Destiny Littleton pushed the limits of the motorized scooter she used from the fall of 2019 into the spring of 2020. Sometimes its speedometer read 25 miles per hour — at least according to her — and don’t tell anyone, but she occasionally raced it down the practice courts inside the Carolina Coliseum, dribbling a basketball on an imaginary fast break.
Sometimes Littleton tried to take jump shots from a sitting down position.
But for a world-class athlete who has achieved feats on a basketball court others simply haven’t, most of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 was a rough period.
A rising junior guard who transferred to South Carolina before this past season, Littleton sat out 2019-20 because a waiver request to play immediately was denied. She also spent the time recovering from a small procedure that stemmed from chronic ankle issues.
It was a year — in a string of years — filled with ups and downs, accomplishments and heartaches.
“I haven’t really found a steady pace for myself since I’ve gotten to college,” Littleton told Spurs & Feathers in her first interview since July. “At this point, I’m kind of used to it, adversity being thrown at me. Every now and then, you just want some peace and quiet, and so far it hasn’t been that way. But I’m staying positive. Adversity never really deters me from my ultimate goal. And my ultimate goal is playing at the next level.
“This upcoming season is definitely going to be a hard one, and there’s a lot of people doubting me, whether or not I’m going to be able to come back full strength, if I’m going to be the same player — all those questions that will arise after someone goes through a serious injury.
“For me, I’m not really focused on that so much as I am just myself and making sure that, once I’m completely cleared, that I can go full speed. Because once I’m cleared, I have a lot to prove.
“There’s a lot going on, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen before. Quite frankly, it’s just a part of my life. It’s just one of those things I can’t escape. But I have a solid foundation now, as far as the team goes, the community.
“We shall see where my rehab process goes and what the future holds.”
I know it’s nothing flashy ... but I’m proud of this progress 💪🏽 almost there pic.twitter.com/GlQcJvtjS1— Destiny Littleton (@dstnylttltn24) April 4, 2020
Littleton transferred to South Carolina from Texas this past May and felt she had a good argument for the NCAA to grant her immediate eligibility to play. But on Oct. 31, it was announced the waiver request was denied.
“It’s another obstacle I have to overcome,” Littleton thought to herself.
But in South Carolina’s statement announcing the waiver denial, it was also noted Littleton was dealing with “chronic ankle issues” and she needed to miss time anyway.
“It was not easy at all,” Littleton said. “I’m still going through it now. … For someone who uses basketball as an outlet for my life, and then you don’t have it, a lot of things change.
“This is honestly a unique case. I haven’t ever seen someone with this type of injury. I had surgery on both my feet, so I was in a wheelchair, non-weight bearing, for 10 or 12 weeks. I couldn’t do anything. It was very minimal rehab. It was just moving my toes, that kind of rehab.
“Once I was allowed to walk and put some weight on my feet, it became different.”
Littleton progressed slowly and first had to wear non-walking boots on both of her feet while having to ride the scooter wherever she went — something she had never seen anyone do.
“I guess I’m the guinea pig for a lot of things,” she joked. “But I’m strong enough to take it.”
Littleton was miserable when the initial casts she had the first two weeks after the procedure were cut off and she was put in non-walking boots. “It hurt so bad because I hadn’t moved my foot in two weeks after surgery,” she said. “Just moving my foot hurt that bad.”
And that was just the start.
It was challenging just to strengthen the muscle in her legs while at the same time working on the mechanics of walking.
“I didn’t know how to do it at first,” Littleton said. “And my body was trying to learn, but my muscles were so far behind.”
One positive: Littleton doesn’t swell much, so the pain gradually eased. Still, doing little things — like moving her toes and ankles slowly up and down — became annoying, and taxing. She lost muscle and couldn’t do one pushup.
“Everything was really a shock to my body,” she said. “Everything felt like it was brand new and like I hadn’t done it before. So I really had to key in on technique.”
But Littleton became a workout warrior.
Gamecock sports performance coach Molly Binetti pushes her players to reach different weightlifting benchmarks, and in one ongoing competition she challenged players to lift weights 20 times in sets of three followed by a fourth “money” set.
In the end, only Littleton and former Gamecock Ty Harris could lift 60-pound dumbbells 20 times.
“Which is no easy feat,” Binetti said.
Littleton went from wearing a walking boot on both feet while on the scooter to wearing them while using crutches. She then ditched one boot while still having to use the scooter for longer distance commutes.
To this day Littleton wears steel plates in her shoes to ease the weight.
“It’s definitely been a long process, I’ll tell you that much,” she said.
Littleton put a smile on her face because she loves her teammates and coaches, but she admits it was tough to watch practices.
