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The Determination of Destiny

No. 1 South Carolina’s biggest X factor shows up when it matters most, largely because the big moments she stares down on the hardwood pale in comparison to what she’s endured in real life

Jaya Nicely

Destiny Littleton closes her eyes. Clears her head. The lights dim as the national anthem starts to play. She tells herself to stay ready.

Whether you play a lot, a little, or none at all, be a great teammate, she thinks to herself. Believe in yourself, hit shots, and be you.

As the game gets underway, she watches and waits from the bench. She cheers and claps. Minutes pass. Sometimes, the entire first half. She doesn’t know when she’ll be called into the game. Some games her number isn’t called much at all. But when it is, she has to be on. Even if she has sat all game, her arms and legs turning completely cold—she has to deliver.

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley counts on Littleton to come in and nail a big 3. Get a stop. Energize her teammates. A national championship is at stake for the Gamecocks (29-2), the no. 1 overall seed in the NCAA women’s tournament. South Carolina will open the tournament against Howard on Friday. And on a team of future WNBA stars, including Aliyah Boston, Destanni Henderson, and Zia Cooke, Littleton might be the team’s biggest X factor. The 5-foot-9 senior guard’s magnificence can’t be measured by numbers, but rather by how big she shows up when it matters most.

Like in December, when Staley called upon her trusted sub in the third quarter against no. 2 Stanford. The Gamecocks were down 18. Littleton hadn’t played in the first half, but she quickly moved into position behind the 3-point line, bent her legs low, caught the ball, and let it fly. She buried the 3, screaming and feeling a euphoric chill down her spine. Playing 18 of the final 20 minutes, she ignited a run—defending hard, grabbing rebounds, and sinking critical free throws to help seal a 65-61 win.

“I scored six points,” she says, “and I had the most fun in my entire life.”

That’s something Littleton probably couldn’t have envisioned saying in high school. She’s the all-time points leader in California girls’ prep basketball history, surpassing the likes of Cheryl Miller, Diana Taurasi, and Lisa Leslie. She could have gone to any other Division I school and started, but now she knows there’s much more to basketball than scoring. After battling ankle and foot injuries, and transferring from Texas to South Carolina in 2019, she has persevered to come back stronger than ever, transforming into a reliable spark in clutch situations. What she feels now, thriving in a reserve role she once couldn’t imagine, is the exhilarating feeling of being part of a team. Being part of something bigger than stats or accolades.

Littleton, who averages just 9.6 minutes a game, hit two crucial 3s as her team trailed UConn in November, helping pull out a marquee win. She scored eight points in 10 minutes against Auburn this February, seven points in 10 minutes against Texas A&M a week later. “We need her,” says Cooke. “She’s like Wonder Woman to me.” Another teammate, Laeticia Amihere, junior forward, tends to run back on defense as soon as Littleton releases the ball. “I know the shot’s going in,” she says.

Littleton now has that confidence, too. For the first time in a while, she feels … free. Free of the doubts that haunted her, free of the foot injuries that hindered her. “Starting to feel like myself again,” she says.

It’s taken a while to feel that way. She has taken to heart something Staley, a Hall of Famer and one of the most decorated basketball players ever, told the team about some of her U.S. Olympic team experiences: “I only started one Olympic game,” Staley said, referring to the U.S.’s iconic 1996 gold-medal run. “I didn’t get a whole lot of minutes, but you would never know. I didn’t carry myself like I came off the bench.”

Neither does Littleton. There is a toughness to her, a resilience, that resonates with Staley.

“I see more of myself in her versus probably more than anybody on the team,” Staley says.

She respects Littleton’s fight. The way she doesn’t pout about playing time despite being a senior, the way she competes so hard in practice that sometimes her teammates have to tell her, “Des, chill.” But she can’t. Not after what she’s been through.

Aside from the basketball adversity she’s faced, Littleton is finally coming to terms with her childhood and teenage years, and situations that required her to act like an adult long before she was ready. She knows what it feels like to have the people she loves most abandon her. She knows what it feels like to lose faith in herself, her career. Basketball was the one thing that was always there for her, when everything else seemed uncertain. So she plays with a sense of urgency, embracing one of Staley’s mantras: “You have to keep the main thing the main thing.”

That means winning. Team. Keep the main thing the main thing. That’s what Staley did. That’s what she implores Littleton to do. “Nobody cared about anything besides winning,” Staley says of her Olympic experience. “Nothing came in the way.”

