Searching for Stiles

After injuries robbed Jackie Stiles of her career, she refused to settle for an unhappy ending.

AP Photo

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Yes, every now and again, the all-time leading scorer in NCAA Division I women’s basketball goes to the gym by herself. There, Jackie Stiles shoots baskets. She loves doing this; she has always loved shooting baskets alone.

No one is ever allowed to watch her shoot these days, not even the players on her basketball team.

“I can’t stand not being what I used to be,” she says, and, oddly, she smiles.

* * *

This is a “happily ever after” story. It might not seem that way at first. The story of Jackie Stiles is one of the more remarkable sports stories you will ever hear and one of the quirkiest.  A girl of ordinary size in a tiny Kansas town — through sheer will and all-consuming passion — grows up to score more points than any Division I woman’s basketball player ever. If you include men, only Pistol Pete Maravich scored more.

Stiles averages 30 points a game her senior year at what was then called Southwest Missouri State (now, simply, Missouri State). She leads her team to the Final Four by scoring a flurry of points; teams like Duke and Rutgers send waves of angry defenders at her, but they cannot even slow her. She becomes a national phenomenon. She turns professional. She is named the WNBA Rookie of the Year.

And then Jackie Stiles disappears.

* * *

Claflin is a small Kansas town like many small Kansas towns, meaning that its tallest structure is a grain elevator and it is about a half hour away from the closest McDonald’s. Boredom, perhaps as much as any single American thing, has inspired extraordinary human achievement. Jackie Stiles has always been easily bored.

She played basketball. The game was her sun and moon as far back as she can remember. Her father Pat was the boys’ varsity coach at the high school, and he would show a 5-year-old Jackie a drill. She would do it fanatically until he showed her another. Twin boys lived a couple of doors down, and they were much taller than her, and they blocked her shot repeatedly. In time those twins, Kevin and Kyle Haxton, played college basketball, and they are now high-school basketball coaches. Then they forced Jackie Stiles to learn how to shoot an unblockable shot. She spent thousands of hours doing just that.

“When I was in second grade,” Stiles says, “I told my teacher I’d play professional basketball. At the time, there WAS no professional basketball for women in America, but I didn’t know that, and I didn’t care. I knew that was what I was going to do. Whatever it took.”

“Whatever it took” meant something different for Stiles than it means for most people. She was a force of nature, impervious to pain or exhaustion or the word “enough.” As a junior at Claflin High, for instance, Stiles won Class A state track and field championships in the 400-meter, the 800-meter, the mile and the two-mile, which sounds impressive enough. They you realize: She did all this on the SAME DAY.

“That was easy because I had all day,” she says. “At the regionals, I had to run all four of those events within an hour and a half. I would be running one race and they’d be calling me to check in for my next event.”

As a senior, she won three of the four events (she was edged out in the 400, something that would irk her for decades). In her last event – her 14th state championship – she set a state record in the 800-meter. More than 10,000 people in the Wichita stands stood in awe. It was one of the great moments of her life. College track coaches from all over the country called.

But they just didn’t understand: Stiles had told the second-grade teacher she was going to be a professional basketball player.

* * *

Jackie Stiles was already obsessive about basketball, beyond obsessive, but then as a sophomore something changed. She had a poor tournament game for Claflin High, her team lost, and she cried for hours and hours. She could see no way to atone for what she had done. And then, finally, she came up with her penance:

She would make 1,000 shots every day.

Understand, she would not shoot a thousand shots a day. No, that would not be enough. She would MAKE them, a thousand shots from all over the court, power-flips from 15 feet, hop-to-catch shots from 15, stop-off-the-dribble from all over, step-backs from three-point range. And free throws. Lots of free throws. A thousand makes. Every day.

The 1,000-make routine was precise and relentless and it took her four hours on those days when she was reasonably accurate. Bad days took a lot longer, so she stopped having bad days. She didn’t have the time.

“Sleep deprived,” is Stiles’ two-word description of those days. She would make a thousand shots in the rain, in the snow, in the wind, in the morning, in the evening, late at night. Often she would borrow her father’s key – Pat was the athletic director at the high school – and go to the gym and shoot until 1 or 2 a.m. Once, in English class – this after a particularly short night’s sleep — she fell asleep and involuntarily threw “The Scarlet Letter” across the room. When asked why, she said, “I did what?”

