Randy Livingston no longer hides his story of gambling addiction
The former NBA guard is turning his story into motivation as a high school basketball coach
NEW ORLEANS — Former NBA guard Randy Livingston is now coaching varsity boys’ basketball at his old high school that served as the foundation of his hoop dreams and gambling nightmares.
Livingston coached Isidore Newman School in New Orleans to the 2021 Louisiana Boys’ Division III championship where it fell shy of winning a 10th title. It is fitting that Livingston is guiding the next generation of basketball phenoms.
Livingston is perhaps Louisiana’s greatest high school basketball player, having won three state championships at Newman (1991, 1992, 1993). He was a McDonald’s All American once featured on an ABC Primetime segment and shared Naismith National Prep Player of the Year honors with Jason Kidd in 1992 and Rasheed Wallace in 1993.
When Livingston reflects on his illustrious high school career, he occasionally looks at an old picture of him with two teammates. Instead of holding a basketball, he is holding money he won playing poker on a road trip to Washington.
“Looking back, it was just a precursor to the days to come like when an alcoholic takes his first drink or a drug addict takes a smoke of their first joint of weed,” Livingston told The Undefeated. “It was all fun and games on the bus to D.C., but looking back I never would have thought it would be an addiction. It’s sobering to see that image because it reminds me that it all started so innocently. A bunch of guys having fun.
“I wish I would have known in that moment where it would lead. Maybe I would have made different choices.”
Livingston went from a prep star with superstar expectations to somehow fighting through debilitating knee injuries to survive in the NBA primarily as a reserve through 11 seasons. The former Louisiana State University star hopes to lead Newman to another championship this season with prep star Chris Lockett (ranked 27th in the ESPN Class of 2023) and heralded high school quarterback Arch Manning of Manning football family fame in the frontcourt. They play their first game of the season on Nov. 15. Still unknown to many that played with Livingston that his riches from playing professional basketball and coaching fed his severe gambling addiction that ultimately sent him away to a private rehabilitation center in 2017.
Now 46 years old and more than four years sober, Livingston is hoping that his triumphant story of defeating his card gambling addiction can inspire anyone who needs help and particularly an NBA player who may be hiding his addiction as well.
“I can’t turn back the time now, but I hope some other young players learning my story will be touched by it and it will teach and help them make better choices,” Livingston said.
Livingston grew up in New Orleans in the Calliope Housing Complex, where poverty, crime, drugs and violence were part of his daily life. His mother, Ada Livingston, raised four children while working 70 hours per week at a hospital.
There, Livingston not only developed a passion for basketball, but he learned about gambling. He recalls being first introduced to gambling by watching neighborhood dice games for money and seeing his mother play the card game Pitty Pat to get extra money sometimes used for his AAU basketball trips.
“There were card games with laser focus trying to get money,” Livingston said. “We always had spending money to go on trips, so I just figured that’s how you got it, right? I was probably 9 and 10 years old, and I was playing Pitty Pat with one of my boys in the ‘hood, trying to break the game.”
Livingston added that he and his friend Paul Duhon collaborated together as kids to win money playing card games Pitty Pat and tunk.
At Isidore Newman School, Livingston said, he learned how to play poker from his predominantly white high school basketball teammates who came from well-off families. That is when he took the photo after he won $600 from his teammate on that road trip to Washington.
“All the white kids play poker and they introduced me to it. I still got that picture and I have it in my office at Newman,” Livingston said. “On the bus, I had at least $600 playing poker and I never played poker in my life. I didn’t play poker in the projects. So, beginner’s luck or I learned very quickly. So, I won all the money. I always gambled, but I didn’t think it was a problem. It was just more entertainment, whatever.”
The New Orleans native was the No. 1-ranked player in the Class of 1993. Livingston led Newman School to three state championships alongside two-time Super Bowl champion Peyton Manning. Livingston scored 3,429 points in his career at Newman for an average of 26.6 points per game.
“He was a bad boy. He was one of the top high school players,” said Kidd, a 10-time NBA All-Star who is now the Dallas Mavericks coach. “He was strong, athletic and could jump to touch the square on the backboard. He was very dominant.”
