Paulsboro junior perseveres in pain

Saleem Little , a junior, will have back surgery April 2. AKIRA SUWA / Staff
Saleem Little , a junior, will have back surgery April 2. AKIRA SUWA / Staff
Posted: February 24, 2014

Saleem Little knew something was wrong after a football practice before his freshman year.

"I was lying in bed, and I couldn't even roll over," Little said.

With quiet determination, Little has managed to excel on the basketball court for Paulsboro despite physical limitations that first arose out of nowhere when he was a 14-year-old set to begin his high school career.

Now a 6-foot-4 junior swingman, Little is among Paulsboro's team leaders in scoring (13.1 points per game), rebounding (10.2), and blocks (3.1).

He has helped the Red Raiders to a 19-4 record, the Colonial Conference's Patriot Division title, and the No. 14 spot in The Inquirer's South Jersey rankings.

Little soon will join with teammates such as junior Theo Holloway and seniors Keenan Williams, Cassius Carter, and Brandon Hamilton to try to lead the Red Raiders to their third consecutive South Jersey Group 1 title.

And shortly after that, he will undergo surgery on his back.

"I was nervous about it, but now I'm looking forward to it," Little said of the surgery scheduled for April 2 at A.I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington. "I should be a lot better after that."

Little, who turned 17 earlier this month, has spondylolisthesis, a displacement and stress fracture of his fourth and fifth lumbar (lower-back) vertebrae.

He wears a bone stimulator to ease the pain and stiffness in his back, but he still has limitations in his ability to lift weights, run distances, and maintain peak physical condition.

"He never says a word," Paulsboro coach Sean Collins said. "It's crazy what he's going through, but he never lets anybody know about it. I'll ask him how he's doing, and all he'll ever say is, 'I'm good.' "

Collins said he tries to monitor Little's condition during practices and games. The coach said Little downplays his situation so much that he's not sure if all of Little's teammates are aware of it.

Holloway, who has been tight with Little for many years, knows what his friend has been going through.

"He never says anything about it, just plays as hard as he can," Holloway said. "I know sometimes he's hurting a lot, can't practice. But he just plays. He inspires us."

Ted Little, Saleem's father, believes his son's back problems could be related to a diagnosis of rickets, a condition that results in a weakening of bones because of a shortage of Vitamin D.

Saleem Little suffered stress fractures in his right foot as both a freshman and sophomore. He has been taking Vitamin D supplements, and his father hopes that he will not have a recurrence this year.

"It happened this time the last two years, but so far he's good," Ted Little said.

Saleem Little is best known to many South Jersey sports fans as a standout basketball player for Paulsboro, a key reserve for the team that won the South Jersey Group 1 title in 2012, and a starter for the team that won the same crown in 2013.

But as a youngster, distance running was his best sport. By far.

"I liked running way better," Little said. "It wasn't even close."

Little was such an accomplished distance runner as a middle-school athlete that he won both the 1,500 (4 minutes, 20.21 seconds) and the 3,000 meters (9:42.47) in his age category at the AAU Junior Olympics in New Orleans in August 2011.

But around a month later, his back problem surfaced after football practices at Paulsboro.

"At first, our primary doctor said, 'That's it. He's done [with sports],' " Ted Little said. "We went to specialists and found out that he can continue to participate. He won't make it worse by playing. But it has to be addressed with the surgery."

Saleem Little said he is most excited by the prospect of a full recovery.

"My dream is to run track next year" as a senior, Little said.

Little said he tries not to feel sorry for himself. He said he knows things could be worse.

He said his low point was during his sophomore year, when he felt frustrated and limited.

That's when his father made him watch a documentary about Latipha Cross, a young woman from Detroit who overcame two bouts with cancer and homelessness to earn a track scholarship to Eastern Michigan.

"That was one of the best things he ever did," Little said of his father. "It made me realize that people can overcome anything. What I have is nothing compared to what that girl had. I watched that, and I realized that I could deal with what I have."


panastasia@phillynews.com

@PhilAnastasia

www.inquirer.com/

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