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Swanson: USC’s Destiny Littleton finds her voice

Resilient and wise after navigating a lifetime of personal challenges, graduate transfer Destiny Littleton has been a leader for the USC women’s basketball team this season. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

USC’s Destiny Littleton takes a shot during a game against UCLA last month at Pauley Pavilion. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

Coach Marlon Wells and Destiny Littleton pose together in an image from 2015. Wells was Littleton’s basketball coach before becoming her guardian and eventually, legally, her dad. (Photo courtesy of Marlon Wells)

USC guard Destiny Littleton handles the ball as Texas guard Shaylee Gonzales defends during the second half of a game earlier this season in Dallas. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)

USC guard Destiny Littleton, left, takes a 3-point shot during the first half of their game against Stanford on Friday night at Stanford. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)

USC guard Destiny Littleton, a graduate transfer from South Carolina, has become the leader of this year’s team, a group that has shown a resilience and grit that should prove invaluable in the NCAA Tournament next month. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Marlon Wells was Destiny Littleton’s basketball coach before becoming her guardian and eventually, legally, her dad. (Photo courtesy of Marlon Wells)

USC’s Destiny Littleton takes a shot during a game against UCLA last month at Pauley Pavilion. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley, Contributing Photographer)

USC’s Destiny Littleton looks toward the stands after their 59-56 loss to UCLA in a Pac-12 opener on Thursday night at the Galen Center. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

Resilient and wise after navigating a lifetime of personal challenges, graduate transfer Destiny Littleton has been a leader for the USC women’s basketball team this season. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

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A girl adrift, 12 years old and alone in the wilderness of San Diego’s concrete jungle. She keeps moving, keeps chopping wood, keeps her wits about her. Because there’s a play drawn up for her to succeed, she can feel it. Destiny, child.

***

“What’s the word? Serendipity?” USC women’s basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb asks in regard to Destiny Littleton’s presence in her program this season.

She asks because back in 2017, when Littleton was a top recruit out of The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, a McDonald’s All-American whose 4,300 career points made her the state’s all-time leading scorer among girls, she thought she’d play all her college ball as a Trojan. Instead, she wound up at Texas, and then at South Carolina, where last year she became a national champion.

That she’s playing at USC only now, just as the Trojans have begun to crest upward again, breaking into the Associated Press’ Top 25 poll for the first time since 2016? That does seem like a stroke of serendipity.

A little like a touch of fate, that it’s happened just as Littleton – a 23-year-old graduate student and point guard, playing heavy, necessary minutes and making the most of the NCAA’s bonus COVID year – has dropped her disguise, emerging from an emotional thicket not unscathed, but untarnished. Good, stronger and the right woman to lead these tough-willed Trojans, whose wins don’t often come easy, but have come anyway.

A fighter, with the fortitude to take the big shots and live with the results. “A great overall person,” said Aaliyah Gayles, a teammate and friend. “A pick-me-up person, a loving person. I would take a thousand Destinys, if I could.”

HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT

To get a sense of that, you need only to sit and listen a while to Littleton, a 5-foot-9 floor general whose braces show when she smiles and who has a tattoo on the inside of her left forearm that reads, in neat, cursive script, “With pain comes strength ♡.”

As a kid, the baby of the family, she’d played football and basketball with the boys. But she couldn’t compete with the drug addictions poisoning her home, sending her parents and siblings spiraling and leaving her without much food or, half the time, functioning utilities, she said. She wound up living out of a duffle bag, and later, saw her father convicted of a decades-old murder.

But back then, when she’d been so angry and with so few tangible assets, she also had tons of talent, on the court and in class, and she was determined not to waste it. “Something in me was just like: Don’t just throw your life away,” she said. “Don’t give up on things that you can control.”

She found lifelines and opportunities, and she didn’t squander those either. She moved in with a coach, and with friends, with a teacher, and earned her way into a prestigious private high school and onto the radars of every major college women’s basketball coach.

All that while she kept the most important information about herself confidential, strictly on a need-to-know-basis – and dang near nobody needed to know.

What her classmates and teachers at The Bishop’s School knew was only “laughing-and-smiling Destiny.” High-achieving Destiny. Sober, focused Destiny. But no, almost no one knew anything at all about the family she was estranged from. Or that Marlon Wells, her basketball coach – her guardian and eventually her dad legally – wasn’t her father biologically.

She hadn’t wanted to be mislabeled on her affluent high school campus, where a friend’s biggest problem was how to hide a Hot Cheetos habit from her mom. Littleton didn’t want anyone looking at her and thinking, “You’re just another black kid from the inner city.”

More, she felt betrayed by the people who, above all others, she was supposed to count on. How in the world could she trust anyone else? Even with Wells, she said, it took three years.