Livingston chose to stay in-state by signing a full scholarship to play for LSU. But before he could play for the Tigers, he tore the ACL in his right knee in July 1993 while playing in a pickup game as a counselor at an elite high school basketball camp.
“I go see an LSU doctor who happened to be a dad of one of my Newman teammates, but he was an LSU guy and was on the board of trustees,” Livingston said. “He did the knee lock test on me and he walked out the room and started crying. I knew something was wrong. He walked out the room and didn’t say nothing. When he walked back in he said, ‘I think you tore your ACL.’ ”
Livingston took a medical redshirt his freshman season with LSU and turned to gambling to fulfill his competitive juices. He said he took part in dice competitions with LSU football players where they gambled with their financial aid money. Livingston also sneaked into Baton Rouge casinos at the age of 17 to play craps and blackjack.
“Every time we got our Pell checks, they know to come downstairs in the room and we going to gamble all night until somebody get broke,” Livingston said. “That’s when I think it became a problem. I would also go to the casino boat. As soon as I took the risk knowing you are underage, sneaking in and everybody knew who I was, that’s when it became a bigger issue. If you’re willing to risk going to jail, getting the scrutiny for being on the boat, then something ain’t right.”
Livingston was leading NCAA Division I men’s basketball in assists with 9.4 per game as a redshirt freshman when he fractured his right kneecap on Jan. 31, 1995, at Arkansas. The 6-foot-4 guard only played in 29 games for LSU in two seasons, averaging 10.4 points and 7.6 assists. Even so, Livingston entered the 1996 NBA draft. Despite being selected with the 42nd overall pick in the second round by the Houston Rockets, he was ecstatic to make it to the NBA.
“It was triumph after all that I had been through,” Livingston said. “It was rewarding. A kid out of the Calliope Projects in New Orleans after all odds there and all the odds with the injuries, I was excited. I was really, really happy for my family and myself.”
Livingston’s gambling worsened with the large amounts of money he earned in the NBA.
High-stakes card games of tunk, poker and bourré were commonplace with the players on team planes and in hotels to kill time. He said he gambled with the likes of Hall of Famers Charles Barkley and Clyde Drexler while playing for the Rockets. Livingston said a bourré card game went in a bad direction on a Phoenix Suns private plane once when it led to a fight between his then-teammates Cliff Robinson against Penny Hardaway and Todd Day.
“Me, Cliff, Penny and Todd were all playing bourré and the pot got up there to $30,000,” Livingston said. “And something was said to Todd by Cliff, who finally won a pot. We were beating Cliff every road trip. Someone said, ‘That post has to go back to [Day].’ Cliff went crazy. We had season-ticket holders on the plane. The Suns let family and anyone on the plane. A fight broke out and they grabbed each other. Cliff fell and Todd stomped him. It was crazy.”
Livingston overcame constant knee issues to become an NBA journeyman with the Rockets, Suns, Atlanta Hawks, Golden State Warriors, Seattle Supersonics, New Orleans Hornets, LA Clippers, Utah Jazz and Chicago Bulls, playing in 203 games from 1996 to 2007. He sustained his career by signing 10-day contracts.
“People will say, ‘He played on 11 teams, 10 different years. He persevered, played on one knee, made it through, went through the D-League CBA, all that stuff, and always was able to get a 10-day contract. I think I got the record for the number of 10-day contracts I had,” Livingston said.
Getting Help and Rebuilding
Livingston said much of the estimated $2.5 million he made during his NBA career was spent on gambling, but he said he never gambled on sports.
He found his outlet in casinos and card games and said that at one point he reached out to the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) for help with his addiction.
Livingston said the NBPA connected him with former NBA star John Lucas, a former drug addict who has a long history of helping players overcome drug and alcohol addiction. Livingston said Lucas could not help him with his gambling addiction.
“When I was playing, there was no help. It was just help for drug and alcohol abuse centers, but nothing for gambling,” Livingston said.
A source told The Undefeated that during Livingston’s NBA career, the league had a joint program with the NBPA offering psychologists and help for addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, etc. However, the NBA source also said that the NBPA and the union did a poor job at the time of educating the players about all the programs available. An NBPA source told The Undefeated that the union currently has programs available to help with gambling and other addictions.
