of the diagnosis, he couldn’t help but wonder if his collegiate career had reached its conclusion.
But Livers didn’t want to dwell on the possibility.
“I don’t want people to write me off yet,” Livers insisted. “Still gonna rehab and work my butt off to get back with this team because I know we’re going to make a run and I’m gonna be there for it.”
He was there, just not in the fashion he had hoped. Prior to Michigan’s clash with LSU in the Round of 32, Livers watched warm-ups from the bench, hands on his hips. While the starting lineups were introduced, he rocked back and forth, doling out high-fives. His spot came. The public address announcer sent the words “Brandon Johns Jr.” echoing throughout Lucas Oil Stadium.
The end of the road is cruel for all college athletes, with only a select few fortunate enough to go out victorious. But there’s an extra layer of cruelty to Livers’s story, his career evaporating out of his control, forced to watch the seconds tick away from the sideline
“I can’t even imagine what Zay’s going through,” freshman center Hunter Dickinson said on March 13. “Seeing the work he put in ever since he decided he was gonna come back for his senior year, just coming into practice, I’d come an hour early and he’s already got a full sweat going in his workouts with the manager.”
Livers geared early-morning workouts, post-practice film sessions and everything in between toward the same goal — winning a national championship.
He dreamt about it alongside Jordan Poole, his freshman-year roommate and closest friend. They painted hypotheticals, envisioning themselves floating up a ladder on the first Monday night in April, scissors in hand, basking in their immortality.
As freshmen, the pair fell one game short of living out their dream when Villanova drubbed Michigan in the national championship. After the loss, Livers sat deep in his locker, a Gatorade towel draped over his head. A few feet to his side, Poole did the same.
Still, their youth played in their favor, three more hurrahs on the horizon.
One by one, those years fizzled without glory. In 2019, Texas Tech stymied Michigan’s season to a screeching halt in the Sweet Sixteen. Last year, COVID-19 shelved the NCAA Tournament entirely, prompting Livers to contemplate his future. After testing the NBA Draft waters, he opted to return to Ann Arbor, the thought of winning a championship at the forefront of his decision.
“I feel like I had some more to prove,” Livers told the NCAA’s Andy Katz in July. “The motto was, ‘unfinished business.’ One last ride with coach Howard and the boys.”
Buoyed by Livers, Michigan seemed primed to make the ride a special one, a national championship certainly within the realm of possibility. If Gonzaga and Baylor were entrenched as 1a and 1b, the Wolverines established themselves as 1c, penciled into the Final Four.
“It just shows that he was destined for this,” Poole told The Daily in February, a day after Livers netted 16 points in Michigan’s 79-57 demolition of No. 8 Iowa, a win that pushed the Wolverines to 17-1. “He’s built to carry a team, put a team on his back.
“ … Him being able to carry the team and put the team on his back, figure out anything that needs to be done in order for those guys to win and put themselves in the championship — he’s gonna make sure he gets that done.”
After a junior season derailed by nagging injuries, he vowed to show “a new Isaiah.” And he did, improving his performance in every major statistical category, no longer merely the 3-and-D player from his first two seasons.
The new Livers, a senior captain, became more vocal. He filled the leadership void left by Zavier Simpson, serving as the program’s public face both after losses and in more prevalent matters, like speaking out against racial injustice and the lack of compensation for college athletes.
On March 4, Michigan secured the outright Big Ten regular-season championship against Michigan State on Senior Night. During his portion of the postgame festivities, Livers walked across the court with tears in his eyes, shaking his head in disbelief; a moment that always seemed so far away had arrived. He hugged Juwan Howard. In the stands, John Beilein watched on with a smile.
Livers understood his career had reached its twilight. Yet, at the same time, all he aspired to achieve was laid in front of him.
“I want the natty, too,” Livers said after the game, his voice exuding determination. “I got my outright, we’re going to win the Big Ten championship, have a March Madness run, fingers crossed, and go get that natty.”
And it all seemed feasible until the injury. Livers’s career-long dream had not been put on hold; rather, at once, gone down the drain.
“The world is full of possibilities,” Livers maintained the day after his injury. “You never know, I could be back out there.”
But after Tuesday’s heartbreaking loss to UCLA, Livers’s career ended with a whimper and a limp. He hobbled into the tunnel and out of sight, a Wolverine one last time.