The Loveliest Little on the Plains

Thursday, March 3, 2022

The Loveliest Little on the Plains

A conversation with this lifelong Auburn basketball fan reveals a spirit that is anything but small.

On a Wednesday night in late January of this year—the Year of the Tiger—the cell towers connect the kitchen island in my Austin, Texas, apartment to a house in Pike Road, Alabama. Janie Little is on the other end. She’s just returned from her supper club.

Janie is delightfully Southern—something I’ve missed since moving from my home city of Birmingham to Austin five years ago. She’s the perfect blend of charm, humility, kindness, and wit. She doesn’t simply find things funny—she’s “tickled” by them. A week or so earlier, she’s already warned me in a text about her accent—as if I haven’t been missing those around here, too.

If you don’t already know who I’m talking about, maybe you’ll recognize her by the nickname she earned after a basketball game against LSU in 2020.

Granny Tiger.

“I left the game that day, and that night, we had a wedding dinner—a party,” she says. “I remember sitting on a sofa. I saw some of the Auburn students there, and they started laughing. They kept looking at me. I thought What in the world…what are they up to? And one of them said, ‘You better go tell her.’”

The Ballad of the Bounceman

It was sometime in the second half in front of a sold-out crowd at Auburn Arena on February 8, 2020, that Shanna Lockwood—a photographer for Auburn Athletics at the time—took the picture that propelled Janie into Auburn lore. “Propelled” being the appropriate description of the moment, both for Janie and the player in question.

The visitors were the LSU Tigers. And they were hot. And they knew it.

The second half was one that movies are made of. LSU, the ultimate villain—the Bizarro Tigers—would just not die. They had already grabbed the game by the tail, and for most of that stretch, it was a violent dance. LSU would score. Auburn would begin to answer. LSU would score again. The tie was within reach, then it wasn’t. Back and forth it went in one of the most exciting and stomach-turning conference games in recent memory.

Auburn trailed the entire half until a Samir Doughty layup tied the game at 74 with 13 seconds left. It was enough to send the game into overtime where J’Von McCormick made an acrobatic dribble-and-drive into the paint for the legendary teardrop jumper. The death blow that sent LSU home defeated and McCormick into Auburn basketball history.

There was another player during that volatile second half who may not have scored the winning basket but was just as important to Auburn’s victory. Dubbed “Bounceman,” then-freshman Devan Cambridge scored a career-high seven 3-pointers. He had the hot hand, and he was checking it often. It was electric every time.

And it was right after one of those shots that Auburn was introduced to Janie, in all her glorious joy. The moment, captured on film by Lockwood, was the embodiment of the energy that Auburn basketball was bringing back to the Plains week after week under head coach Bruce Pearl. It’s what had those Auburn students talking that evening after the game.

 via Shanna Lockwood (@shannalo)

“It needs to be Granny Tiger”

“I just got so excited because it was so critical,” Janie tells me about that moment, “and then they happened to have taken a picture of it.”

Google Image search “Devan Cambridge LSU” and you’ll see it. The post-make pandemonium with Cambridge making a “three” with his hand in the foreground and the raucous home crowd celebrating in the background. And there’s Janie—courtside in mid-cheer, clad in a bright orange top, raising her right hand in jubilation (clutching what appears to be a custom Auburn iPhone, to boot) and making a fist with the other. In that moment, she looks as if she could bounce higher than Cambridge himself.

That picture had already been circulating all over the Internet, and people were wondering who this super fan was, even as many were already aware of her fame. The Auburn students sitting across from Janie at that wedding party had made the connection from screen to real life. It was a celebrity spotting, and they wanted the legend to spread.

“I’d never done Instagram ever in my life, and that’s the night they set it up for me.”

The students came over and brainstormed several names for her new handle, including “Jungle Grandma,” but none of them were as catchy as the final pitch.

“This other guy said, ‘No, I think it needs to be Granny Tiger,’ so all the kids there that night said, ‘We vote for Granny Tiger.’ That’s how it got started that night. And it just kind of went on from there.”

One of Janie’s friends later asked her if it bothered her that people were calling her “Granny.”

“Gosh, no!” she exclaims to me over the phone. “It tickled me to death! I feel like a proud grandmother. I’d like to adopt all the students.”

It was settled—Janie Little, aka Granny Tiger, was officially an Auburn sensation.

Courtside Manner

For those who have had the privilege to sit courtside at a basketball game, they understand it’s a different way to take in the action. It’s a fast-paced ride with no seat belts, and it’s not for the casual fan. As someone who’s never experienced it, I ask Janie what it’s like.

