It’s no act: UTSA’s Gino Littles growing into his first love

SATURDAY ON ASN: UTSA at Middle Tennessee, 4 p.m. ET (click logo for local listings)

Gino Littles is a heck of a lot more than just a pretty face. But he won’t lie: The pretty face doesn’t exactly hurt.

“When I was a kid, my mom always put me in acting classes,” the UTSA point guard recalled.

Basketball has always been Littles’ No. 1 passion, but when the camera loves you, babe, it loves you. At 14, he turned up on a Nickelodeon game show. A few years after that, he hooked on with an agency in Los Angeles, did a little modeling — appearing in print ads for Toys “R” Us and Mervyn’s department stores — and some acting when time (and hoops) allowed.

“I did it from my sophomore year all the way up until the spring before my senior year,” recalled Littles, who found himself frequently round-tripping between SoCal and his native Phoenix. “That’s when I started having a lot of basketball (conflicts) so I couldn’t go to Los Angeles a lot.

“They used me for a lot of athletic things. There were a lot of comedy roles; it was more acting than modeling. I got two call-backs.”

The closest audition to paydirt was for a Foot Locker commercial three years ago, “and it came down to me and this other kid,” said Littles, whose Roadrunners visit Middle Tennessee State Saturday on ASN. “And they just picked him because he was taller.”

Size — or rather, the lack thereof — is woven all over the personal narrative of Littles, the son of former ABA great and NBA coach Gene Littles and UTSA’s leader in assists (48) and steals (20). Division I coaches liked the family legacy, the instincts and the basketball IQ as Gino was tearing it up for Desert Mountain High in Scottsdale, Ariz., but “a lot of schools looked at me and said, ‘He’s just too small,’” Littles said.

“That definitely hurt me, but I never lost confidence. I knew that I could play. But a lot of schools would look at me and say, ‘Yeah, he’s got the potential, but he’s so small.’”

Now 6-foot and 160 pounds, Littles checked in at 5-2 as a high-school freshman and 5-10, 140 pounds as a senior, Desert Mountain’s Little Engine That Could.

“I’m 20, but my body’s really 18, my bone age (is 18),” he said. “So I’m 6-foot and I’m supposed to be 6-3.”

The short version is that once puberty kicked in, an expected growth spurt didn’t. A doctor prescribed HGH to help jump-start the process between the ages of 13 and 17.

“It’s a steroid, but I wasn’t taking it like, ‘I’ll pay you $1,000 to make me bigger,’” Littles explained. “I’m not 6-6, 250 and just out there. If someone on my team took it, they would be huge. It’s because my hormones weren’t producing (what they were supposed to). The NCAA just said, ‘To be safe, just don’t have him take the HGH when he’s in college.’ So I stopped.”

And, at any rate, it was always about the size of the fight in the dog. At UTSA, Littles turned up last year as a 140-pound freshman walk-on. He wound up appearing in 27 games and starting the final 22, busting his tail and refusing to back down, same as ever. A month after the 2014-15 season ended, coach Brooks Thompson sat him down and offered a full ride.

“I’m realistic,” Littles said. “I know I’m not a ‘Kentucky’ type of kid. (When) we play those schools in the non-conference, I’m never scared.

“I knew Conference USA is a good conference as a mid-major. That was part of the reason I came here; I knew this is a good conference. I knew I’d have a (chance to play). If I’d committed to walk on at Duke, it would be a different story.

“(My parents) asked me, ‘Are you sure this is what you want to do?’ And they never questioned me. I’m very blessed to have parents that support my dreams.”

Basketball roots run deep along both sides of the family tree. Gino cracked that he was probably dribbling in his mother’s womb, and remembers shooting the rock as early as 3.

“I talk with my dad every day after a game,” Gino said. “Sometimes, he’ll call me and leave a voicemail, or I’ll get back to him later that night or the next day. He’s really experienced, and so we’ll talk at least three or four times a week.”

And Mom?

“It’s every day,” he replied. “She can’t stop texting me. She texts me 24/7.”

Gino’s parents divorced before he’d reached first grade, but all parties settled in greater Phoenix and remained on amicable terms. Gino lived with his mother while Gene coached his club team — the Arizona Stars — throughout most of his formative hoops years. John Lucas was another mentor; Gino attended the ex-NBA coach’s 40/40 Combine.

“I’ve played against good teams, and I’ve had 12 or 13 points per game,” Gino recalled. “I knew I had the capability.”

After all, he inherited Dad’s instincts. Also, Dad’s smile. And neither one has steered him wrong yet.

“It’s really cool, to be honest,” Littles said. “A lot of people that have watched basketball, they know of him, and a lot of people don’t know. I don’t think there’s pressure, because he’s never put pressure on me. I want to get to the next level and all that, but he’s never put pressure on me. It’s really cool being his son and especially having someone mentor me and teach to be as good as he was.”

Above: UTSA point guard Gino Littles says his growing body is age 20 going on 18. (Courtesy Steve Moakley/UTSA)