“I never took a day off, never, because I was always afraid someone out there was working harder than me,” Stiles says. “I was just so driven. Internally, I wanted to be the best that ever played the game of basketball. That sounds crazy … but I just … I just thought OTHER people take days off. I don’t.”

Stiles went from high school basketball superstar to something superhuman. Her senior year at Claflin she averaged – AVERAGED – 46.4 points per game. She scored 54 or more points seven times, and once scored 71. Sometimes teams would put four players on her. And it just didn’t matter.

* * *

Stiles was swarmed with college offers, of course. Her final choice came down to three schools: Connecticut, Kansas State and Southwest Missouri State.  Her father wanted Connecticut. Everybody else, it seemed, wanted her to go to Kansas State. Nobody in Claflin – not even her partents — understood why Southwest Missouri State was even on the list.

But Southwest Missouri State was the one that felt right. She did not know what to do. Finally, in a panic, she called the Psychic Hotline for advice.

“Hi,” she said quickly to get the most out of the first free minute. “I have just one question. I’m deciding where to play college basketball. My three schools are Connecticut, Kansas State and Southwest Missouri State. What should I do?”

The psychic woman delayed for a few seconds, either because the future was cloudy or because her job was to get the call into the pay minutes.

And she said this: “Well, personally I’m a Tennessee Lady Volunteers fans.”

AP Photo

* * *

In all, Jackie Stiles scored 3,393 points for Southwest Missouri State. That’s still the record. That’s not actually the most points ever scored by a women’s college basketball player – for instance, Kansas’ Lynette Woodard scored more than 3,600 points. But Woodard played before women’s basketball was granted NCAA Division I status.

A couple of years ago, Baylor’s Britney Griner threatened Stiles’ Division I record. She fell 110 points short, but Stiles did not gain any satisfaction out of that. She was perfectly happy to have Griner – one of the best players in women’s basketball history – break the record. Her only request was that after Griner broke it, they have a photo taken standing side-by-side. Griner is a full foot taller than Stiles.

Stiles’ team’s Final Four run in 2001 was the stuff of legend around Springfield. Teams tried everything to stop her. Rutgers ran two and three defenders at her. Duke tried to surround her. None of it mattered. After she scored 32 in victory over Washington that clinched the Final Four, thousands of people swarmed the Springfield Airport. For three wonderful hours, Stiles was tossed and turned and hugged as she wandered through the madness.

“It was never fun like that again,” Stiles says as she remembers. “We were just a team that cared so much about each other. We were able to do this amazing thing. I got too much of the credit, but nobody cared – we all just loved each other and the fans loved us and it was just magical.”

* * *

Her first year in the WNBA was not magical – pro basketball was not magical – but it was fine. She averaged 14 a game, scored 32 in one, was named WNBA rookie of the year. It didn’t exactly feel like the second-grade dream she’d had. But, you know, it was fine.

“The second after the WNBA season started,” she says, “they kind of started double teaming me. And a lot of times, you know, I didn’t really have my teammates’ support. There was a little animosity, maybe jealousy stuff with the attention I was getting. I don’t know, really. I guess it’s a business. It’s not supposed to be fun like college.”

* * *

This is where Jackie Stiles disappears, where she goes into a tailspin that she sometimes thought she’d never escape from. In a few words: Her body gave up. All those shots, all that pounding, all that running … it turned out that it was too much.

First her right wrist cracked. Two surgeries could not free the motion. She partially tore her Achilles; that led to five surgeries. The ankle was never quite right. The right shoulder injury was the worst one; that caused such intense pain that she was forced to sleep in a chair. Three surgeries on that. None of them fixed her.

“Wow, 10 surgeries,” you say.

“Thirteen,” she says.

“I only count 10.”

“I don’t remember which ones I’m missing,” she says. “I just know it was 13.”

She denied the obvious for as long as she could, but in the end she had to stop playing basketball. That hurt worse than all the surgeries combined. “Miserable doesn’t begin to describe it,” Stiles says. “It was operation after operation. I was horrible to be around. I remember being in a daze, just going from doctor to doctor, and I kept wanting to believe I would play again. I’d spent my whole life believing. But when you keep having surgeries, and you’re in so much pain you can’t even dress yourself, it changes you.”

People lost track of Jackie Stiles. Every so often, she would be the subject of a “Where are they now” story, and these were always sad. Friends and family members suggested she look into coaching. They meant well, but they didn’t understand how those words felt like a knife to her heart. To become a coach meant she would no longer be a player. And to stop playing – she couldn’t even fathom the thought of it.