“People tell me they’d be afraid to sit there,” she says. “I mean, I’ve had players land in my lap a few times. Thankfully, nobody’s gotten hurt.”

And when I say that sitting courtside is not for the casual fan, I don’t just mean in terms of intestinal fortitude when the ball bounces your way and all chaos behind it. It’s for the fan who wants to be in the game. And Janie is in the game.

No, literally.

If you’ve watched a home game the last several years and you’ve noticed Janie in the second half, you’ve seen it. She’s completely in the zone. Focused and determined. She gets on her feet, and she can get airborne, too. She points to the players when one of them sinks a three. I tell her that I’ve watched her mimic Auburn dunks with her hands as they happen in real time—“dropping the hammer.” It’d be enough to garner a “BIG OL’ NIGHT-NIGHT” from the late Rod Bramblett.

“This is the honest truth,” she says. “I have never sat there one time and thought Well I wonder who’s looking at me. I get so involved in the game. I don’t even think about people in the arena looking at me. It boggles my mind that even before all this—before Granny Tiger—somebody would text me and say, ‘I see you.’ And I would text back and say, ‘Well, where are you?’ They’d say, ‘I’m at home—I see you on television!’ And I’d respond, ‘What are you doing looking at me? You need to watch the game!’”

Janie knows her stuff, too. She’s been watching Auburn basketball for over 40 years (in addition to being a season ticket holder in women’s basketball, softball, gymnastics, baseball, and football). In the last 23 years—which is how long she and the family of her godson, Lee (you can see him jumping next to her in the LSU picture) have been sitting together—she’s only missed about four games.

“I started going to games when Sonny Smith first came to Auburn. Of course, then [Charles] Barkley came along, and you never wanted to miss a game. I’ve been going for a long time. I mean, I went when we had horrible records. I’ve sat through a lot of seasons where we didn’t do well.”

For fans who aspire to be like Janie when they grow up (I’ve seen your tweets), take note of the dedication in that last sentence.

She still has a soft spot for Cliff Ellis and Jeff Lebo. She especially wishes Lebo had a little more time at the helm. It’s understandable considering who was picked to fill his shoes, and Janie isn’t shy about it.

“I can’t say too much about [Tony] Barbee. That was a horrible fit for Auburn. I don’t know why we thought he was going to be a good fit. I don’t think he wanted to be there.”

I speak for the entire fan base when I say this is the correct sentiment, but she’s taken it even further than that when Kentucky has come to town.

“Lee and I spent a lot of time watching Barbee when he left for Kentucky,” she says. “We couldn’t figure out what he did with [John] Calipari. He had this little bitty notepad about the size of a Post-it. So, we continuously made fun of him at games by acting like we were writing on our little imaginary notepads.”

Her feelings about Auburn beating Kentucky when Barbee was at Calipari’s side?

“I mean, that was just like, sweet. It was so sweet.”

“I just want it so bad for them.”

There’s a tangible culture change happening at Auburn when it comes to basketball. At the time of this article’s publication, Auburn will only be a few weeks removed from extending Bruce Pearl’s contract through 2030 and making him (for now) the highest paid coach on campus. Janie recognizes Pearl’s impact both on and off the court.

“It’s not just the fact that we’re winning,” she explains, “but what Bruce and the coaching staff have done. They’ve instilled that team attitude among the players. You can just see it. You can feel it. Having such a deep bench like we do, it’d be easy for some of the players to get miffed about not starting, but you just don’t see that. You see them on the bench, and they’re hollering and screaming when somebody makes a great shot. You don’t always get to see that on television. And then there’s so many nice things that those guys do for the community that we don’t always hear about. I know that comes from Bruce and the coaching staff. I just love them.”

It’s no surprise that she’s a big fan of transfer players K.D. Johnson and Walker Kessler—and sorry, UNC, but you can’t have him back.

“Look at Kessler from North Carolina. Look what they passed up, you know? Well, too bad!”

Janie has witnessed the highs and the lows—and boy, have there been some lows—of Auburn basketball for just over four decades, and during that span of time, she’s remained true to her love for the program. Win or lose, she’s been a faithful fan, fearless and true. She sees this chapter of Auburn basketball as one that’s been in the making for as long as she’s been a fan.

“To me, it’s a long, overdue reward for so many people who have been so loyal for so long,” she says. “I just hope and pray that these guys get another shot at the Final Four.”

