Mario Little: Honoring His Past, Playing for His Future
Feb. 28, 2011
LAWRENCE, Kan. –
Growing up in the shadows of the United Center, Chicago native Mario Little tried to emulate his favorite hardwood hero. Those still wondering who that may be need to look no further than half-way down the senior guard’s 6’6″ frame to his jersey number. The ’23’ Little wears is in honor of Bulls legend Michael Jordan.
“It is just a salute to him more than anything else,” Little said, who also has the image of Jordan tattooed on his right bicep. “I grew up watching him play, so once I got older and was on a team, I wanted (to wear) number 23 so bad.”
Little is not the first to don number 23 in the Crimson and Blue, but he may be perhaps the only one to do so having actually played with ‘His Airness.’
“When I was in high school I played basketball with him at his house a couple times,” Little said. “We would play five-on-five and I was on his team.”
One would think catching a pass from arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time might rattle even the steadiest of ball players, but the then teen-aged Little took it all in stride.
“I am not going to lie, it was a bit nerve racking,” Little said about the experience. “But I knew that I could not be star struck and think, ‘I am playing with Michael Jordan.’ I just had to play really good so he could look at me differently.”
Little had no way of knowing then, but that same level-headedness he took to the private courts at Michael Jordan’s house would serve him well as he took his game to the baskets of Allen Fieldhouse.
“I try to always play smart basketball and be unselfish,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter to me if I do not score in a game. If I pass up an open shot and give it to a teammate and he scores, it is okay with me as long as we get the ‘W.'”
Before bringing his unselfish game to Lawrence, Little could be found at tiny Chipola Community College in Florida’s panhandle. With a total student body about half the size of the actual students’ section inside Allen Fieldhouse, it is easy to understand why the redshirt senior never imagined that he would be playing on such a grand stage.
“I never thought I would be playing here,” the junior college transfer said. “I figured that I would land somewhere but I just never thought it would be Kansas. I was not originally looking at KU until they started showing interest in me. Once they did though, I knew my search was over.”
After making the move from the ‘Sunshine State’ to the ‘Sunflower State,’ the Chicago native quickly adjusted to life in the Jayhawk basketball program.
“They take basketball really seriously here,” Little said. “Before I came to KU I never really understood it but you quickly realize how much history is behind this program and what it means to people. We, as a team, just try to take that to heart and play with that pride each and every game.”
While the Jayhawk faithful take their team to heart, Little tries to keep it light in the locker room. His teammates often look to him for a smile or a bit of encouragement when times get tough.
“He is a jokester,” said redshirt sophomore center Jeff Withey. “He makes everybody laugh and he is just a fun guy to be around.”
Before taking on his humorous persona, Little played in 23-games during the 2008-09 season (his first at KU), where he averaged a shade less than five points per game in 12 and a half minutes of play. His growth in the program was put on hold as he took a redshirt last year to work on his game and come back better and stronger this season.
“Sitting out and not being able to play was tough,” he said. “I would watch some of the games from the bench and it was just killing me because I felt like I could really help the team.”
Even with the burning desire to suit up and lace up for the Jayhawks, Little once again called upon that same calm and patient demeanor he exemplified a half decade before, playing with his childhood hero in the Chicago suburbs.
“It was frustrating,” he said. “But in the end I knew it was the best for me in what I was trying to accomplish, so I just accepted it and moved on.”
“Redshirting last season gives Mario a chance to do two very important things,” said Kansas Head Coach Bill Self. “One is graduate and the other is to have a professional career somewhere. His resume will be well equipped for that, more so than it was last season because he probably wouldn’t have played as much.”
Now that number 23 is back out on the court, he is relishing the time he sees in front of the 16,300 fans packed inside Allen Fieldhouse.
“I am doing what I love,” said Little. “So I am satisfied to a certain extent but I feel my game can still improve a bit.”
“I think he brings an element of toughness to our team that we desperately need,” said Coach Self. “Not to mention he is a guy who can score in bunches in a small amount of minutes and there are not too many teams with the luxury of having that type of production off the bench.”
As for what his future holds once basketball season is over, Little looks toward what he has had his sights set on since setting picks and hitting jumpers in Michael Jordan’s driveway.
“Everybody who plays basketball plays with a purpose,” he said. “Once you get to high school and college you realize that it is not just a game anymore, it could be your career.”
If Little is able to take his game beyond the college ranks, he would join his former Kansas teammate and fellow Chicago native Sherron Collins in the NBA. Collins now plays for the Charlotte Bobcats, who are ironically enough owned by Michael Jordan.
“Pretty much anybody would want to play in the NBA, so if I told you I did not, I would be lying,” Little said. “I still talk to Sherron; hopefully I can be playing against him some day in the pros.”
While the NBA is still on the horizon, Little knows he has a lot more to accomplish before he leaves the KU basketball program and graduates this May.
“I just want us to go as far as we can in the tournament,” he said. “I am striving for us to get to the Final Four and win a national championship. If that happens, people will definitely remember me around here.”
If Little’s dream comes true of a Final Four appearance and another KU national championship, he may very well join his childhood hero, Michael Jordan, in having his number 23 raised to the rafters one day. Either way, the kid from Chicago can rest easy, knowing the Crimson and Blue version of his number will always be associated with one of the most successful runs in KU program history.