“It took a while for players to learn that we had programs that weren’t just for drugs,” one NBPA source said. “Now they know we have programs that are more wide-ranging for mental health, gambling and whatever they need.”
Livingston retired from the NBA in 2008, but his gambling addiction followed as a coach in the NBA G League and as an assistant coach at LSU. Livingston’s wife Anita Smith, a registered NBA agent he married in 2016, saw “warning signs” of her husband’s severe gambling issues that included mood swings and odd behavior starting in 2012. Smith said that she made it clear previously to Livingston that she wanted to support his effort to get help.
“It didn’t take that long to find out. But it surprised me when I did find out that no one in his immediate circle had previously taken the steps to try to help him. How do you let somebody go decades with a severe addiction without saying something to them or confronting them about it or trying to get them help?” Smith said. “If you’re willing to get help, I am willing to stick with you and be on this journey with you to recovery. But you have to take that first step yourself of admitting you had a problem and getting the help that is needed.”
Smith said Livingston tried to quell his gambling habit by self-excluding himself from Baton Rouge casinos while an assistant coach at LSU. To do so in Louisiana, Livingston scheduled a formal meeting with a state police gaming operations field office, where his picture was taken and given to gaming officials at the casino facilities across the state. The hope of the self-exclusion is to keep the acknowledged gambler from gaming, receiving or using complementary goods or services, be a member of a slot or players club, receive credit from any casino, cash checks at a casino, collect winnings or any other thing of value or recover losses.
However, if the person is caught gambling at a casino, any winnings would be withheld and remitted to the state of Louisiana, the person will be escorted from the gaming floor, and might be subject to arrest.
“As he started to do these self-exclusions, I was gaining confidence that he wanted to make change,” Smith said. “But he came to realize that was not sufficient.”
Livingston was cited for gambling afterward at L’Auberge Casino & Hotel Baton Rouge around February 2017 while he was an assistant coach of the LSU men’s basketball staff. On March 10, 2017, LSU fired men’s head basketball coach Johnny Jones and his staff, which included Livingston. On March 22, 2017, a depressed Livingston gambled at the Belle of Baton Rouge Casino Hotel despite being banned. He tried to use a Tasmanian identification card from his basketball coaching and scouting days in Australia to get his $16,000 in winnings. After a cashier recognized Livingston, a police officer took him to a private room and ultimately decided to let him go without the money.
“When you’re in it, your whole sense of what is really at stake is gone. When you’re addicted to it, not a day goes by where you don’t want to go gambling,” Livingston said. “Your brain isn’t right whether you won or lost. You’re high and you’re low.”
Livingston walked out of the casino fully aware he might be heading to jail. Before he got to his car, he noticed a billboard that read in giant letters: “Gambling Problem. Call 1-877-770-STOP.” He called the number and was told he could enter a private facility for 30 days fully paid for by the state of Louisiana to help him beat gambling or opt for an outpatient program.
Livingston also had to reveal his latest gambling episode to his wife.
“She warned me that if I gambled again, we’re done,” Livingston said. “At that point, that was the lowest of lowest. I just got fired at LSU. Not knowing what your future is going to be. I wouldn’t say our [marriage] was hanging by a thread, but I got warned a few times [about gambling]. It was the lowest point, but it was also the turning point.”
Livingston preferred the outpatient program. Smith disagreed and told her husband that he needed to enter the 30-day in-house program and that their marriage couldn’t continue if he didn’t get major help.
“I felt in-house was going to be more effective,” Smith said. “He had tried various means and methods to that point. And I basically said to him that I will support you as long as you’re actively trying to get better.”
Livingston arrived at the 30-day program with the Compass Recovery Center in Lafayette on March 23, 2017. Smith described the moment as “surreal” as the program “could help him better than me.” Livingston would not be able to use his cellphone, use the internet or watch television during his stay and could make a phone call a week. After initially fighting the program, he finally opened himself up and changed his life for the better over the course of the 30 days.
Livingston and his wife will never forget their emotions when he emerged from the program.