It was a “mask,” Littleton calls it, that didn’t come off until last March, when she was coming off the bench for the top-ranked Gamecocks, and coming out of the fog of depression.

For the first time, she thought she’d be able to talk about it all without crying, and she looked around and she saw more athletes speaking on mental health. So she reached out to Mirin Fader, a best-selling author and feature writer for The Ringer, who had written a bit about her in high school, and whom she trusted to tell her whole truth.

The instincts that kept Littleton afloat for much of her life proved right again, because when Fader’s story, “The Determination of Destiny,” ran on The Ringer’s website, it meant Littleton’s secrets, well, they weren’t secrets anymore. Just facts. And we know what the truth shall do …

“Littleton has realized something she hasn’t always been able to: ‘The world is not against you,’” Fader wrote. “Instead of dwelling on why things have happened to her, she embraces the resilience that came from those experiences.”

The response to the piece was stunning: “It was crazy to see how many people were just like, ‘Oh my gosh, you went through all of this and you’re still here? Still playing at a high level?’ It was good to hear adults be like, ‘Wow, you’re my role model. I look up to you!’”

A hidden talent emerged – for public speaking. She began to talk, aloud, about everything she’d kept quiet all her life.

‘GET IN THIS CAR’

If you’re ever in a room to hear Littleton tell her story, you’d be rapt, like the students at Irmo High School in Columbia, S.C., where she spoke at last spring’s College Decision Day.

“You could hear a pin drop in our auditorium,” emailed Ruschell Pearson, an Irmo counselor. “The students were so focused on what she was sharing about life, the trials, triumphs and being a victor not a victim of your circumstances, learning how to face life head on and appreciate the good and the bad.”

Good. Bad. There they were, mixed up one night near San Diego Community College, one of those moments on which an entire plot hinges.

Littleton was a middle schooler then, trying to avoid being home. So she loitered at the gym late into the night, long after all the other kids had gone following a full day of action in the summer league run by Wells, a decorated coach who has worked with some of Southern California’s top girls hoopers in the past quarter-century, and who this year has led Temecula Rancho Christian to the CIF-SS Division 3A title game.

“(The adults) were just outside talking and I was just out there with them, knowing I can’t leave until they leave because they’re gonna be like, ‘Where’s your parents?’ ‘Who’s picking you up?’ Littleton said. “I was just like, ‘Oh, don’t worry, they’re coming.’”

But then Wells spotted Littleton walking alone toward the trolley.

“He pulls up,” Littleton said, “and I’m just like, ‘Oh crap.’”

“Where are you going?” he asked.

He remembers Littleton saying she didn’t have money, she was going to hop the trolley without paying. Littleton said she told him where she was headed – to the home of some friends whom she knew Wells would recognize as “bad influences, just terrible.”

Coach’s order: “Get in this car!”

Littleton remembers telling him he didn’t need to bother calling her mom: “She doesn’t care.”

He remembers trying. “Nobody answered.”

So Littleton wound up on Wells’ couch for the first of many nights, under the same roof as the coach and his wife and sons, “thinking, like, I don’t really know what this is gonna be, but I’m glad I’m not home. I’m sleeping on this couch. I’m cool. Like, I trust him, there is no like, ‘Oh my god, who is this man?’ But it was definitely more, ‘Don’t talk to me, just leave me alone. Take me to practice. And that’s it.’”

RELIVING OUT LOUD

So, no. Heck no. No way she would have imagined then that she’d be talking about those moments before 700-some fellow athletes last year at the Black Student-Athlete Summit in Houston.

And that she’d enjoy it? Shoot.

“She was dynamic,” said Leonard Moore, the executive director of the summit. “The way she was received, it just really affirmed for her, ‘Hey, I can have a dynamic life after basketball.’”

Moore, an American history professor at the University of Texas, invited Littleton to the stage last May because he’d gotten to know her during her two turbulent seasons playing for the Longhorns.

She’d re-routed because Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, who’d become a rare confidante for Littleton in high school, resigned as the Trojans’ coach in March 2017. But her time in Texas messed with her. Littleton had problems with her knee, with coaches wanting her to do therapy she wasn’t ready for, with prescriptions from doctors.

And the haymaker: “This whole news thing blew up about my dad,” Littleton said.

In July 2018, Stacy Littleton was convicted of first-degree murder for the stabbing death of an acquaintance, Cyrus Jefferson, in October 1986 – 13 years before Destiny was born.

The case was reopened in 2017, and previously unavailable DNA testing led to new charges. He was sentenced to 26 years to life. And, yeah, “a cold case cracked wide open, 31 years after a man was killed!”? That wound up all over the news, family photos and all.

