It's not the shoes. Jackie Stiles's Portland Fire teammates have told her again and again that her loyalty to Cynthia Cooper-signature Nikes, model year 1997, is not the reason she has gone from the NCAA career-scoring leader (3,393 points) and darling of last spring's NCAA tournament to the top of an exceptional WNBA rookie class. The superannuated shoes aren't the reason she leads all first-year players in scoring average (16.2 points per game, sixth highest in the league through Sunday), three-point shooting (.450, also sixth highest) and three-pointers made (27, 10th in the league). Nor do they get credit for Stiles's being one of only two rookies selected for this week's All-Star Game in Orlando.
However, Jackie Stiles has her superstitions, and wearing the shoes that brung her is one she plans to stick with. So when an air pocket blew out on her last white pair of Coops (the WNBA requires shoes to be at least 50% white), she applied white polish to the black pair she had worn during Southwest Missouri State's unlikely run to the Final Four in March. Although those now-gray shoes passed muster with the WNBA, Stiles shelved them after a 65-63 loss to the Utah Starzz on July 8. (She scored 18 points but says she played badly.) In Minnesota two days later she wore new-model Nikes for the first half and the blown-out Coops for the second. Disaster! She scored only five points—"one of my worst games ever," she says—and the Lynx blew out Portland 73-52.
Which brings us to last Thursday's home game against the Houston Comets. Faced with the prospect of playing an entire game in an unfamiliar and potentially unlucky pair of kicks, Stiles was on the edge of despair—until she received a package from former SMS player Melody Howard, who had uncovered a fresh pair of red and white Coops, size 9. Although Stiles wasn't happy with her performance (19 points on 6-of-16 shooting) or that of her team (the Fire lost 71-57), she felt good about her footwear. "I'm going to make this pair last through the season," she says. "I don't want to even think about what I'll do next season."
Why think about next year when there's much to savor now? Thanks in large part to Stiles, Portland has transformed itself from an expansion team that last year finished 10-22 into a playoff contender that at week's end was 9-9 and in fourth place in the West. Stiles had led her team in scoring in 11 games and was named the WNBA Player of the Week for her play in a three-game stretch between June 25 and July 1, during which she averaged 22 points, 3.7 rebounds and four assists while shooting 53.7% from the field and 57.1% from the three-point arc. All concerns that the 5'8", 144-pounder from Claflin, Kans. (pop. 705), would turn out to be another Cindy Blodgett, the two-time NCAA scoring leader from Maine who has averaged 2.3 points since being picked sixth in the 1998 draft, have vanished. "I wondered if Jackie Stiles would be physical enough," says Houston coach Van Chancellor. "Well, she's plenty physical. Not many players have averaged 19 points against us. Certainly no rookie has."
Fire coach Linda Hargrove has been surprised by Stiles's consistency but not by her ability to score from anywhere on the floor, defend against guards half a foot taller and get off her trademark fadeaway against anyone, even Utah's 7'2" Margo Dydek. Hargrove, a former Wichita State coach who hails from Udall, another small Kansas burg (pop. 794), has been a Jackie Stiles fan since seeing her play as a preteen. When Hargrove heard that Seattle Storm coach Lin Dunn planned to take Stiles with the first pick, and that the Miami Sol was trying to trade up to get the No. 1 selection and go for her, Hargrove tried spreading a rumor that Stiles couldn't play defense. "I told Lin, 'She may give up 25, but she'll get you 20 every night,' " says Hargrove, who held the fourth pick. "I really, really wanted her on this team."
In the end, 6'5" Lauren Jackson, the 20-year-old star of Australia's Olympic team (and Stiles's main competition for Rookie of the Year honors) saved the day for Hargrove by making herself available for the draft. After Dunn chose Jackson first, the Charlotte Sting took a point guard (Kelly Miller) and the Indiana Fever a forward ( Tamika Catchings). "I was thrilled because of Jackie's talent but also because I knew that she'd fit in here and that the team would embrace her," says Hargrove. "Things could have been much more difficult for her on some other teams."
"We may be the only team that Jackie could come to and be herself," says Portland center Sylvia Crawley. "We are all willing to put aside our own interests for the team. It helps that she is very, very humble. A lot of people get cocky when they get as much attention as she does." Stiles gets about 25 letters from fans every day, and a handful of Southwest Missouri fans—or "pilgrims," as Fire forward Vanessa Nygaard calls them—attend every game, whether in Portland, Cleveland or Miami. When the Fire played at Indiana, a 450-mile trip from the Southwest Missouri State campus in Springfield, six busloads of the school's fans showed up. Stiles's popularity among preadolescent girls, many of whom can be seen around Portland wearing ponytails and number 10 Fire jerseys, is vital to the league. " Jackie Stiles is the future of the WNBA," says Nygaard, "in part because she looks like our target audience. She looks like a 16-year-old girl, and she likes the things 16-year-olds like: Diet Coke, blue eye shadow, little chocolate doughnuts."
Stiles no longer follows her high school practice regimen of 1,000 baskets a day, but she still insists on an extra hour of shooting six days a week, a routine that more than once has kept her teammates waiting on the bus. That aside, Stiles is unfailingly considerate and quick to credit teammates and coaches for her success even as she tries to come to grips with it. "What has happened to me over the last six months," she says, "surpasses all my dreams."
Stiles is awed by many aspects of her new life. When she signed an endorsement deal with Nike before the season, she was given 45 minutes to pick out up to $1,000 of merchandise from the company store in Beaverton, Ore. After she had selected only one pair of shoes and a pair of socks in 20 minutes, incredulous Nike employees started dumping merchandise into her cart. "I was overwhelmed—I don't know how to spend that kind of money," says Stiles, who upon signing her WNBA contract, worth $55,000 this year, got braces. "I'm used to buying one pair of shoes that matches everything."
Her unworldliness is endearing. When told she was scheduled to do an appearance that would involve making pizzas with fans at Pizza Hut, Stiles said, "You mean they're going to teach me how to make the real Pizza Hut pizza?"