January 21, 2016, published on espnW.com
Destiny Littleton couldn’t breathe. Wearing an elevation mask that restricted her oxygen intake, the 5-foot-9 shooting guard sprinted up and down a steep hill behind The Bishop’s School on Prospect Street near the beach in La Jolla, California.
Up. Down. Up. Down. Littleton put one foot in front of the other and continued to accelerate, even though she would have given anything to rip off the mask. Cars whizzed by. The sea breeze was hardly consolation in the 85-degree heat.
“That mask right there?” Littleton said, shaking her head, pointing to the black and gray elevation mask with a white skull design. “That is probably my enemy.”
Bishop’s coach Marlon Wells — Littleton’s mentor — came up with the idea last April to prepare Littleton for the altitude at the USA Basketball U16 national team trials in Colorado Springs that summer.
The first few days, Littleton could hardly keep on the mask for 10 minutes before gasping for air. But she kept coming back, three to four times a week, around two in the afternoon. Her lungs worked harder. Her mental toughness increased. And once she learned to endure, she increased the altitude on her mask to challenge herself more.
“She took it to another level,” Wells said. “She just started going harder and pushing herself.”
Littleton, who helped U.S. team to a bronze medal at the FIBA Americas U16 Championship in Puebla, Mexico, now shoots thousands of jumpers wearing the mask, preparing to outlast the double and triple teams, and box-and-one defenses that hound her.
Defenses haven’t been able to keep up, and the junior is averaging 36.2 points, 9.1 rebounds and 4.4 steals a night for Bishop’s (17-4). She’s the 13th-ranked prospect in the class of 2017 by HoopGurlz.
“I want to become one of the greats,” Littleton said. “I try to be the best. I think that’s what pushes me the most.”
***Marlon Wells remembers the first time he spotted Littleton. The Bishop’s coach had heard about a seventh-grade girl who was schooling the boys at the local rec center. She could shoot, she could dribble, she could rebound.
She could also have a temper.
“Terrible,” Wells said, laughing. Littleton was fighting for position in the post when a boy fouled her. She pushed him back and received a technical foul. She’d slam the ball and argue with referees so often they came to call her “Miss Attitude.”
“She was just tough,” Wells said. “Anything would set her off.”
That mentality grew out of playing tackle football with the boys in elementary school, mostly at quarterback and a bit at running back. She loved seeing the boys’ faces when she took off her helmet. “Maybe it was just the spite that girls can’t play football type of thing that I was so persistent about it,” Littleton said.
Once she realized as a sixth-grader that she couldn’t play football in college, Littleton exchanged her cleats for high-tops. Basketball was fast-paced, exciting — especially in pick-up games with boys — and she was determined to prove herself. But she soon joined the boys in talking trash and disputing calls.
Meeting Wells helped change her behavior and course. “I realized that I want to do this for the rest of my life, and I realized that I’m not going to get anywhere with the attitude that I had,” Littleton said.
She dropped the attitude that took her out of games but kept the mental toughness that allowed her to stay in them — no matter what. Overcoming a bloody blow to the head in a game last season, she managed to drop 32 points and 10 boards two days later against rival La Jolla Country Day.
“Things don’t get to her,” Bishop’s assistant coach Michelle Shea said. “She actually, in some ways, is a better player when she has some adversity against her. She finds another level when she needs to.”
Hours before the first scrimmage for Team USA’s U16 national team trials last summer, she fought through severe cramping in both quads that caused her to grimace with each step. She couldn’t sit out; a spot on the team was on the line. “In my mind I’m just like, ‘I have to overcome this. I’m not going to stop,’ ” Littleton said. “One thing about me, I don’t stop. Someone has to force me to stop.”
Brian Crichlow, Littleton’s club coach at West Coast Premier, knows firsthand. He advised her to take two weeks off after a grueling 2015 summer circuit of tournaments in South Carolina, Arizona, Tennessee and Virginia.
“I think after three days she was back at the gym,” Crichlow said. “She said, ‘I couldn’t do it. Just sitting at home, resting and watching TV — I got bored with it. I needed to be back in the gym. I needed to hear the ball go through the net.’ ”
Littleton scored 33.7 points a night (plus 12 rebounds per game) in 2014-15 to lead Bishop’s to a 25-10 record. She was named the 2015 San Diego Section Player of the Year and the Sophomore Player of the Year by Cal-Hi Sports.
She’s scoring at a furious pace this season for Bishop’s, posting nine games of 40 or more, including outbursts against Helix (52 points), Horizon Christian Academy (48 points) and Bishop Gorman (47 points). She has scored below 30 points only four times, one coming in a 19-point outing against Los Alamitos where she added 12 rebounds and 10 steals all while playing on a sprained toe.
Rarely playing the fourth quarter, Littleton is shooting 54 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the free throw line. Not just a perimeter knock-down shooter, she has morphed into a dynamic scorer who can create and pull-up from midrange and attack the basket.
“She’s got a D-I body right now. You know she puts her time in the weight room because of the way she’s able to absorb contact,” said Mission Hills coach Chris Kroesch, whose team handed Bishop’s one of its two losses. “She can take that bump and she’s still going to get to where she wants to get.”
Outside of mandatory team training, Littleton spends three to four days in the weight room on her own. She often releases 500 3s or 1,000 field goals a workout, expecting herself to shoot above 60 percent. She still runs up and down hills and on outdoor tracks, while managing a 3.7 GPA.
“She’s never taken a day off that I’ve seen,” Bishop’s senior point guard Malea Casillas said. “In her free time she shoots without Coach or anyone telling her to do so. She just wants to get better. She has an internal drive.”
Littleton, who is receiving interest from dozens of BCS-level schools and plans to narrow down her list of schools by the end of her junior year, is also driven to prove critics wrong. Doesn’t play defense. Won’t shine at the next level. Inconsistent long-distance shooter. Those words motivate her to release hundreds more shots. To increase her lateral quickness on defense. To attack the rim more. To lead her team in both steals, rebounds and blocks.
“I don’t like when somebody tells me I can’t do something,” Littleton said. “It makes me work harder, more than I already do.”
“At the end of the day, that stuff doesn’t affect me,” she said. “But it’s in the back of my mind and it pushes me more.”