Jackie O The offensive dynamo of last spring's NCAAs, Portland rookie Jackie Stiles is lighting up the WNBA with her dazzling jumper and winsome personality

July 22, 2001

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?"

"I call her 'the young Jackie Stiles' because five years from
now, she'll be so different," says Nygaard. "Right now, she is
incredibly naive. She's like the boy in the bubble who suddenly
got out of the bubble. You can't not like her. And you can't help
but cheer for her."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Killer J Some thought that at 5'8" Stiles would be too small for the WNBA, but she's had no problem getting off her shot.
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