- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2001

Jackie Stiles is almost a fairy tale, almost not real, not unlike Larry Bird in 1979, when he led a modest Indiana State team to a meeting with Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the national championship game.

Stiles is from a tiny town in America's heartland, Claflin, Kan., who elected to play basketball at a compass school, Southwest Missouri State, and who, despite all her excellent work the last four seasons, was barely a rumor a couple of months ago.

Now she is the best story of March, the men's tournament included, putting up unthinkable numbers, taking her team on this improbable journey to the Final Four in St. Louis. The Lady Bears don't fit there, not with UConn, Notre Dame and Purdue, the usual suspects, except the Lady Bears have this 5-foot-8 energy force who knows how to play basketball, who has an uncanny feel for the game. Stiles is the most polished player to come out of women's basketball in the last decade.

She is a basketball junkie. You can see that. You don't coach that. You don't teach that. You live it in a gym 12 months a year. You go against the guys, and gradually, over time, you learn the nuances of the game. All too many women don't play basketball. They just pretend. They are an embarrassment to the sport, to Title IX, and their apologists in the media usually have to resort to James Carville-like spin to make the endeavor somehow seem worthy.

No spin doctoring is necessary with Stiles. She is a basketball player of the highest caliber. She is not the fastest or quickest player in college basketball. She certainly is not the tallest. But she is the best there is, perhaps the heir to Cynthia Cooper after some seasoning, and in the process, she has defied the power structure in women's basketball.

Her potential would have been squandered at a major program, at a UConn, the school she turned down at the 11th hour. She would have been a member of an ensemble cast there, just another quality part in the machine, an All-American just the same, but not nearly the player she is.

Stiles could not have done this by herself. This is about her coach, too. Cheryl Burnett bought into the singular excellence of Stiles after some initial difficulties. Burnett learned to accept the hand-in-the-face jumpers, the tough shots, the NBA-style maneuvers, and she built the team around Stiles.

The team sets a zillion picks a game for her. The team makes the tough passes to her, even when defenders are just a step away. The team is always on the attack, always looking to fastbreak, even after a made basket. The team uses both sides of the floor on offense, plus all the floor. The team is not fast. But as Red Auerbach used to say, you can get from Point A to Point B a whole lot faster if you just pass the darn ball up the court instead of massaging it, dribbling it, making love to it.

This is not a one-player team. This is a team that dumped 104 points on Washington the other night, with Stiles scoring 32 before fouling out. That was merely an ordinary night for her. She scored 41 in the Sweet 16 game against Duke.

The authorities with the 16 WNBA teams undoubtedly are rethinking their long-held beliefs on Stiles. The conventional wisdom before the tournament placed Australia's Lauren Jackson, UConn's Svetlana Abrosimova and Tennessee's Tamika Catchings at the head of the WNBA draft class next month. This is assuming Jackson signs with the WNBA, if, as rumored, she gets her wish to play for Aussie Tom Maher in Tony Cheng's neighborhood. Abrosimova and Catchings are injured, their availability uncertain this summer.

Here's the first expression of doubt to the WNBA team that chooses uncertainty over Stiles, who has the total package, the full repertoire of moves and shots, who is almost too good to be true.

She does not shoot 1,000 shots a day. She does not leave the gym until she makes 1,000 shots. She landed in Springfield, Mo., the big city by her definition, and discovered what call waiting was.

Stiles became the NCAA's all-time scoring leader this season, with an asterisk because of the conference, the Missouri Valley, but now she has confirmed who she is and claimed March as hers.

No one else is close.


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