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Little's Smile, Toughness Impress Team

by Case Keefer - The University Daily Kansan

 

No one disputes that junior guard Sherron Collins and sophomore center Cole Aldrich are Kansas’ leaders.

But ask Aldrich – or any of his teammates – who holds the Jayhawks together when they’re slogging through practice or fighting through an error-filled stretch in a game and they’ll give another name; junior guard Mario Little.

“When you’re going through tough times, you often look at ‘Rio and he’s always smiling,” Aldrich said. “I don’t quite know why it is, but he’s always smiling and he has a great smile.”

Despite missing the first 12 games of the season with a stress fracture in his lower left leg and a broken left hand, Little never showed his disappointment to teammates. Instead, he encouraged them with his optimism.

Little says that’s simply who he is. That’s how his grandmother, Hazel Little, taught him to be.

“She told me, ‘There’s always a better side,’” Little said. “‘Everything happens for a reason.’”

If Aldrich is fond of Mario’s smile, he should see how much Mario beams when talking about Hazel. Little uses phrases like “my favorite” and “my heart” to describe his relationship with the 84—year—old who helped raise him in Chicago.

It hasn’t been as easy, however, for ‘Rio – as his teammates call him – to think about Hazel lately. For the last two weeks, she’s been battling internal bleeding and spending time in hospital surgery rooms.

“It has been tough,” Little said. “I just don’t think about it a lot. I just try to think about basketball – the reason why I’m here.”

Mario won’t say dealing with injuries and his grandmother’s illness simultaneously has been easy, but his teammates haven’t seen anything that suggests otherwise.

If Mario needed it, he could seek attention from his teammates the way they look toward him on the court. But Mario is complex.

He comforts those around him, but doesn’t need to be comforted himself.

“He’s always joking,” Collins said. “He’s still joking now so we can’t tell if he’s hurting or not.”

Collins could probably tell Mario wasn’t hurting Monday night after Kansas’ 73-53 victory against Texas A&M. Little scored a career-high 15 points on 6-for-6 shooting in only 14 minutes of playing time.

Although his leg is still not 100 percent healed and he’s still not as fast as he can be, Little said his performance gave Kansas fans a glimpse of what he could do the rest of the season.

One of his utmost strengths is versatility. Because Mario is 6-foot-5 and an effective rebounder, Self can sub him in as either a guard or post player. His uniqueness as a player mirrors his personality.

“I think he has a presence about him that no one else on our team has other than Sherron,” Self said. “He believes he belongs. He has a toughness and a presence that elevates our manliness as a group.”

Mario had another reason to be happy the day before the game against the Aggies. It was Hazel’s 84th birthday and Mario talked to her on the phone.

“We weren’t talking about basketball,” Mario said. “We were just talking about what she was doing. I just asked her if she was enjoying herself.”

If Mario’s recovery and play continues to progress, he’s certainly going to be enjoying himself. So will his teammates.

 

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