When Littleton looks at film from last season, she can hardly recognize herself. She seemed robotic. She lacked confidence, and barely had enough energy to get out of bed or go to practice. She was dealing with depression, something she had never experienced before.

She was shooting around with her teammates before last season’s conference championship game when she began to feel particularly down. Distant. She says she didn’t care much about the game’s outcome. She just wanted to crawl into her bed.

Something’s wrong, she thought. I’m not going to be able to get myself out of this.

When assistant coach Fred Chmiel came up to her, she burst into tears.

Am I really crying right now?

She tried to laugh it off, but couldn’t. For much of her life, Littleton didn’t let many see her cry. Since her teen years, she’d always hid what was troubling her, telling everyone that she was fine. “Every person I met, I hid my entire life from them,” Littleton says. “They only knew what I wanted them to know.”

That helped her endure. And in this case, get through South Carolina’s last postseason. But she knew she needed help. Find a reason why, she began telling herself. A reason to get out of bed. A reason to keep playing. “I never want to be back to the place I was in growing up,” she says. “That’s my why.”

She remembers growing up in southeast San Diego, where the lights in her home would get cut off and not come back for days. Other times there wouldn’t be running water or much food. Littleton remembers being worried about these things around age 12.

She watched her mother buy pills. From this person, that person. Another person would come over and buy pills. Littleton knew both of her parents had used drugs, and had previously been involved with gangs, but eventually realized they had begun using crack cocaine. One day, she says, she found a pipe outside that her dad had been using, and things felt even more unstable.

Arguments between her parents turned physical, and they’d stay out late into the night to feed their addiction, sometimes not coming home. Her older siblings, two brothers and a sister, used, too. At one point there was no furniture in the home, so Destiny began sleeping on the floor.

The local child protective services agency received a tip and the principal called her out of class one day. Littleton was confused; she was a top student in her class. When she saw it was CPS, she began to agonize. They asked her if she felt safe, if she had enough food. She pretended everything was fine, because she feared being taken away from her family if she told the truth. When she came home from school, she told her mother what happened. Panicked, her mother cleared the pills out of the house and brought in some food, sensing that CPS might show up for a home visit soon. Sure enough, CPS arrived the next morning. The Littleton family pretended everything was great and that Destiny was being adequately provided for, and the family was able to squash any of the social worker’s concerns. Things, however, continued to unravel.

Shortly thereafter, the family was evicted. Destiny was only a seventh-grader, but realized she had to take care of herself. She would find food, transportation—whatever she needed to survive—and stay with friends a few days here, a few days there.

About a month or two later, Littleton started living with a close friend from her basketball team, Mikayla Nash, and her mother, Glory Nash, and father, Michael, who was coaching Destiny. Mikayla and her sisters Cierra and Jada grew close to Destiny. “I wanted to let her know that we were there for her,” Glory says, “and she didn’t have to do it on her own.”

Still, Destiny felt lost. Angry. So angry at her parents. “I didn’t really understand why they would choose drugs over our family,” Littleton says. Her anger exploded onto the basketball court. She would get a technical nearly every game. Something pressing, something painful, would rise within, and she didn’t know how to keep it down.

She didn’t eat much, telling people she just wasn’t hungry. Away from basketball, she rarely spoke at all. She couldn’t explain to friends, teachers, coaches what was happening. Everybody else has these perfect lives, she’d think. And I’m just here, and everything is messed up.

They wouldn’t understand what it felt like to know your parents were unhoused, chasing drugs, when all you really wanted was their love.

Littleton started staying out late and becoming friends with gang members. She gravitated toward people who, like her family, were wrapped up in drugs. She says she never tried any, but was for some reason drawn to people who did: “I just felt like I belonged there.” She would hop trolleys with them, not paying for tickets. “Just so I could escape the reality of the situation I was in.”

Basketball helped, too. She’d often stay at the Ray & Joan Kroc Center from dawn until 11 at night, falling in love with shooting and dribbling. “She used basketball to process it all,” Mikayla says. She loved battling the boys, bodying them to the hoop. She was never intimidated. She even played tackle football in sixth grade. She relished the look on boys’ faces when she took off her helmet and they realized she was a girl.