“It became harder for me to, I guess act, like everything was alright,” she said. “It was definitely hard, because basketball is my outlet. I literally couldn’t do it. And there was no alternative.
“I just had to be there for my team and myself at the same time. It was hard. I felt like one, I should have been able to play, and two, I felt like this injury shouldn’t have happened to me or anyone. I don’t wish this upon anyone.
“It was something I fought with all the time. There were many nights I was like, ‘Man, how much longer do I have? Is this ever going to end? Am I ever going to get back on the court?’”
Littleton also admits she distanced herself a bit.
She didn’t want her rehabilitation to “get in the way” of teammates who needed to stay healthy and contribute to the team’s run at SEC and national championships. And for a hands-on learner like her, she didn’t really want to watch film after she already watched it in person.
In April, Staley said Littleton was “slowly getting back” to full health.
The 5-9 guard sent her coach a video — one she also posted on Twitter — of her dribbling around an outdoor basketball court in her hometown of San Diego.
“She said it isn’t much, but it’s something,” Staley said. “We only remember her as being on a scooter all last season. But now we see her upright and moving and dribbling the basketball and driving and shooting.
“You know, I think she’s going to make a huge impact on our program. Her ability to stretch the floor. She’s a communicator out there on the floor. And she has experience. Hopefully when she’s able to get out there and play full time, she’ll have the best part of her college career during this upcoming season.”
Littleton can shoot, but she still can’t run.
“I’m at the point now where it’s almost motivation,” she said. “I’m still not over that hump yet, but I’m definitely going to get there sooner than what people think.”
Though it may be cliché for athletes and people to say they have had a roller coaster journey, it truly has been for the rising junior.
At The Bishop’s School in San Diego, Littleton became the first girl in California prep history to eclipse 4,000 career points — she finished with 4,300, more than legends Cheryl Miller and Lisa Leslie — and ranks 27th among the nation’s top scorers of all-time.
“Just hard work and determination. Once I set my mind to it, nothing was going to stop me,” Littleton said. “ … That was just one of the goals I was chasing. And I had a lot of support behind me. It definitely took a lot of late nights and early mornings. I wasn’t just in there by myself all the time.”
Littleton — who was hampered a bit her freshman season because of a left ankle injury —actually had no knowledge of what the state scoring record was until the end of her sophomore season when talks began about her own trajectory. She herself didn’t get too interested until late in her junior season.
Entering her senior campaign she needed about 850 points.
“I came out hot,” she said. “I was averaging like 60 my first 10 games. I left it all out there on the court, because I didn’t want some measly injury to stop me from reaching that goal.”
Those numbers came despite rarely playing the fourth quarter.
Littleton scored a career-high 68 points in one game. “I want to say I had 68 with like two minutes to go in the third quarter,” she remembers. (High school games, notably, are played with eight-minute quarters.)
Littleton twisted an ankle in the game before she broke the record, but she still pushed on.
“Me, the competitive spirit I am, I was like, ‘It’s OK, I’ve got this,’” she said. “So we just wrapped my ankle up and I just went out there and broke the record. Obviously I wasn’t fully mobile, but I was going to make sure it was going to get done.”
Littleton committed to the University of Southern California in October 2016 but was granted a release because Trojan head coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke resigned in March 2017. She enrolled instead at Texas, where she averaged 8.4 points per game as a sophomore in 2018-19 and was the team’s second-most efficient 3-point shooter, hitting 32.2 percent from behind the arc.
But Texas just wasn’t the right fit, so she transferred to South Carolina this past May.
Because Littleton’s favorite jersey numbers — 24 (LeLe Grissett) and 4 (Aliyah Boston) — were taken, she landed on wearing 11 for the Gamecocks.
“I want to be one of one,” she told fans in a question and answer session on Twitter.
“She solidifies our team with leadership skills, and she can flat-out score the basketball,” Staley told fans at the My Carolina Coaches Dinner before this past season began. “She is a person that says the right thing and does the right thing.”
While at Texas, Littleton, a coach and two teammates did a version of Carpool Karaoke. One of the songs was Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk, and Littleton passionately sang the lyrics, “Don’t believe me, just watch.”
The lyric, in a way, could be used to describe this stage of her life.
The injuries and the high school accolades, the transfer and the scooter, it’s all about to be the past.
It’s about time to just watch Destiny Littleton play as a Gamecock.
“First and foremost, I’m going to bring leadership. I’m going to really try to be vocal and be there for my team, because I feel like that’s going to help me with confidence and gaining ground back on the court,” she said. “And more scoring mentality, energy.
“And my love for the game, I’m definitely going to bring that back. I’ve got to. It’s been gone for too long. I’m excited to get back on that court and play with my team for the first time.