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Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer Jackie Stiles Talks ‘Overcoming Adversity’ at Hutchinson Middle School 7

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By Brenna Eller

 

HUTCHINSON, Kan. — Former WNBA player for Portland Fire and a Claflin, Kan., native, Jackie Stiles, who broke and set multiple basketball scoring records in high school and throughout her career at Missouri State, recently spoke at Hutchinson Middle School 7 on Jan. 18.

Stiles received a request to speak at HMS 7 from Ellen Corey (7th grade student at the middle school) and HMS 7 teacher, Shandi Webster.

Ellen Corey
Ellen Corey (second in from the left) and her family pose for a photo with Jackie Stiles (middle). (Photos by Brenna Eller)

Corey was inspired by the story of Jackie Stiles when she was researching statistics for a school project.

“In Project Based Learning, we have this thing called the twenty percent project and you had to choose something you were passionate about; something you wanted to learn about,” Corey said. “I remember writing down all of the things I was interested in, and basketball clicked in my mind.”

Corey narrowed down her project further by choosing women’s basketball.

“I think so many people just focus on the men’s side of things, and I think the women’s is just amazing, so I looked up how women’s basketball got in the game and got into the WNBA, and their statistics,” Corey said.

She came across Stiles’ statistics in her research and was “flabbergasted” by Stiles’ record.

“I was thinking oh my goodness this is amazing,” Corey said.

Mrs. Webster and Corey reached out to Stiles to talk at the school. It took a while for Stiles to get in touch with the school because the school’s email system wouldn’t let Stiles’ emails come through.

“We wrote her so many emails off of my computer, and we ended up writing one from Mrs. Webster’s computer,” Corey shared. “I walked in that morning, and I didn’t know what was going on and Mrs. Webster was ecstatic, bouncing off the walls, she was like, ‘Jackie wrote back and she’s coming to talk.’ That was the best day ever, it was amazing!” 

Stiles also described how it felt on her end, receiving the email from Corey and Mrs. Webster.

“I always try to respond to every email that comes through my website, and I felt honored because she picked me to do her project and wanted me to come speak to the school,” Stiles said. “I just remember the impact that players that I looked up to had on me and my life, so it’s really rewarding for me to now get to do that for somebody like Ellen. It means a lot.”

Ellen Corey introducing Jackie
Hutchinson Middle School 7 student Ellen Corey introduces Jackie Stiles to the school Thursday, Jan. 18.

Corey introduced Stiles Thursday morning. The main topic of Stiles’ talk was overcoming adversity, and she also gave students advice about achieving their dreams and keeping a positive mindset.

“I love any excuse I have to come back to Kansas because I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for growing up in Claflin, and then all of the incredible people that impacted my life so I could do what I did, so I am so grateful for all of those people that have sacrificed so I could live out my basketball dreams,” Stiles said. “I realize I was very selfishly-focused the first half of my career. I got up every day and I thought, ‘How can I be the best basketball player I could possibly be?"”

Now in the second half of her career, Stiles realized it is not so much about success, but about significance; how she can align her talents and gifts to help the most people.

Stiles grew up in Claflin, Kan., a town of 600 people and shared that her love for basketball started at a very young age.

Jackie Stiles talking at HMS 7
Jackie Stiles shares her basketball journey from Claflin High School to the WNBA, during a talk at HMS 7. Stiles was inducted in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016

“I was very fortunate that my dad was a basketball coach,” Stiles said. “I would follow him to the gym. He coached the varsity boys at my high school, and he would show me a fundamental and I couldn’t wait to show him when I had mastered it.”

When Stiles was in second grade, she told her teacher she was going to play professional basketball when she grew up.

“WNBA didn’t even exist at that point, but I just had that vision that basketball was what I wanted to be good at,” Stiles said. “I just loved basketball and had a passion for it very young.”

At the age of 12, when Stiles was playing for a team in Kansas City, a coach from Missouri State waited until the game was over to tell Stiles she had potential to play Division I basketball. Stiles spent five summers at Missouri State’s basketball camp.

Sophomore year, she went through some adversity, breaking her right wrist and having to have a cast that went passed her elbow, which meant she couldn’t straighten her arm. When she was able to get the cast off, her muscle had atrophied, so her shot was inconsistent. It was semifinals in the state tournament and according to Stiles, one of the worst performances of her career.

“I made 4 of 21 shots,” Stiles said.

It would’ve been easy to quit and give up, but Stiles wanted to prove she could be better, even better than before her injury. She vowed to make 1,000 shots every single day and did just that from her sophomore year of high school to her freshman year of college.

“You can let that adversity destroy you or drive you, and I chose to let it drive me,” Stiles said.

Senior year, she was pressured with the decision to choose which college she would sign with and had 18 home visits in 19 days. No one wanted her to go to Missouri State besides the coaches there. She had a lot of pressure to go to Kansas State University from people all over Kansas, her father and high school coach wanted her to pick UConn, and her mother wanted her to play at the University of Oklahoma.

“When I signed at Missouri State, it was really quiet. Everybody was really disappointed,” Stiles said. “But I will say it was the best four years of my life playing college basketball there. I’m so glad I trusted my gut and my heart.”

At Missouri State, she described playing there as a packed house every night.

“It was just a great environment for women’s basketball,” Stiles said.

In their last season, Stiles said she and the other seniors had no regrets, giving it everything they had.

“We won the conference tournament for the first time,” Stiles said. They were sent across the country to New Jersey instead of playing at home, which upset a lot of people who thought that might be their last game.

