Once one had heard a few of the Jackie Stiles stories circulating at the Women's Final Four in St. Louis last week, it wasn't all that absurd to imagine the ponytailed, 5'8" guard from Claflin, Kans., (pop. 700) carrying her underdog Southwest Missouri State Lady Bears to the national title. There was one about how, as a junior, she had single-handedly won the Kansas state 1A track and field meet for Claflin High by winning the 400, 800, 1, 600 and 3,200 in one day, and another about how she had broken her right (shooting) wrist early in her sophomore season but still averaged 20 points a game by shooting with her left. Even her routines had a mythic quality: During one stretch of high school, she made 1,000 shots three times a week, sometimes with only a toss-back net under the basket as her rebounder. Didn't someone of such heroic will and accomplishment deserve to win an NCAA championship?
By choosing Southwest Missouri State, a mid-major school in Springfield that started recruiting her when she was 12, instead of a bigger program like Connecticut, Stiles seemed to have eliminated that possibility and confined her legend to the Midwest forever. Then on March 1 she broke the NCAA Division I women's career scoring record by dropping in her 3,123th point, against Creighton. Suddenly her fame took flight, and people living beyond the prairies started hearing about her.
In a first-round game against Toledo, Stiles scored a season-low 13 points before being sidelined with a mild concussion midway through the second half. However, in the tournament games against Rutgers and top-seeded Duke and Washington that followed, she averaged 35.0 points with a combination of pull-up jumpers, driving layups and long-range bombs.
The Savvis Center in St. Louis, a 3�-hour drive from Springfield, offered Stiles a home court advantage but no respite from the media and fan frenzy her performances had inspired. As reporters and coaches argued over whether her play more closely resembled that of Sheryl Swoopes, Pete Maravich or Allen Iverson, Stiles traveled to Minneapolis on March 28 to receive the Wade Trophy as the nation's outstanding player and then returned to St. Louis the next day to face interviews, autograph sessions, awards ceremonies, a banquet welcoming the Final Four teams, and practice. After Stiles received her Kodak All-America award last Thursday afternoon, her handlers whisked her behind a curtain just long enough for her to catch her breath. "I can't believe I'm still talking," she said to a Southwest Missouri State official. "Am I even making any sense anymore?"
In the end fatigue wouldn't dull her mental acuity, but it would compromise something equally important: her legs. A bigger, tougher Purdue squad in the NCAA semifinals last Friday held Stiles to one of her worst shooting nights, limiting her to only seven of 21 shots for 22 points in an 81-64 loss. "They made me work so hard to get the ball the first half, in the second half I kind of ran out of gas," the teary-eyed Stiles said afterward.
It was a dismal ending to a glorious college career, but it wasn't the end of the Jackie Stiles story. "I can't imagine getting paid to play basketball," she said when asked about moving on to the WNBA, whose predraft camp is this week. "Please, someone in the WNBA, take me so this won't be my last game."
She needn't worry. As former WNBA coach Nancy Lieberman-Cline had said earlier in the week, "I'd hate to be the one to pass on her."