“Just got people texting me, texting me, texting me. Facebooking me. Like, ‘Oh my gosh! Like, what’s going on?’” Destiny said. “Everyone knows that’s me.”

When her father started calling her from prison, she balked: “What? What are you calling me for? There’s nothing to talk about.”

But there were things to talk about.

“Eventually I was just like, you know what? Let me just stop being (a jerk),” she said. “So I would give him a little bit more information like, ‘Oh, practice was good.’ And he would send me letters.”

But then, when she’d begun to count on weekly conversations with him, they stopped. A month passed without her hearing from him. “And obviously you can’t call him,” she said. “So I sent an email, ‘Is everything OK?”

It wasn’t. He’d been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. He didn’t want treatment: “No point,’” he told her in January of 2019.

A BRAVE FACE

Destiny’s dynamism is evident not only when she’s speaking to a crowd, but to you alone.

There’s no dancing around delicate topics anymore. She doesn’t break eye contact and she doesn’t break stride, inflecting and emoting and unburdening herself. She plows forward like she must have in her short-lived youth football career, when she tackled one kid so hard it knocked her out.

She wobbles only as she forms the words to describe her final visit with her father, in prison.

“He was so skinny,” she said, after a deep breath. “Mind you, he’s been like a strong, hefty, beer-bellied guy his whole life. And so I see him and instantly, like, I have to look away because I could not start crying, not in front of him. He had this big – I swear it was watermelon-size – tumor in his neck. And I was like, ‘Holy crap.’ He didn’t even have the energy to hold his water. Couldn’t drink water, he couldn’t eat.

“And the first thing he asked was, ‘Do I look good?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, absolutely. You look great.’

“No,” she said, he did not, not really, not at all. “I can’t even get the image out of my head.”

Their time together lasted only five minutes, she said, before he asked to go inside, saying he was hot even though it wasn’t a hot day.

She learned he died when she got a call in class, from her mom, on April 1. It fell on Destiny to handle the funeral arrangements, including the sticky act of fundraising to pay for them – all while going to college halfway across the country.

‘IT’S ALL PERSPECTIVE’

Have you ever wondered how people who have had to endure a lot feel about folks around them constantly sweating the small stuff, whining about life’s inconsequential inconveniences? Does it ever bug Destiny?

“Honestly, no,” she said, thinking back to the weeks following surgery for stress fractures in both feet after she transferred to South Carolina in 2019, when she couldn’t walk or shower or get to the bathroom without help.

“I thought, ‘Now I know what it feels like to be disabled.’ That part of my life was taken from me. I don’t usually wake up, ‘Man, I’m so grateful (to be able to walk).’ I can just walk out of bed and use the bathroom …

“But some people don’t have that, so that was a really big eye-opener for me, just looking in the mirror like, ‘I can’t walk right now – right now – but I will be able to.’

“It’s all perspective, honestly.”

MEET DESTINY LITTLETON

There’s a new, more accurate perception of Littleton now at The Bishop’s School. She spoke there last year at the athletics awards ceremony, telling her story to current students and members of the faculty who knew her but didn’t know her.

Striking in a red dress, microphone in hand, she told them what her high school life had really been like, and also about the depression that caught up with her at South Carolina. She shared what she’s learned: “It’s OK to ask for help. It’s OK to not be the strong person that you put on for everyone.”

That’s the tough stuff, too. Opening up like that. That’s what’s going to help people. And, for Littleton, that’s where it’s at: “I always say my ‘why’ is to help others, to let people know that they can do it too.”

She’s thinking about becoming a doctor and, a few months ago, was considering basketball retirement so she could begin pursuing a medical degree. But hoops – and an opportunity to play at USC after all – won out.

She’s happy it did. An open book now, Littleton’s collegiate epilogue, her one chapter as a Trojan has just one home game remaining: against Washington State on Saturday afternoon at the Galen Center.

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It’s been a good season; the Trojans are 20-8, their most wins since 2017-18; she’s averaging career-highs – 34.2 minutes per game, 13.9 points – and boasting a 3.7 grade-point average in communication management. There’s a sense at USC, as Gottlieb put it after the Trojans triumphed in Thursday night’s 47-43 rock fight with Washington, that there’s “a lot of season left.”

Energized, Littleton now knows that she, personally, has a lot of basketball left too. She’s game for the next chapter, wherever the sport takes her, wherever fate does. There’s a play drawn up for her to take the shot.

“Destiny is a really beautiful soul,” Fader said this week. “And the best part of her story is that it’s just beginning. She’s finally found her voice. When I first met her, I could tell she had so much heart, not just on the court, but as a person. And I think the fact that she is now comfortable sharing her story just shows how much light she has to give … that’s a real gift.”

A gift for us. “We’re lucky,” Fader said, “to hear her story.”

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