January 30, 2024
Jackie Stiles: The original Midwest phenom
Missouri State legend offers Caitlin Clark advice as she closes in on scoring mark
”A once-in-a-generation type of player. Every time she touches the ball, you can’t wait to see what she is going to do with it.”
“We’ll look back in 50 years and just be stunned.”
“She brought so much notoriety to her state and school.”
“She’s left her mark on the women’s game.”
While all these remarks certainly could have been made about Caitlin Clark, they instead referred to another Midwest phenom who chose to stay close to home and take her team to new heights — Jackie Stiles.
Both are prolific scorers, who have sold out not only their own arenas, but most away games, and led their teams to the Final Four for just the second time in school history — Stiles at Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State) in 2001, and Clark at Iowa in 2023.
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Now Clark is on the cusp of passing Stiles’ scoring mark of 3,393, which was the most points in NCAA Division I women’s history for 16 years until Washington’s Kelsey Plum broke the record in 2017 with 3,527. Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell passed Stiles in 2018 with 3,402, which tops the Big Ten and is second on the NCAA list.
After her 38-point performance Saturday against Nebraska, Clark stands at 3,389, just four points shy of Stiles and 13 behind Mitchell – both of which she will likely eclipse Wednesday against Northwestern. After the game, Clark reflected on what it meant for her to close in on Stiles’ mark.
“She’s one of the best ever to pick up a basketball so that’s super cool,” Clark said. “I can’t tell you how close I am or whatnot, it’s not something I’m after. [I’ll] just keep playing the game, keep having fun. This is what just comes along with it and I’m just trying to enjoy every single second.”
A drive to be the best
The introductory quotes were pulled from “The Jackie Stiles Story,” a 2022 documentary that chronicled Stiles’ life, from growing up in a small Kansas town to becoming the NCAA’s scoring leader and WNBA Rookie of the Year, to the devastating injuries that prematurely ended her playing career and the cancer diagnosis that changed her life.
Growing up in Claflin, Kansas — population 600 — Stiles fell in love with basketball at a young age. She often tagged along to practice and skills clinics with her dad, Pat Stiles, who was a boys’ basketball coach at the time.
“I just had that vision that basketball was going to be a part of my life,” Stiles told The Next in a phone interview. “My ultimate dream was to be the best women’s basketball player in the U.S. I didn’t want to take days off. I didn’t want any regrets and wanted to give it everything I had.”
When Stiles was a second-grader, she told her teacher she wanted to be a professional basketball player, even though at the time there wasn’t a professional women’s league in the United States. But that didn’t deter her. In fact, Stiles says being an underdog was what fueled her at every level.
“I just wanted to prove to people that you can do it, no matter where you’re from, even when people think it’s impossible,” she explained. “Even through the tough times, you can accomplish pretty much anything if you’re willing to work.”
She joined her first AAU team in Kansas City when she was 12 — which some might consider a late start these days. But the eight-hour drives on the weekends paid off early, as she quickly caught the attention of Southwest Missouri State assistant coach Lynette Robinson. Robinson eventually invited Stiles to attend the Bears’ summer camp, beginning her relationship with the college in Springfield, Mo.
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By the time Stiles was in junior high, many other college coaches had begun to take notice, and she eventually fielded more than 2,000 letters. Her legend only continued to grow in high school, as the 5’8” guard with a small stature wowed crowds and college coaches with her uncanny ability to shoot and handle the ball.
During her sophomore year, after she broke her right shooting wrist, she learned how to shoot with her left hand, further developing her game. A poor shooting night later that season incited a ritual of making 1,000 shots per day — every day — until she went to college.
“I was disappointed and embarrassed and felt like I let my team down,” Stiles said. “I wanted to be even better than before I was injured.”
Averaging 47.1 points per game throughout her high school career, including 71 points in three quarters during a game her senior year, she drew overflowing crowds, often lining up outside of the schools just to get into the gym.
She was recruited by the top programs in the country, including legendary coach Pat Summitt of Tennessee. While she said Summitt was a “total class act,” she knew early on that Tennessee was not the right fit for her.
“I turned down Tennessee early in the recruiting process because I knew several All-Americans like Semeka Randall, Tamika Catchings and ‘Ace’ [Kristen Clement] were all going there. I just didn’t feel like there was room for me on that team,” Stiles said.