One night, around 10:30 p.m., she was about to get on a trolley to meet friends when Marlon Wells, a longtime girls high school and club coach in the area, spotted her while driving. He didn’t know much about her, though he and Destiny often crossed paths in the same gyms. He didn’t understand why she was out so late by herself. He offered her a ride home. She explained her situation, as best she could, and Wells and his wife allowed her to stay with their family for a few days. He could tell she was going through a lot. “I saw this kid that really, really wanted to do well and be great,” Wells says, “and she was headed down the wrong road just because she didn’t have anyone to take care of her.”

She began living with Wells and their two sons during her seventh-grade year. Marlon eventually became her legal guardian, as well as her coach at The Bishop’s School. Wells was always there for her. He made her feel safe, cared for, as if she were his own. She was moved when he gave her a pair of new Adidas highlighter-green shoes; she had been wearing the same pair of worn-down sneakers for two years.

She started to dominate in club, playing for Elite Basketball Organization. She was electric, fast. She had a shooting stroke so clean she once dropped 52 in a game. “Ice water in her veins,” says Wells, now head girl’s coach at Rancho Christian High and Why Not Premier EYBL. “One of the hardest workers I’ve ever coached.”

Everyone, including the college coaches who had begun recruiting her, knew Wells as her “father.” Geno Auriemma was the first to recruit her, when she was going into ninth grade. Then all the other top schools poured in.

She was automatic from anywhere. But what she became really good at was hiding. Hiding what her real life was like. Hiding how humiliated, how hurt, she was when her parents would show up to some games visibly inebriated, causing a scene. She pretended to not see them, to not be breaking inside.

She never wanted anyone to think she didn’t belong. Not at a place like Bishop’s, where her mostly white classmates drove fancy cars and paid nearly $40,000 a year in tuition. She was on financial aid, pretending she didn’t grow up thinking it was a treat when her parents would take her to Jack in the Box.

Complication grew in the Wells home, though, when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was difficult, caring for another child. Littleton ended up moving in with the Nash family again. It hurt, feeling abandoned by someone she had loved, just as she’d begun to open up to Wells. “I was heartbroken all over again,” she says.

Then she began living with her English teacher, Michelle Shea, who was an assistant coach on the team, for her final two years at Bishop’s. But Littleton’s guard was back up at this point. She didn’t feel she could trust anyone, though a group of parents and coaches—including Wells and the Nash family, and another one of her club coaches, Lonnie Jones, and Dean Roeper, a close family friend—were working behind the scenes to support her financially and emotionally.

“There was a community of folks,” says Roeper, whose own family became close with Littleton, “who were able to coordinate housing, food, clothing, spending money.” They all helped not because she was morphing into one of the country’s top players, but because they loved her as a person. They wanted her to feel safe and have the resources to thrive.

Littleton was grateful, and was able to focus on basketball more than ever. And she began to fall in love with a new passion: writing. If she could write, she could endure. The page understood her. Listened to her. The page wouldn’t wake up and decide to leave one day. There was power in her pen.

She’d rely on her journal more, as her college plans became uncertain. Originally, Littleton committed to USC and former WNBA legend Cynthia Cooper. Cooper and Littleton had developed a special bond during the recruiting process. Cooper was one of the first women Littleton allowed herself to open up to, as she had trouble trusting women because of her mother. Littleton told Cooper everything she had endured. “We just understood each other’s journey,” Cooper says. “I came from a broken home.”

“I’m very protective and supportive of my players and she really needed that type of support,” Cooper says. “No matter what happened in her life, she always fought back and fought through it.”

Littleton viewed Cooper as a second mother, so it was devastating when Cooper resigned from USC before Littleton got to campus. “My life was just going into shambles again,” she says. Though the two have remained close, Littleton felt crushed at the time. That feeling of displacement tugged at her. She reopened her recruitment and then chose to attend Texas, but was soon hobbled by knee pain.

Around that time, Littleton’s father was arrested on multiple drug charges. While he was in jail, police coincidentally linked his DNA to a decades-old cold murder case. He was eventually convicted and sent to prison in Sacramento.

Littleton was stunned. She didn’t know how to process any of it, especially the humiliation she felt when a photo of him appeared on the nightly news, causing many to message her about it. She didn’t know what to say. She hadn’t spoken to her parents in a while, but then her dad began calling from prison, trying to build a relationship.

She was irritated. Deeply hurt. But heading into her sophomore year at Texas, she didn’t want to shut him out any longer. They began to talk regularly. Then, one day he called, crying, telling her he had stage-four lung cancer.

