There are some basketball players who can impress you by just standing up.
Bill Russell was long-past his playing days when I first met him, but he has an unmistakable bearing about him. Wilt Chamberlain was, well, Wilt Chamberlain and there was no mistaking that. Downtown Freddie Brown was retired and working in the corporate world when I met him and he still looked like he could knock down a shot at the Seattle Center Arena from the street corner outside the old SeaFirst building.
Jackie Stiles wasn’t one of those players.
Stiles arrived in Spokane in 2001 as part of the Women’s NCAA Tournament regional final field of Duke, Washington, Oklahoma and Southwest Missouri State. The leading scorer in the nation for Southwest Missouri State, Stiles was a 5-foot-8 woman who, without a basketball in her hands and away from campus, could go unrecognized.
Which is too bad.
At the Spokane Arena, Stiles led Southwest Missouri State past Duke, then knocked off June Daugherty’s Washington Huskies in the Regional Final.
Stiles played only one other game as a collegian after she left the Arena, losing to Purdue in the Final Four. She finished with 3,393 career points.
Much has changed in the women’s game since that 2001 regional.
Southwest Missouri State no longer exists under that name. The school dropped its regional identifier and is now just Missouri State. Gail Goestenkors, who coached Duke that season, left to coach at the University of Texas and is now out of basketball after stints as an assistant coach in the WNBA. Daugherty was fired by Washington in 2007 and moved across the state to take over at Washington State. Only Sherri Coale remains as head coach at Oklahoma 16 years later.
In fact, Stiles now is an assistant coach at Missouri State.
But Jumpin’ Jackie Stiles still holds the all-time record for scoring in the NCAA. Until 2014 her 1,062 points scored during the 2000-2001 season was the only 1,000-plus season in NCAA history and it still stands as the single-season scoring record.
And if you saw her with a basketball in her hands, especially if you had the privilege to do so from courtside, you never forgot.
Only two other women’s basketball players have had that same impact on me: Lauren Jackson of the Seattle Storm and Courtney Vandersloot of Gonzaga. For different reasons, obviously.
Vandersloot made incredible things happen on a basketball court – the same way Magic Johnson made things happen.
Jackson was an amazing athlete who did things in the low post that you had never seen done in the game of women’s basketball. Elena Della Donne, Vandersloot’s teammate with the Chicago Sky, comes close.
But Stiles remains a one-of-a-kind player.
For starters, she was an exceptional sharpshooter who had great range. But what made her special was the way she created separation from a defender. She had great hops – she could be running full speed upcourt and, without missing a beat, convert her energy into a great vertical jump that was impossible to guard.
That regional final against Washington is somewhat ironic now.
The Huskies now feature Kelsey Plum, who, barring injury, is on course to surpass Stiles’ career scoring record. Washington State did what they could to slow Plum down Sunday when the Huskies made their lone trip to Pullman. Plum put up only 29 points against the Cougars.
There are great similarities to the two players. Both are 5-8 and Plum weighs in only 10 pounds heavier than the slight Stiles. And while no one comes close to matching Stiles’ vertical transition, Plum does share her unerring accuracy from the outside.
Plum has already surpassed 3,000 career points, and if she maintains her 31.2 points per game average, she should pass Stiles at the Pac-12 tournament.
Stiles told the Seattle Times’ Percy Allen that she plans to reach out to Plum during these final weeks of her senior season at Washington. She wants to send her words of encouragement as she chases the career record – something she hasn’t done with past challengers.
Perhaps its because Stiles once tried to recruit Plum when she was an assistant coach at Loyola Marymount – in fact Plum was the first player she recruited.
She wants Plum to enjoy the ride. And she would love to impart some of the hard-won wisdom she learned about taking care of her body against the wear-and-tear the game exacts, especially on undersized players with over-sized desire.
Mostly, she says, she’s excited to see the women’s game get some well-deserved attention in Plum’s chase for the all-time record.
“I know records are meant to be broken,” Stiles told the Times. “I know something like this draws a lot of attention – good attention – to the women’s game. Anything we can do to help grow the sport I’m all for it.
“I want to give back to the game of basketball. It’s given me everything. I tell people all the time, I’ve never had to get a real job because basketball has given me everything. It’s truly blessed me so I want to help it grow as much as I can. I will definitely celebrate whoever does break it.”
Even as her remarkable senior season wound down and the school had to hire a bodyguard to help protect her from all the extra attention, Stiles was gracious and humble.
Which makes her comment sound all the more heartfelt.
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