She eventually narrowed her choices down to UConn, Kansas State, Southwest Missouri State and Oklahoma. She eventually committed to UConn, but ended up calling coach Geno Auriemma to tell him she wasn’t headed to the East Coast. Instead, she wanted to play at Southwest Missouri State, the first school that recruited her.
It was tough to forgo a storied program for a mid-major — a decision that even her dad questioned — but she has never regretted it.
“It was just a great environment back then. Getting to know the coaches and players for five straight summers at camp, I just felt like it was the best fit for me,” Stiles recalled. “I felt Coach [Cheryl] Burnett was a coach that was going to push me to do my very best on and off the floor.”
The relatively close proximity to her Kansas home was also a deciding factor: “Games weren’t on TV then, so my family couldn’t watch me at UConn,” Stiles explained.
With her decision behind her, Stiles was determined to get the Bears back to the Final Four — a feat Southwest Missouri State had first accomplished under Burnett in 1992.
“She shunned the big resource schools for a shot at putting Southwest Missouri State on the map. It takes a special type of person to take on that type of challenge. And the ‘Ponytail Assassin’ didn’t let anyone down,” Rich Zvosec, former ESPN sports broadcaster, said in the documentary.
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A historic college career
Like she did in high school, Stiles attracted large crowds at both home and away games throughout the Missouri Valley Conference. By her senior season, she was on track to break the NCAA Division I women’s basketball scoring record held by Patricia Hoskins of Mississippi Valley State, who scored 3,122 points between 1985–89.
“It really was talked about the whole season,” Stiles said. “You couldn’t escape it; they were always throwing out the numbers of what I needed.”
In the weeks leading up to breaking the record, she avoided newspaper, TV and radio reports. Now, Stiles acknowledges that she is thankful social media wasn’t around back then, critiquing and analyzing her every move.
She broke the record March 1, 2001, with a three-pointer from the left side at a home game against Creighton in front of a standing-room-only crowd.
“I didn’t know this at the time, but they had printed like 10,000 pictures of me with the date of breaking the record; talk about pressure,” she said. “I had to score 20 points against a team that was known for their defense. I was just relieved that I was able to break it that night. It was a huge burden off my shoulders. It was a relief when it became about us making the Final Four which we had all dreamed about.”
The road to the Final Four was not easy, as the fifth-seeded mid-major had to face some of the top teams in the country, including top-seeded Duke. In the Sweet Sixteen, Stiles put up 41 points in an 81–71 win over the Blue Devils, despite national Freshman of the Year Alana Beard’s best efforts to defend her. The Bears then defeated sixth-seeded Washington, 104–87, for a spot in the Final Four, which would be played at the Savvis Center in St. Louis in front of their home-state fans. Their dream season ended with a 81–64 Final Four loss to Purdue, who were eventually upset by Ruth Riley and Notre Dame, 68–66, in the national championship game.
Though her college career was over, Stiles’ imprint on the game was undeniable. In 2001, she became the first NCAA Division I women’s player to score more than 1,000 points in a season, scoring 1,062 her senior year. That feat wasn’t done again until 2013–14 when Baylor’s Odyssey Sims scored 1,054 points. It has only been done four times since: Washington’s Plum with 1,109 in 2016–17; Iowa’s Megan Gustafson with 1,001 in 2018–19; and twice in 2022–23 with Villanova’s Maddy Siegrist scoring 1,081 and Iowa’s Clark scoring 1,055.
In 2001, Stiles, a three-time All-American, accumulated honors that included the Wade Trophy and the Honda Awards Player of the Year. She was named Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Player of the Year three years in a row. During the conference’s 100th anniversary celebration In 2006–07, she was named the MVC Women’s Basketball Player of the Century, alongside Burnett, who was named women’s coach of the century. She has also been honored by MVC by naming The Player of the Year Award in the Valley the “Jackie Stiles Award.” Her stellar college career landed her in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016.
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Short-lived pro career
After a whirlwind trip to the Final Four and attending many awards ceremonies, Stiles and her family were flown to New York for the 2001 WNBA Draft. The small-town girl who predicted she would be in the league before it even was formed was selected by the Portland Fire as the fourth pick behind top pick Lauren Jackson of Australia (Seattle Storm), Kelly Miller of Georgia (Charlotte Sting) and Tamika Catchings of Tennessee (Indiana Fever).
Stiles picked up right where she left off in college, averaging 14.9 points per game and becoming the 2001 WNBA Rookie of the Year. But she had been playing in pain, keeping true to her childhood mantra of never taking a day off.