He refused to eat, refused chemotherapy. Littleton and Wells, who had patched up their relationship, went to visit him in prison. She was terrified. Her dad, so big, so strong, sat in a wheelchair. So frail, he couldn’t hold up a cup of water. A tumor was growing on his neck. Littleton blinked up at the ceiling a few times, trying not to let a tear fall.

“How do I look? Do I look good?” he asked her.

“You look great,” she managed.

Somehow, she found strength to let go of the anger that had lived within her for so long. “I forgive you,” she told him. “For everything. There’s no grudges.”

“I love you,” she said.

He died two weeks later.

She had to arrange the funeral on her own, as her mother was still struggling. It hurt to see so few people show up to the service. For so long, she told herself that she despised her parents. But now that she was an adult, she could see them the same way: as adults. Flawed, distressed human beings battling demons beyond their control. She could blame drugs, blame addiction, rather than them. They were still her parents. She loved them.

Forgiveness didn’t make everything OK. Far from it. Things might never be OK. But it did allow her to keep moving, and to try to work on her relationship with her mother. She decided to transfer from Texas. Associate head coach Tina Thompson, another WNBA star who had mentored her, had left the university for a head-coaching gig at Virginia. Littleton had gotten close to her, and was feeling alone and ready to close herself off again.

She ached to find herself on the court, too. She started 12 of 33 games that year, averaging 8.4 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 1.4 assists, but knew she could contribute more. She transferred to South Carolina in 2019, but when the NCAA denied her transfer waiver, which forced her to sit out a season, she felt like she couldn’t catch a break.

She had two years of eligibility remaining but started feeling excruciating pain in both of her feet. She could hardly cut across the key, let alone sprint. She was diagnosed with stress fractures in both feet, leading to surgery that November.

She was unable to walk for the next two months. She couldn’t shower or use the bathroom on her own at first. It was frustrating, not being able to take care of herself, as she had done all her life. She felt far from the dominant scorer she had been. She felt lonely. Lost. She turned to her writing. In a journal entry titled “The Deep End,” she wrote:

“With every obstacle in my life I was able to figure it out on my own and reach the surface of the water, but this time I’m drowning.”

She kept treading water, no matter how uncertain things felt. She wouldn’t give up on her basketball dream. On herself. But when she returned for the 2020-21 season, at times she second-guessed herself rather than played off instinct. Basketball had always been the one thing in her life that made sense. And now that she couldn’t figure out how to play her game, and how to fit within this team, she wasn’t sure of much anymore.

After breaking down before the SEC championship, she started to seek help for depression. She saw a therapist but found writing to be even more helpful.

She rarely left the gym all offseason, pushing herself, working on her weaknesses. Find your why, she kept telling herself.

She came back this season a stronger, more consistent player. Staley and Littleton had difficult, candid conversations early on about Littleton coming off the bench, but she bought in. She has realized she does not need to be a star to affect others. To be a leader. “I truly believe her adversity is her advantage,” Staley says.

Littleton knows that her coach trusts her. Pushes her because she believes in her. Staley recently told her, “I’m proud of you.” That meant everything to Littleton, to feel affirmed in that way, especially by a woman. She has been mentored by some of the best women to ever pick up a ball, and is still close with Cooper and Thompson, but she has finally found a consistent relationship with a strong leader like Staley, whom she is learning to trust more and more. She has opened up to some of her closest teammates about what she has endured too. “She inspires other people,” says junior guard Olivia Thompson. “I don’t think she really realizes how big of an impact that she has on a lot of us on this team.”

Littleton has realized something she hasn’t always been able to: “The world is not against you,” she says. Instead of dwelling on why things have happened to her, she embraces the resilience that came from those experiences. Instead of focusing on those who have disappeared, she is grateful for the community of those who have stayed.

She has more empathy for others, often reminding herself: Just be nice. You never know what people are going through. At times she struggles to give herself the same grace, but is starting to try to let down her guard. Tell her story. Someday, Littleton wants to write a book: “I want to be the person that [people] can say, ‘Well, she did it, why can’t I?’”

But her story is still being written. She still dreams of playing professional basketball. For now, she’s focused on a national championship. She envisions herself out there, her number being called. She feels energized. Ready. A calmness washes over her as she finally enters the game. Her body knows what to do. Where to go. All she needs to do is find the 3-point line, bend her legs low, and let it all go.

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