Definitely not in Kansas anymore, Stiles learns

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It won't be much longer before Jackie Stiles gets back something that resembles the life she once knew, not that she's complaining about the one she's had for the last five months, mind you.

It's just that, for Stiles, a guard for the Portland Fire of the WNBA, doing tons of media interviews - including one on a bus to the airport at 5 a.m. - and having a group of fans follow you around the country is out of character for a wide-eyed young woman from Claflin, Kan.

"All the attention has definitely been an adjustment for me, and sometimes it's been a little embarrassing. I'm not really used to it," said Stiles, who gained national prominence last spring at the close of her college career at Southwest Missouri State. She became the all-time leading scorer in NCAA women's basketball history with 3,393 points and led her team to the Final Four.

"My main concern is to perform on the floor and do what the Portland Fire needs me to do," she said recently.

That, and scour the nation for a pair of sneakers. Her quest has been to locate the dwindling inventory of a model she has favored since her sophomore year at college.

The on-floor performance has largely been taken care of, as Stiles leads the second-year Fire with a 15.5 scoring average. The 5-foot-8 rookie, who was the fourth overall choice in April's WNBA draft, is tied for seventh in the league in scoring through Wednesday. She is in the top four in three-point field goals and three-point percentage (.442). On July 28, she had a game-high 32 points against division-leading Los Angeles.

As the WNBA's regular season draws to a close next week, Stiles and Seattle forward Lauren Jackson have emerged as the leading candidates for Rookie of the Year.

All of that strikes Stiles as odd, because she says she's been struggling to find her game in the WNBA.

"In the beginning, I thought the Portland Fire definitely regretted making me the fourth pick," said Stiles. "I had doubts like, 'God, am I going to make it at this level?' "

The problems for Stiles, as she saw them, were two-fold. On the court, she has had to adjust to rounding her game into the broader context of a professional operation. At Southwest Missouri, Stiles would, as a matter of course, touch the ball on virtually every possession, but with the Fire, she has gone as long as five minutes in a game without getting a touch.

"In college, I could get confidence from my scoring," said Stiles, who led the Lady Bears to the Final Four. "Well, I had to change that mentality. Now, if I get a good defensive stop, I have to still be confident, still be in the game, still be very focused. That has been an adjustment, but it's been a nice adjustment because everybody on the team can score. It's something that I have to get used to."

In addition, Stiles, who had a key to the college gym so that she could work out after the maintenance staff had gone home, has actually had to scale back her prodigious training, which included shooting until she had hit 1,000 jumpers each day.

With the compact but unforgiving WNBA schedule, which includes extensive travel and two to four games a week, Stiles has had to save her legs for competition, rather than using the gym as a laboratory for testing out theories for working out the kinks in her game.

But it's been off the floor where her life has really been turned upside down. Since Southwest Missouri made its march to the Final Four and she emerged as the Lady Bears' most visible player, Stiles' popularity has exploded, and demands on her time have increased exponentially.

"Words can't describe it. It's been an incredible ride, and it's been a dream the past several months," said Stiles. "At the same time, I've had to be better at time management. I thought things would slow down after the Final Four, but they got crazier after that. Actually, my life slowed down a little bit after I reported to training camp for the two-a-days."

With the help of the Fire organization, Stiles has learned to be more selective about her off-court schedule, though her legend continues to grow, spurred on by loyal college fans.

Southwest Missouri fans, who regularly packed the Hammons Student Center in Springfield for Lady Bears games, have continued to follow Stiles around the country. She said SMS fans show up at all of her games, and buses of them made the trek to Indiana to cheer her on.

"It [fan support] has been completely incredible, and I really appreciate it," said Stiles. "And it enhances my game, because I want to play that much harder, knowing that those people have come so far to see me play."

Perhaps one of them can tap into a supply of Cynthia Cooper 1997 Nike sneakers. Stiles, as superstitious as anyone, has grown attached to that model, believing it to be the secret of her success.

Unfortunately, the number of remaining pairs has dropped to a precious few. Once, a desperate Stiles painted a pair of black shoes white to conform to the team's dress code. But she didn't play well in them, and went back to an emergency pair. That one, Stiles believes, is the last in existence anywhere.

As it happens, Nike is now making a shoe that Stiles likes and hopes to get used to in the off-season. And if the swooshheads are on their marketing game, they'll take advantage of her growing popularity and name the shoes after Stiles.

"That's hard to fathom, having my own shoe. I doubt that will ever happen," said Stiles, laughing.

And why not? Almost every other strange thing that could happen to a Kansas kid has already taken place this year.

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