Gino Littles makes it at Texas-San Antonio

az central

Richard Obert, azcentral sports 5:01 p.m. MST April 20, 2015

Gino Littles came from basketball parents. His dad played in the ABA and coached in the NBA. His mom was a college player.

But for a long time growing up, Littles was lost in the recruiting scene that zoomed in on the bigger players.

Then, as he started to grow and his basketball IQ continued to take off and his determination never more forceful, he left Scottsdale Desert Mountain High without a college offer but with a chip on his shoulder to prove he could make it.

The 6-foot-1, 164-pound point guard came in as preferred walk-on at NCAA Division I Texas-San Antonio, ended up starting 22 of the 27 games in which he played, and at the end of his first season was awarded a full scholarship.

"I always knew I was blessed with good quickness, and a great IQ but I owe most of my success to working hard and seeing past the obstacles and through most people who doubted me, either because I was not tall enough or too small."

As players currently go through the spring AAU basketball showcases, Littles' story serves as motivation for those feeling lost in the forest of high-profile athletes. Littles proves there is hope.

Littles was a skinny 5-foot, 85-pounder when he began high school. He was 5-4, 105 as a sophomore, 5-8, 125 as a junior, and 5-9, 135 as a senior.

"His growth plates are wide open and will grow more, his doctor told him," said Dana Littles, Gino's mom.

He transferred from Scottsdale Chaparral to Desert Mountain midway through his high school career, and he didn't become a starter until his senior year when Rolando Rhymes, a 2012-13 All-Arizona performer as a junior, left the team.

"For Gino, he had a great work ethic, a high basketball IQ," said Gilbert Christian coach Kurt Keener, who only worked with Littles at Desert Mountain during his senior year. "I think it was a process of him developing physically.

"He got a lot better. As he got physically bigger, he played with more confidence. I felt he was a pretty confident player by the time he left here."

But for anyone to walk on at an NCAA Division I college and start in his first year is very rare.

"I think it had a lot to do with understanding the game so well and getting the opportunity," Keener said.

Littles played in the club circuit, always hanging onto hope, as he grew bigger and bigger.

"Outside of Desert Mountain High School, I played on a travel team that faced competition all over the country that had many kids being recruited by top Div

ision I colleges," Littles said. "Playing against the best of the best made me better.

"I have been blessed to have had many great coaches, and being able to attend camps such as John Lucas' 40/40, because I always knew that there was always something new to learn, so I can improve my game and take it to the next level.

"Not having any offers out of high school, UTSA took a chance on me when they gave me the opportunity to join their program as a preferred walk-on. The chance to be part of a D-I program was a dream come true, and inspired me to work even harder, because I knew I had the potential to play at the highest level. I just never had a chance."

It was in mid-December when Littles broke into the starting lineup to be the point guard.

"I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I never looked back," he said. "The coaching staff gave me an opportunity that I would of never thought was possible, and I can never thank them enough for that."

Littles ended up averaging 23.7 minutes and had 57 assists, 24 turnovers, 17 steals and 2.4 points a game on a 14-16 team.

More important, he learned the value of patience and hard work, and he feels he will be so much better next season.

"I want to finish my collegiate basketball career by helping my team win a conference championship, and to earn a bid into the big dance," he said. "I am more determined than ever to keep on looking past the obstacles, and having a great sophomore season for the Roadrunners."

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It’s no act: UTSA’s Gino Littles growing into his first love

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Its no act UTSA’s Gino Littles growing into his first love

Gino Littles is a heck of a lot more than just a pretty face. But he won’t lie: The pretty face doesn’t exactly hurt.

“When I was a kid, my mom always put me in acting classes,” the UTSA point guard recalled.

Basketball has always been Littles’ No. 1 passion, but when the camera loves you, babe, it loves you. At 14, he turned up on a Nickelodeon game show. A few years after that, he hooked on with an agency in Los Angeles, did a little modeling — appearing in print ads for Toys “R” Us and Mervyn’s department stores — and some acting when time (and hoops) allowed.