“It was like he was a new man. It was like a weight had been lifted off of him,” Smith said. “I couldn’t comprehend where it was coming from before then. There was a heaviness about him. But I kind of put that down to accumulated trauma that he has had in his life and you can’t gloss it over.”
Matricia Green, a licensed addiction and compulsive gambling counselor with 50 years of experience, said Livingston received counseling from the Compass Recovery Center in Baton Rouge for a year and a half. Green said Livingston eventually opened up about his gambling story from childhood and being sexually abused by a male youth coach. He also went through training to speak about the perils of gambling. Green said Livingston also met with social workers to gain greater insight on how to reach people with gambling issues.
“Once he opened up and shared that with the group, it was almost like he freed himself and when he really started working with the program,” Green said.
In 2018, Livingston applied to be Newman’s middle school boys’ basketball coach. He said he was transparent about his gambling issues before accepting the position. After leading the middle school team to an undefeated season, Newman promoted Livingston to head coach of the boys’ varsity basketball team in 2019.
Earlier this year, Livingston and the Greenies lost a heartbreaker in the championship game 52-48 to Dunham in St. Charles on March 12. Livingston and star forward Lockett are expected to have a shot at winning a title again.
“Although we did not take the title, that game was the perfect time to reflect back on my legacy and look towards the future with fresh ambitions,” Livingston said. “In addition to dedicating myself to raising awareness about problem gambling, I also have my eye fixed firmly on the 2022 state title. There are currently nine Louisiana state title basketball banners hanging in the Newman arena. I want to make it 10.”
Livingston is also a spokesperson for the National Council on Problem Gambling and spoke at the NCAA Summit on Sports Wagering and Well Being in College Student-Athletes. Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, has been impressed by Livingston’s anti-gambling speeches.
“I was also impressed with how sincere and motivating he is as a person,” Whyte said. “You can tell that makes him a very good coach. That was really impressive because we worked with a lot of college and pro athletes who don’t have that same presence, same empathy, same humility and ability to connect with people like he does.”
During 2019 NBA All-Star Weekend, one NBA owner said at the league’s annual Technology Summit that betting at games was on the horizon and the “money just keeps rolling in” for the league and its owners. MGM signed the NBA and WNBA to a three-year deal paying $25 million to create products such as in-game betting in states where it is legal. In May, the Philadelphia 76ers and Washington Wizards played in the first game with a legal sportsbook inside Capital One Arena in Washington.
Livingston said he is very concerned about the growth of gambling around sports and players becoming addicted to all forms of gambling. Now he hopes those quietly in peril can learn from his remarkable story.
“Some battles you can’t win on your own. You need help,” Livingston said.
Livingston would love to do anti-gambling motivational speaking for NBA teams and during the annual NBA Rookie Transition Camp. He would also be willing to be a liaison for NBA players to get help for gambling.
“The first place they take the rookies is to Las Vegas for summer league. Hopefully, I can talk to them in Vegas or at the rookie symposium,” Livingston said. “When teams come to New Orleans to play the Pelicans, I’d like to come in and share my testimony and to [tell you] how [to] get help if you have a problem, especially if you don’t want to tell the coach or be public with it. You can just say, ‘Randy,’ or pull me to the side, and I can lead you into the right direction with it. …
“The NBA has so many quality programs, but I think they’ve missed the boat on gambling. Throughout my NBA career, I was known for being a journeyman and my energy, but not too many people knew about my gambling side because I kept it hidden. I want to bring awareness to it and just let people know that there is more people like myself and you can get help.”
Smith used the Italian word “chiaroscuro” to best describe Livingston’s gambling addiction battle. Chiaroscuro is used to describe light and dark contrasts in a pictorial work of art. She has encouraged her husband to tell his story to help others in pain with gambling and other addictions. Livingston is ready to help NBA players and anyone else in need.
“I told him that if it’s opened up, it could be so enlightening to so many people,” Smith said. “This guy has an incredible story, and people have to hear. He has the ability to move people and help make change in a positive way. It took him some time to be vulnerable enough to share a lot of the darker times. But I think he has reached the point of understanding that he is doing it in the service of helping other people.”