For Janie, someone who has certainly demonstrated that kind of loyalty, the appreciation is reciprocated by the team, both players and coaches alike.

“Devan [Cambridge] came over and high-fived me one night after that picture had appeared. We communicate all the time now, on Instagram, too. If I’m Granny Tiger, then Bounceman is a grandson of mine. He comes over every single game, either before or after—or even during—and he’ll squeeze my hands. He’s going to come over at some time, and it blesses me. I really do feel like a proud grandmother.”

She also tells me of a time a couple of years ago when she had a health scare that landed her in intensive care for a few days for a heart issue. On the day she was scheduled to have a procedure done to correct it, a few of her friends came to visit her and show their support. They had brought with them another visitor who wanted to make sure Janie was all right.

“All of a sudden I look up, and who walks in but [Bruce’s wife] Brandy Pearl.”

Janie says she was incredibly moved by that kindness, and thankfully, her heart made a miraculous recovery that negated the need for the procedure. However, she was faced with a dilemma. She told her doctor that she was supposed to go on a trip to Israel that Friday, to which he simply replied, “No.” But there was something else.

“I told him there was a basketball game in Auburn that Wednesday, so I asked him if I could go.”

Her doctor would allow it, but there was one condition.

“He said I couldn’t get excited,” she says. “So, I literally had to sit on my hands. And every now and then, when I would start to stand up, I’d get a text from Brandy saying, ‘I’m looking at you.’ And my friends would text me, ‘Sit back down!’”

It was quite a sacrifice for one of Auburn’s greatest cheerleaders, but the experience proved just how many people, including the Pearls, were thinking about her at the time.

Queen of the Jungle

Our conversation goes on for just under two hours. Janie tells me all kinds of stories, imparts wisdom, and genuinely makes me laugh throughout the evening. We swap tales about Charles Barkley. She asks me what I do for work, where I go to church, what kind of music I like. After playing coy, she confirms the rumors that she sneaks snacks into the arena, including heart-shaped basketball candies at Valentine’s Day, for the students; and she thinks it’s hysterical that those rumors swirl in the first place. It’s like I’m catching up with an old friend I haven’t seen in a while.

Two strangers—two different generations of fan—connected by a love for Auburn basketball, who, by the end of the phone call, are like family.

Janie is too humble for self-adulation, so I’ll do it for her: she is the epitome of the Auburn spirit. Bruce Pearl and his staff understand this. Devan Cambridge and his teammates do, too. And during our conversation, she’s once again “tickled” by the fact that so many people have reached out to me in weeks prior to share their admiration of her.

Go back far enough in my Twitter mentions whenever I’ve posted a picture or a video of Granny Tiger, and they all sing the same tune:

“I want to be her when I grow up!”

“Granny Tiger = goals.”

“Her joy is contagious.”

There’s so much more I could say about Janie, and by the end of our call, I understand why she embraces this persona.

“The Jungle—those kids work really hard. I just love turning around and seeing them do their chants. And they’ve made the difference in a lot of games. Of course, every now and then, you’ll hear something that maybe they shouldn’t have said…”

As she mentions this, we both chuckle with an unspoken understanding.

“…but the majority of the time, I mean, I really would love to take them all home.”

After our call, I think about the LSU game. That picture. Bounceman. Dozens of moments on that side of the court when we as fans have been just as fired up at her reactions as the plays themselves. I think about the years Janie has put in as a fan. How sweet this season has been for her. How far Auburn basketball has come to this point.

I think about her responses to two of my earlier questions, the first being how she sees her role as a courtside fan:

“Maybe whatever I do at the games, whatever you want to call it, maybe somehow that’s blessed somebody else.”

I ask her if that spot on the court where Cambridge and others have sunk threes, juked defenders out of their socks, and set up monster dunks is somehow made more special by her presence. If there’s some secret or magic that we as fans aren’t aware of. She replies with charming humility, which elicits our biggest shared laugh of the evening:

“Well…the answer is no.”

I believe that first statement wholeheartedly; the latter, I don’t for one second.

***Author’s note: I want to thank the dozens of fans who reached out to help connect me to Janie, specifically Ryan Boozer and Twitter users @AUGirl84 and @bphelps. I also want to thank Janie for taking the time to talk to me, including our first in-person meeting at the Texas A&M game earlier this month, where she introduced me to her friends, including Sonny Smith, Andy Burcham, and yes, even Bruce Pearl. I look forward to the next one. War Eagle!***

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