“I did it from my sophomore year all the way up until the spring before my senior year,” recalled Littles, who found himself frequently round-tripping between SoCal and his native Phoenix. “That’s when I started having a lot of basketball (conflicts) so I couldn’t go to Los Angeles a lot.

“They used me for a lot of athletic things. There were a lot of comedy roles; it was more acting than modeling. I got two call-backs.”

The closest audition to paydirt was for a Foot Locker commercial three years ago, “and it came down to me and this other kid,” said Littles, whose Roadrunners visit Middle Tennessee State Saturday on ASN. “And they just picked him because he was taller.”

Size — or rather, the lack thereof — is woven all over the personal narrative of Littles, the son of former ABA great and NBA coach Gene Littles and UTSA’s leader in assists (48) and steals (20). Division I coaches liked the family legacy, the instincts and the basketball IQ as Gino was tearing it up for Desert Mountain High in Scottsdale, Ariz., but “a lot of schools looked at me and said, ‘He’s just too small,’” Littles said.

“That definitely hurt me, but I never lost confidence. I knew that I could play. But a lot of schools would look at me and say, ‘Yeah, he’s got the potential, but he’s so small.’”

Now 6-foot and 160 pounds, Littles checked in at 5-2 as a high-school freshman and 5-10, 140 pounds as a senior, Desert Mountain’s Little Engine That Could.

“I’m 20, but my body’s really 18, my bone age (is 18),” he said. “So I’m 6-foot and I’m supposed to be 6-3.”

The short version is that once puberty kicked in, an expected growth spurt didn’t. A doctor prescribed HGH to help jump-start the process between the ages of 13 and 17.

“It’s a steroid, but I wasn’t taking it like, ‘I’ll pay you $1,000 to make me bigger,’” Littles explained. “I’m not 6-6, 250 and just out there. If someone on my team took it, they would be huge. It’s because my hormones weren’t producing (what they were supposed to). The NCAA just said, ‘To be safe, just don’t have him take the HGH when he’s in college.’ So I stopped.”

And, at any rate, it was always about the size of the fight in the dog. At UTSA, Littles turned up last year as a 140-pound freshman walk-on. He wound up appearing in 27 games and starting the final 22, busting his tail and refusing to back down, same as ever. A month after the 2014-15 season ended, coach Brooks Thompson sat him down and offered a full ride.

“I’m realistic,” Littles said. “I know I’m not a ‘Kentucky’ type of kid. (When) we play those schools in the non-conference, I’m never scared.

“I knew Conference USA is a good conference as a mid-major. That was part of the reason I came here; I knew this is a good conference. I knew I’d have a (chance to play). If I’d committed to walk on at Duke, it would be a different story.

“(My parents) asked me, ‘Are you sure this is what you want to do?’ And they never questioned me. I’m very blessed to have parents that support my dreams.”

Basketball roots run deep along both sides of the family tree. Gino cracked that he was probably dribbling in his mother’s womb, and remembers shooting the rock as early as 3.

“I talk with my dad every day after a game,” Gino said. “Sometimes, he’ll call me and leave a voicemail, or I’ll get back to him later that night or the next day. He’s really experienced, and so we’ll talk at least three or four times a week.”

And Mom?

“It’s every day,” he replied. “She can’t stop texting me. She texts me 24/7.”

Gino’s parents divorced before he’d reached first grade, but all parties settled in greater Phoenix and remained on amicable terms. Gino lived with his mother while Gene coached his club team — the Arizona Stars — throughout most of his formative hoops years. John Lucas was another mentor; Gino attended the ex-NBA coach’s 40/40 Combine.

“I’ve played against good teams, and I’ve had 12 or 13 points per game,” Gino recalled. “I knew I had the capability.”

After all, he inherited Dad’s instincts. Also, Dad’s smile. And neither one has steered him wrong yet.

“It’s really cool, to be honest,” Littles said. “A lot of people that have watched basketball, they know of him, and a lot of people don’t know. I don’t think there’s pressure, because he’s never put pressure on me. I want to get to the next level and all that, but he’s never put pressure on me. It’s really cool being his son and especially having someone mentor me and teach to be as good as he was.”