A broken wrist, torn rotator cuff and partially ruptured achilles tendon kept her off the court much of her second season, after which the Portland Fire organization folded. She was then selected 14th by the Los Angeles Sparks, but would not play another game in the WNBA. After 13 surgeries and an attempt to revive her career in Australia, she retired from professional basketball in 2006.
Looking back, Stiles realizes her trajectory could have different, had she listened to her body. Now, she encourages players to make their health a priority to ensure longevity in their career.
“When I went into the WNBA, I needed to protect my health, but I didn’t. I just didn’t have that maturity,” Stiles said. “You need to make your body and health a priority over everything. Make sure you’re doing the proper recovery and proper warm-ups, getting enough sleep, eating right. All those things matter, you can’t skip them. Your body is your vehicle.”
New outlook on life
In 2018, Stiles was diagnosed with ocular melanoma, a rare eye cancer with a high rate of metastasis. Radiation treatment prevented her from losing her left eye, and she continues to be cancer-free today. During that time, however, Stiles had a chance to think about her next steps.
“I have lost [most] vision in my left eye, so I do injections every six weeks, so it’s been a little rough,” she said. “But other than that, I can’t complain and have been very lucky to have no cancer spread.”
After 10 years of assistant coaching stints at Division I programs, including at Missouri State and Oklahoma, she is out of coaching for good. She now runs her own business, NextGen Fitness, a personal training studio in Springfield, Mo., gives basketball lessons, and hosts camps and clinics.
“It’s really aligned with me and I’m really enjoying it,” Stiles said. “I’m learning a lot but it’s worth it. I’m done with coaching. The way college basketball has changed, it didn’t align with my personal values. This is a better fit. I get to do these one-day clinics, I’m not very big and my story is relatable. I can show these young players the workouts and things I did and give them hope that if I can do it, anybody can do it.”
Stepping away from coaching has also allowed Stiles to focus on helping others with their fitness and nutrition goals, and to spend more time with her family.
“For me also to change people’s lives through that avenue, I feel like I am much better aligned,” she said. “It was hard because I sold two homes in two years and couldn’t go watch things like my dad’s team win state championships. The minute I stopped coaching, I watched them win a record eight straight state titles. So, just the freedom to be able to do that.”
A record meant to be broken
Stiles’ NCAA scoring record stood for 16 years, but she knew it would be broken the first time she saw Kelsey Plum play as a senior in high school.
“I had just got my first coaching job [at Missouri State] and I got her on the phone,” Stiles said. “It was obviously late in the recruiting process but I at least got her on the phone. I told her she would break my record and I feel that put that into her mind. I just saw myself in her, wearing No. 10, the way she got to the basket. There was just no weakness in her game.”
When Plum broke the scoring record Feb. 25, 2017, with a 57-point masterpiece on senior night in Washington’s 87–77 win over Utah, Stiles sent her several congratulatory messages through social media.
Another player who caught Stiles’ attention while coaching at Missouri State was Caitlin Clark, a sharp-shooting guard who played for Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines, Iowa, and traveled with the All Iowa Attack AAU basketball program based in Ames, Iowa.
As she had with Plum, she reached out to Clark to pitch Missouri State before Clark even entered seventh grade. She sent Clark a handwritten recruitment letter — the very first of many Clark would receive before committing to Iowa.
“I remember the powerful impact on me when Southwest Missouri State recruited me first, so I tried to watch the younger kids,” she said. “I wish it would have worked out with Caitlin, but I’m proud of her success.”
Currently averaging 32 points per game and just 134 points behind Plum’s 3,527, Clark is on pace to break the NCAA Division I scoring record within the next four or five games, which would likely be Feb. 15 at home against Michigan.
As someone who has been through the hype and pressure of making history, Stiles offered Clark this advice as she heads into the next few weeks:
“Take care of [yourself]. It’s hard when you have so many demands on your time,” Stiles advised. “This is just such a special part of your life. You don’t realize how special it is sometimes until it’s over. It’s such a short window of your life. You want to make it a priority over anything else. Take care of [your] body because we want to see you play for 10–20 years, healthy.”
The No. 3 ranked Iowa Hawkeyes will face Northwestern at 7 p.m. on Wednesday at a sold-out Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Ill. Clark needs five points to pass Stiles and 14 points to pass Mitchell and move into the second spot on the all-time scoring list.