She tried other things instead. She began working as a personal trainer.  She began cycling competitively. She began reading and binge-watching television shows. She liked those things, but they could not fill the gigantic basketball void. She would go out to the court and try to shoot, but after a while her shoulder and wrist would lock up and she couldn’t even get the ball up to the basket.

“I can’t tell you how many times I cried,” she says.

* * *

In August 2006 – three months before her 28th birthday – Jackie Stiles made her last stand: She flew to Australia to play for a team called the Canberra Capitals. Doctors discouraged her. People she felt closest to worried about her. It is impossible to say exactly what she was thinking. She just had to try one more time.

The plane landed and then, while in a jet lag fog, she found herself wearing a basketball jersey for the first time in years. It was so good. Everything about the moment – the squeaking sneakers, the rumble of the crowd, the feel of a basketball in her hands – felt just right. She thought: “Yes. This is really happening.”

She played only a few minutes, and did not do anything memorable enough to stick with her. But she played. Just that was amazing. Her basketball career was back on again. She felt almost high as she went back to her little apartment. There, a jolt of pain shot through her chest. Stiles felt like she was having a heart attack.

The next day at practice, she felt that sharp pain again. Team doctors rushed her to the hospital. Stiles had somehow broken her rib during the game. The doctors had no idea how she even had managed to finish playing the game.

“Adrenaline,” Stiles said sadly.

She stayed in Australia for six more weeks. She was alone and homesick and tired; she survived on “Prison Break” DVDs and the lingering but fading hope that this time her body really would recover. When the pain subsided, she went to her first basketball practice in years – and it was fantastic. She did not miss a shot. Every single thing she had learned about basketball in her life flowed from her, as if she was one with the force. She would forever remember it as the best practice of her life.

The next morning, she could not walk.

“This is the worst case of patella tendonitis I’ve ever seen,” the doctor said as he examined her left knee. “You will never play basketball again.”

And Jackie Stiles took the 17-hour flight home.

* * *

So, where is the “happily ever after” here? It turned out to be in the place that Jackie Stiles least expected. She is now assistant basketball coach at Missouri State.

“I can’t wait to get out of bed every morning,” she says. “It’s an amazing feeling.”

How did Jackie Stiles let go of the pro basketball career that never was? How does someone put away the bitterness about a dream that does not last long enough?

Stiles figured it out: She came up with a new dream. And she chases it as obsessively as she chased her original. She wakes up at 3:50 a.m. every morning and goes to work. She reads every single coach’s book she can find. She thinks about basketball every waking moment and dreams about basketball at night. She considers writing her own book, ‘How to be a Scorer.” She demands from young players what they can’t demand from themselves: a few extra minutes, a little extra care, a tiny bit more hunger.

“Letting go, that was hard,” she says. “But once I did – it changed everything. It’s not about me now. It’s about how I can give back, how I can help people. It’s about making people better and motivating them and empowering them to say, ‘You know what? I can do this.’ I think I understand that feeling better than most people.

“I’m so happy, you know? Coaching is my work life. It’s my social life. It’s everything. I just want  … there are not enough hours in the day for all that I want to do in coaching.”

She smiles a hard smile.

“Balance,” she says, “has never been my strong suit.

* * *

Most of the top college basketball teams now have something called “The Gun.” It is a rebounding machine, one that grabs the basketball and fires it back to the shooter at a predetermined rhythm. Jackie Stiles looks at The Gun with a mixture of awe and regret. If the timing had been different, The Gun would have been her best friend.

And if The Gun had been around, perhaps she wouldn’t have been so hard on her body when she was carving herself from a small-town Kansas girl into the most prolific scorer in Division I history. And if she had not been so hard on the body, maybe her career would have lasted longer. And if the career had lasted longer …

But this is not a spiral staircase Jackie Stiles follows now. But she does like The Gun. It allows her to shoot all those shots she used to shoot, but in less than half the time.

Yes, every now and again, the all-time leading scorer in NCAA Division I women’s basketball goes to the gym by herself. There, Jackie Stiles shoots baskets. She loves doing this; she has always loved shooting baskets alone.

No one is ever allowed to watch her shoot these days, not even the players on her basketball team.

“I can’t stand not being what I used to be,” she says, and, oddly, she smiles.