Little does a lot for Storm
Versatile role player and former Tar Heel is still chasing elusive title
Camille Little refers to herself as having been "a mean girl" in college. She says this with a half smile, but she isn't really joking. This is a player almost disarmingly self-aware and candid. Little tells it like it is because she has no interest wasting time telling it any other way.
But a mean girl? That's perhaps too harsh a self-assessment for the former North Carolina forward, who's now with the WNBA-leading Seattle Storm. However, even when she was at UNC, Little was as business-like as if she were already a professional.
She was the no-nonsense one, the player who told everybody else to get in gear if there was too much goofing around. The one who resolutely kept her eyes on the prize and prodded her teammates to do the same.
"I was a captain, so I was the enforcer," she said of her attitude toward her Tar Heels teammates, especially in her last two seasons when UNC went to the Final Four. "I'm really competitive. It's different when you have teams where you think you can do well, as opposed to when you know you have the talent to win. Because then, you don't expect anything less.
"I didn't want [younger players at Carolina] to expect anything less. I wanted to win. I didn't care about anything else."
Little now plays an essential role for the running-away-with-the-West Storm. But it's certainly not as an "enforcer," the one who needs to remind everyone else to be serious. She doesn't think in those terms on a team that has players who've won NCAA, WNBA and Olympic titles.
"At this level, there are more people like that," Little said regarding her taskmaster personality. "But at the same time, in my fourth year [in the WNBA], I'm not considered a veteran. I would say that it helps to have people who believe the same things you do as strongly as you do. I'm the same person I was in college, and I still push my teammates. But I set examples more with how I play than anything I say."
So now she diligently applies herself to being the most versatile, reliable cog possible. Teams don't win titles without stars like Lauren Jackson but they also don't win them without complementary players like Little who perform their jobs consistently.
"I won't say I just do the dirty work, but I think I've embraced that role," Little said. "It's nice to be able to do a lot of things; you don't want to be just known for one thing. Sometimes I'm on the court for one reason, sometimes for multiple reasons. I take pride in everything I do -- all of it."
Success, but no NCAA title, with Tar Heels
Now, back up a bit. It was easy for women's hoops followers to poke fun at the UNC program which Little played in from 2003-2007. Oh, heck, we've all done it to some extent. Coach Sylvia Hatchell's, um, interesting wardrobe, her "country" Carolina accent and her odd propensity over the years to inadvertently find ways of making the Tar Heels seem as if they played more helter-skelter than they actually did.
Plus, UNC ended up being a perfect foil during the ascension of the Duke program under former coach Gail Goestenkors. If the Blue Devils looked like they were playing basketball like high-speed chess, the Tar Heels tended to counter it with what looked like high-speed chaos. Sometimes with a little motorcycle-gang rumble thrown in.
I don't want to be done and retire and only have, 'Final Four.' I want to be able to say I was a champion.” -- Camille Little
A lot of folks might say that UNC has had too much talent over the last two decades to have "only" one NCAA title in women's hoops. But that's still more than teams like Duke, Georgia, Virginia, LSU or Rutgers have. For whatever you might say about what the Tar Heels haven't done, you also need to acknowledge what they have accomplished.
In Little's tenure in Chapel Hill, UNC went to the Final Four twice and also had an additional trip to the Elite Eight. Not a lot of players or programs have that much success in college. But for Little it wasn't enough. And that motivates her to this day.
"It does, especially going to the Final Four back-to-back, we were right there " she said. "You know you could have won the whole thing, and it stinks.
"To have teammates [in the WNBA] who've won, who've had that experience, you think, 'It would be nice to have a ring.' I don't want to be done and retire and only have, 'Final Four.' I want to be able to say I was a champion."
Little did win a state title in 2001 with Carver High School in Winston Salem, N.C. Then she won three ACC tournament titles and two ACC regular-season titles (one shared with Duke) while at Carolina. Again, though, she is bothered by how all her college seasons ended.
In 2004, her freshman year, UNC was a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament and got upset in the first round by 13th-seeded Middle Tennessee. The next year, the Heels were a No. 1 seed and lost in the regional final to second-seeded Baylor.
In 2006, when the Final Four was essentially the ACC tournament plus LSU, the No. 1-seeded Heels fell in the national semifinals to No. 2 seed Maryland. Carolina was again a No. 1 seed in 2007 but lost in the national semis to fellow top seed Tennessee.
That game -- a 56-50 agony of missed opportunity for the Tar Heels -- provided the unfortunate image of UNC's Ivory Latta doing an ill-timed muscle flex that was followed by a Tennessee rally from 12 points behind.
In the Carolina locker room afterward, nobody was more disappointed than Little. She wasn't crying or raving in anger at the crushing finale of her college career; she was irritated and disgusted by lost potential.
She took no consolation from the fact that the Heels had, for three years in a row, lost to the team that eventually won the national championship. All that meant to her was that her team should have found a way to win it.
A 'key player' for Seattle
It might be too much to say her college career haunts Little, but it's not an exaggeration at all to say it fuels her. Little was drafted in the 2007 second round by San Antonio, when current Storm coach Brian Agler was still an assistant with the Silver Stars. He'd watched her at UNC and was convinced she had terrific pro potential.
"That year when we got to the conference finals, she was in the top-eight rotation on that team and played well," Agler said.
Little was then traded to Atlanta before the start of her second WNBA season, but the Dream seemed unable to effectively use her in their awful 4-30 debut year. However, Agler -- who'd left to take over at Seattle -- certainly hadn't forgotten about her. He traded for Little around the midseason mark, and she started 13 games for the Storm in 2008.
Last year, she started all 34 games, averaging 10.0 points and 6.5 rebounds. She has also started every game this season, with her numbers at 10.5 and 5.4.
"We were really happy to get her, and she is a key player for us," Agler said. "She gets a lot of things done defensively -- at that end, she's as good as there is. And at the offensive end, she's extremely aggressive but plays her role.
"She can guard a variety of people in this league from ones [point guards] to even some fives [centers]. We put an emphasis on defense here; and having someone like Camille really helps Lauren to not do all the physical work around the basket."
Little's father, Robert Little, played collegiate basketball for North Carolina Central and spent time with the Harlem Globetrotters. So she has been around the game all her life, and is especially proud of her defensive versatility.
"It's an honor and privilege when I hear people say, 'Well, we can always switch with Camille,'" she said. "My team and my coach have confidence in me that I can make stops and guard different types of players."
Little has been happy with the Storm -- even if took some adjustment to live in Seattle. She's a North Carolina native, born in Winston-Salem, a self-proclaimed homebody who loves the people and the weather of the Mid-Atlantic South.
"I'm not as upset now when it's not going to be warm," she said. "I left North Carolina in April before camp started, and it was 80 degrees. I got to Seattle, and it was 50. But I can deal with it in the summer. Winter and fall that would be a different story."
The bottom line, though, is that Little would glady trade even a 20-degree summer for a shot at a WNBA title. Her desire for this has been brewing a long time.
"It's luck of the draw, really, to have personalities that truly get along. And we have that," Little said. "When teams have the maturity to let small things go, and continue to do their jobs on the court, that's what makes good chemistry.
"It's not about you, it's about your team. Put yourself to the side and agree on what your common goal is."
In Seattle this season, everybody is completely on the same page with that. No "enforcer" needed. Little is fine with that. She's busy doing so many other things.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.
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