Little Has Turned Life Around At Chipola
January 4, 2008
By St. Clair Murraine
A day after Mario Little scored yet another double-double for Chipola College, coach Greg Heiar had a lecture for the star guard who has been so impressive that Kansas couldn't wait to sign him.
Little had 15 points and 13 rebounds, but the way he earned them didn't impress Heiar.
"I told him he didn't play with enough energy, enough toughness," Heiar said. "I think that is my job as a coach to keep him grounded and consistently getting to another level."
Little took heed, much like he's taken all of the advice he's gotten since his junior year at George Washington High School in Chicago. For all the basketball skills that he possesses, Little needed the inspiration of relatives and his high school coach Kenneth Crump to avoid becoming a statistic like so many of his friends who grew up on Chicago's famous courts.
Distractions were everywhere — his friends wanting him to run the streets and hang out in the hallway at school was much more appealing than going to classes. For awhile, that was his life as he coped with living without a mother who he said, was incarcerated, and a father that he doesn't know.
Small-town Marianna has become his refuge, Little said. He's captain of the Indians team and he's become a fan favorite. His teammates also said his tenacity is an inspiration.
"I like it better down here because everything in Chicago is fast. Down here you never have to worry about things like that," he said. "I still like Chicago, but here I'm concentrating on school. That's the only thing I really need anyway."
Had Little realized the importance of academics to his basketball success earlier, he would have had his pick of just about any four-year college. Iowa and Illinois had him on their radar while he was considered one of Chicago's top prospects along with Memphis freshman sensation Derrick Rose.
Little played with the Illinois Warriors travel team, but he couldn't stay on his high school team for more than half a season until his sophomore year. The time he spent in the hallway or his aloof ways in the classroom would always show up on his report card at midterm.
"Before we went on break in December always was my last game," he said. "I was on a road to destruction. I had a friend and I saw him do stuff and he's crazy now. He is in the crazy home. I can't do that."
Little said he turned to Crump for help after realizing the reward of his wayward lifestyle. He said other relatives, especially his grandmother, would give him plenty of encouragement.
"You've got to be strong," he said. "If you walked in my shoes you'd be in the crazy home. I don't even think about it; I don't chew myself up over it. I've got to be me. I can't be like everybody else. I can't worry if my life is so messed up; I'm still breathing."
Heiar began to take notice of Little's talent during his senior year. Recruiting the 6-foot-5 guard was tough, though, because Little wasn't sure who to trust. Heiar's persistence paid off and Little has become a leader for his team.
Through Chipola's first 18 games, Little averaged 14.5 points per game with a shooting rate of 57 percent from the floor.
Little is still a work in progress, Heiar said, because of his tendencies to hit mild slumps. Heiar wouldn't let him stay in it too long, though.
"I stay on top of Mario. I challenge Mario every day," Heiar said. "I tell Mario all the time, 'We've gotten you to Kansas now we're trying to get you ready for the next level beyond Kansas.' My expectations are so high, but Mario understands my whole point is to make him the best player, best leader he could possibly be."
Little is on his way. He's become one of the most accurate 3-point shooters in the Panhandle Conference, hitting 9 of 14 attempts from behind the arc.
"I'm really trusting my shot," he said. "I never shoot threes like I'm doing. Every time I shot threes (in the past) I use to be praying, 'please go in.'"
The Indians begin defense of the conference title Saturday against Tallahassee Community College at the Eagledome. Although it's the first conference game, it's a pivotal one that could determine the postseason fate of the two rivals.
All of the hype surrounding Little almost seems like too much pressure for a player trying who is still developing. But his roommate Mario Edwards said that Little thrives on delivering in big games.
"He's going to be very vital," Edwards said. "Last year we had Jamarcus Ellis and everybody knew that Mario was going to be that guy this year. He's going to step up and we're going to have a good year."
Contact St. Clair Murraine at (850) 599-2317 or firstname.lastname@example.org.