Jackie Stiles is a terrible influence. Thanks to her, there's going to be an unfortunate run on frosted blue eye shadow. Also on earnestness, and quirky superstitions. Little girls everywhere are going to copy her drug store makeup, and tape up the shoulders of their jerseys, and wear kneepads. All too few of them, however, will imitate her habit of shooting 1,000 jumpers a day. All too many of them will learn the wrong lessons from her, and try to imitate her contortionist shots, those reverse-spin, behind-the-back, off-balance fadeaways. We misinterpret players like this all the time; consider how we mistook Michael Jordan's hard work for phenomenal ability.
The conventional wisdom is that Jackie Stiles is not your everyday player, but actually, a Jackie Stiles comes along every day. You think not? Look around.
You might see her managing the local bank, or clerking in a law office. You might see her waiting tables, or punching the keys of a computer. The only difference between Jackie Stiles and the young woman you ordered your last grilled cheese from isn't talent. It's practice. That's the real lesson of Jackie Stiles, but it's getting lost in the roar of acclaim for this unprepossessing, golly-gee Kansan with the O. Henry background, just a 5-foot-8 kid from Claflin, a town of 616 residents. "I keep pinching myself," she says, "and asking, is this happening, is this really me?"
The talk at the NCAA women's Final Four is all Jackie, all the time. She is called perhaps the game's most sensational discovery since Sheryl Swoopes: This season she became the leading scorer in women's Division I history, with 3,371 points, and she has personally carried Southwest Missouri State to the national semifinals. Her superstitions have become collectibles, how she wears the same pair of undergarments and the same shade of lipstick for every game, how she eats the same breakfast, oatmeal, cinnamon toast and Diet Coke. She can score from the most improbable pyrotechnical positions, and she makes everything -- she shoots 57.4 percent from the field, 50.3 percent from three-point range and 88.7 percent from the free throw line -- and she makes girls everywhere want to play the game just like her. Which is why she is such a terrible influence.
It's critical to understand -- and to explain to your daughters -- what makes Stiles who she is, and why she can complete those gyroscopic permutations she calls shots. It's so easy to draw all the wrong conclusions about her. Earlier this season, Stiles scored 47 points against Drake -- including 17 points in five minutes. In an early-round NCAA tournament game against Rutgers, perhaps the toughest defense in the nation, she scored 32 points -- including 17 in the last 6 minutes 52 seconds. In the regional final against Duke, she had 41 points, including 15 in the last eight minutes.
"She's actually made me change the way I coach," says her coach, Cheryl Burnett. "Usually, if you don't have an advantage in numbers I tell them to wait, and we will do some things in half court, we'll start to screen and do some things. But we've given Jackie a rule. If you see one, take them; if you see two, take them; if you see three, you might think about holding up, but most of the time she tries to take them, too."
Stiles's profligate scoring -- which has come against triangle and twos, box and ones, jersey-grabbing and ankle-tripping -- has seduced and deceived even the most discerning observers. University of Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma says, "Jackie Stiles is a once-in-a-generation type player." But that's wrong, all wrong. It misses the entire point of Stiles's game and does her a disservice. The only person who really has it right is Purdue Coach Kristy Curry, whose team was preparing to face Stiles Friday in the semifinals.
Curry says, "Her work ethic is second to no one I've ever heard about."
There is sweat on every shot Jackie Stiles has ever made. How does she do it?
She works so hard she blows out the left side of her sneakers. Literally, like tires. Burnett jokes the security guards on the SMS campus know Stiles better than anybody, because she's in the gym at all hours. That is the real reason why Stiles is such an unstoppable scorer and late-game threat. She never, ever gets tired.
"It's like she has two tanks of gas," says WNBA vice president of personnel Renee Brown, who has scouted her all season for the league. "Some people, when the gas runs out, they can't switch over. She has trained herself so well that when other people hit the wall, she runs right through it."
Stiles rides the Stairmaster before practice and shoots for 45 minutes after practice. Her habit of shooting 1,000 jumpers a day started when she was a sophomore in high school back in Claflin, and she broke her right wrist. Three days later she was in the gym, shooting with her left hand. She dribbled to school every morning. Sometimes it took her four hours to hit 1,000 shots. She got up at 5 a.m. to lift weights, until she had a body like a whiplash.
By the time Stiles was a senior in high school, 19 collegiate coaches made the trek to Claflin to recruit her. Stiles's father, Pat, made it clear he wanted his daughter to be a centerpiece of whatever program she chose. Stiles seriously considered U-Conn. but balked at the last minute. She signed the letter-of-intent, and then slept on it. The next morning she decided not to mail it, because she wanted to stay closer to home, and because SMS had recruited her since she was 12 years old.
At SMS, Stiles wound up in the hands of a coach, Burnett, who was both expert and gutsy enough to demand Stiles develop her ball handling and her defense, and when Stiles was still a lackluster defender as a sophomore, she benched her. Stiles came around. For most of the last three years, Stiles was known chiefly among basketball insiders, and only as a one-woman scoring phenomenon. But in the tournament, she has proven to be a committed defender, a self-sacrificing team-member and a composed leader under pressure.
"Jackie is self-made," says Brown. "Don't get me wrong, she's an athlete, but she's also a student of the game. So many people just depend on their athleticism, but she works, and she studies, and she puts the two together. And you see the outcome."
According to Brown, Stiles has played her way up to premier player status in next month's WNBA draft, when most observers think she will be one of the top three players chosen. But the reason is not talent; Brown and her WNBA colleagues see talent all the time. The reason is, Stiles understands something few other players do: Practice beats talent. Every time.