“I remember addressing the crowd, saying, ‘This will not be the last time we play in the state of Missouri,"” Stiles said.

That year, the Final Four was in St. Louis. Missouri State played Duke, beat them and knew nothing was stopping them as they continued to also beat Washington.

“I can still feel what that feels like, cutting down those nets,” Stiles said. “It still gives me goosebumps.”

A couple of years ago, Stiles said she got together with her old teammates in North Carolina, and it was like they never missed a beat.

“We truly cared about each other and had a great time,” Stiles said. “That is huge when playing a team sport.”

Stiles said she still can’t watch that game against Purdue when they lost to them in the Final Four because it hurts even though she knows they gave it their all.

At 22, Stiles was drafted by Portland Fire as the fourth pick in the WNBA.

Stiles with the Lady Salthawks Basketball team
Stiles with the Lady Salthawks Basketball team.

Stiles’ body started to break down. Her wrist needed surgery, but she convinced herself she could still play, ending up tearing her rotator cuff in her right arm and having a partially torn Achilles.

“All three things needed surgery,” Stiles said. “I was so hurt, I couldn’t even practice.”

It was difficult for Stiles mentally not being able to participate in practices. She gained confidence from her work ethic.

The day of the game, she rehearsed in her head, “You’re the best player on the court, no one can stop you, you’re going to do whatever it takes to win the game.’ She kept rehearsing that every second she could.

“Sure enough, coming off the bench, I hit my first three, and the next three,” Stiles said. “I literally had my best performance of my WNBA career. I was so hurt, I couldn’t even warm up for that game, but that taught me a powerful lesson. You’ve got to tell yourself positive things and it will work.”

Stiles had undergone 13 surgeries in four years and tried to make a comeback in Australia in 2006 and shared a story about breaking her rib during a game and not realizing it until the next day.

That showed her the power of adrenaline. Unfortunately, her left knee blew out on her, and her doctor sent her home for surgery. She knew at that point it was time to retire, and that although in her mind she still wanted to play, her body couldn’t.

“All of my identity, all of my self-esteem was wrapped up in what I did as a basketball player,” Stiles said.

Jackie Stiles signing and taking pictures
After her talk, Jackie Stiles takes time to take photos with students and staff of Hutchinson Middle School 7 and also autograph shoes, papers, and a few jackets.

She encouraged the students to not wrap themselves around one thing.

“It’s not about what you do, it’s about what you do as a person,” Stiles said.

She spent the last ten years coaching college basketball. The last stint at the University of Oklahoma.

She met a guy who owned NextGen Fitness and moved back to Springfield, where she opened her own business last March.

Two summers ago, Stiles started doing basketball camps all over Kansas and Missouri. She had 25 camps last summer, 35 this past summer and already has 25 scheduled on the calendar for this next summer.

What Jackie Stiles believes success looks like on and off the floor:

Selfless – You have to be unselfish. Focus on making those around you truly better. Try asking yourself every single day, “How can I help somebody else be great?” Stiles found that when she was going through difficult times, reaching out to help someone else ended up helping her.

Tough – If you’re going to accomplish anything great, it’s going to be tough. Day after day, put work in even when you don’t feel like it. It took four hours for Stiles to make 1,000 shots a day.

Inspiration – You have to have a reason that is bigger than yourself to accomplish something. Stiles vowed to dedicate all of her accomplishments to younger sister, who had died when she was young.

Love – Lead with love in all you do. Be completely present with who you are speaking to. When you are speaking, is it true? Is it good? Is it useful? Treat people with a lot of compassion and love.

Enthusiasm – Be more enthusiastic about other peoples’ success than your own. Say to yourself, “I get to do this, not, I have to.”

Service – Pay it forward. Try to do one act of kindness every day.

Stiles was diagnosed with a rare cancer in 2018. Ocular Melanoma. She was treated in February of 2018 and was asked to be an honorary chair for the Relay for Life, which is an event where people tend to walk laps, but Stiles decided to run instead to accomplish the pledges she got. It was June, and 100 degrees out. Stiles, who has had 19 or more surgeries (stopped keeping track) started running even though she had always said she could never do a marathon. Her dad tried to stop her because he was afraid she would pass out, but she ended up running 100 laps (30 miles).

“That shows the power of coming together for a cause bigger than yourself,” Stiles said, explaining that what she did that day was superhuman.

During an interview after her talk on Thursday, Stiles shared that it doesn’t matter whether other people think it’s possible or not.

“If you believe and you work, and you have that reason bigger than yourself and when you’re trying to lead people also getting them to believe in that reason bigger than their own selfish motives, anything is truly possible,” Stiles said.

Stiles also shared that she will not wish cancer on anyone, but she believes that it has made her better to the people around her and given her a lot to think about.

“Every six months I go and get scanned because my cancer metastasizes fifty percent of the time and it really shows you what is important,” Stiles said. “I’m much more present in my life, you know, be where your feet are because none of us are promised tomorrow.”

Stiles asked the question: If there is something you are wanting to do, and you aren’t doing it, why not?

“You never regret the things you do; you regret the things you don’t do,” Stiles said. “I guess I would say cancer has made me fearless and a better sister, daughter and friend. You realize what’s really important in life.”

For more information about Jackie Stiles, you can watch the documentary on Amazon Prime and Apple TV, The Jackie Stiles Story, Anything is Possible!

Stiles also said if there is any way she can help others be better, she can be reached at jackiestiles.com.

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