Jackie Stiles' joy, and sorrow   

Updated: March 19, 2007, 11:57 AM ET

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In an ideal world they all would just drift away to some magical island in the sky, where basketball courts are made of clouds and knees and ankles remain eternally flexible. There, Mateen Cleaves always leads the break for the Spartans. There, Bo Kimble only shoots free throws with his left hand. There, Mouse McFadden is lithe and speedy; Keith Smart pulls up in the corner; Ed Cota dips and twirls with aplomb; Freddie Banks is pure money; Taylor Coppenrath throws elbows under the boards.

Regrettably, after college, reality awaits. And sure, there are the Jason Kidds and Lisa Leslies, who eclipse their NCAA highlights. But for the rest, life following March Madness is merely, well, life. Banking. Accounting. Truck driving. Coaching. Too many Remember whens … too few I'm better off nows.

Jackie Stiles

AP Photo/Greg Wahl-Stevens

Stiles had a good start to her post-NCAA career, winning the WNBA Rookie of the Year.

This is where we find Jackie Stiles. Far from a cloud.

It has been six years. Six long, painful, dreary years since Stiles introduced us to Southwest Missouri State University and drew an otherwise indifferent nation into the women's NCAA basketball tournament. Back then, in a tenuously at-ease pre-9/11 country, Stiles single-handedly lifted the Bears to the women's Final Four, scrapping and clawing and digging and fighting her way through picks and picket fences; driving for layups, crashing into defenders, fighting, fighting, fighting for an open look.

She played for a school that everyone pooh-poohed, and with good reason: What the hell was Southwest Missouri State? And did it even have a women's basketball team? So when opponents faced the Bears, they were really facing Jackie Stiles. Stop her -- you win.

Stop her -- yeah, right.

Stiles, who remains the only woman to score more than 1,000 points in a single season, is the best college basketball player I have ever seen. Not the best female. The best -- period. Stiles created her own shot unlike any guard around; found open spaces with a mouse's intuition. In that 2001 NCAA Tournament, she scored 32 points in a second-round upset of Rutgers, then torched top-ranked Duke for 41 in an 81-71 shocker. She followed that up with 32 against Washington to reach the Final Four. Though the Bears lost there to Purdue 81-64, Stiles still scored 22.

"It was the most amazing ride of my life," Stiles says. "The best time I've ever had. I mean, who thought we could beat Duke? Nobody. Who thought we were a Final Four team? Nobody." Stiles still recalls arriving at the airport in Springfield, Mo., after toppling Washington to advance to the Final Four. "People were packed wall to wall," she says. "It took us three hours to get through a 10-gate airport. There was so much … love."

Love is an odd thing. It comes, it flourishes, it bounds, it brightens and then … it just sort of disappears. When Southwest Missouri State's season came to an end, Stiles was in major demand. Then she was in semi-major demand. Then she was in minor demand. She played for the Portland Fire of the WNBA and averaged 14.9 points her first season and was named Rookie of the Year. But it just wasn't the same.

"Being a professional … it's a business first," Stiles says. "The passion of college no longer exists."

That said, Stiles was content. She'd play pro for 10 years, make a good chunk of change, then retire and go into coaching or broadcasting or something. Life was already laid out for her.

With one problem.

Beginning in grade school, Stiles became Stiles by utilizing a never-say-never work ethic.

Jackie Stiles

AP Photo/Don Ryan

Her heart and mind remain strong, but Stiles' body has failed her.

"I didn't get enough sleep, I never, ever took a day off, I refused to use ice packs or heat, I took thousands of shots daily," she says. "All my confidence came from knowing that I went harder than anyone else. What I didn't know at the time was that type of determination comes with a price."

Toward the end of her rookie year with the Fire, Stiles' body started to fall apart. At season's end she simultaneously had a torn ligament in her right wrist, a fractured left wrist, a pulled groin and a bone bruise on her right knee.

"I never recovered," she said. "Never."

The woman who missed nary a game in college was now hobbling around her house in excruciating pain. She underwent surgeries on her right wrist and right Achilles tendon, and averaged six points in only 21 games for Portland in 2002. By August, she was a shell of her former self -- battered, beaten, paper-boned and afraid to go hard to the rim.

She played her last game on Aug. 11, 2002. Not her last game of the season. Her last WNBA game.

Oh, there have been comeback attempts. Oodles and oodles of comeback attempts. Stiles underwent 13 surgeries in three years; replaced running with cycling; signed with the Lubbock Hawks of the National Women's Basketball League in 2004; talked of "feeling great" and "returning to my old self" and "taking the first step."

Her final shot came last May. Stiles was tutoring a kid on the finer points of ballhandling when she challenged him to a game of one-on-one. "Man," she says, "for the first time in forever, I felt good."

So Stiles began working out, then signed with the Canberra Capitals of the Australian WNBL.

"My first practice with the team was amazing," she says. "I called everyone I knew and said, 'Guess what? I can do this! I can really do this!'"

No, she couldn't. The following morning Stiles woke up and was unable to walk. A doctor told her it was the worst case of tendinitis he had ever seen.

Stiles flew home to Wichita, Kan. This time, there were no chanting fans waiting for her at the airport. No autograph seekers, no male admirers, no STILES FOR PRESIDENT signs. There was just Jackie Stiles, anonymous.

"I won't lie," she says. "I was depressed for a long time. When you love something the way I loved basketball, it's crushing to take that away. I don't care about the attention or the ego. I miss playing the game."

Stiles, 27, now lives alone in Wichita, and for the first time is planning the life of a non-athlete. She conducts private basketball lessons, and very much wants to tutor up-and-coming players on the dangers of overtaxing the body. She also would like to pursue a career in broadcasting.

"I'm excited," she says, "to see what's out there."

Though one might think this time of year might be difficult for Stiles, it is still fun.

"I watch March Madness, just like everybody else," she says. "And I remember the joy."

Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and the author of "Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero", now available in paperback. You can reach him at anngold22@yahoo.com.


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