Jackie Stiles first realized something was wrong when she noticed she was having trouble seeing the ball during practice in December 2017.
Stuck in the middle of the basketball season, the Missouri State assistant coach decided to call and make an appointment with her eye doctor on her day off. If there wasn’t one available, she’d just wait until the end of the season.
“Right before I called, someone canceled — otherwise there was no way I would’ve gotten in, and I was just going to wait a year,” Stiles said.
At her appointment, Stiles was transferred to a specialist who confirmed a mass on her left eye was ocular melanoma, a rare form of eye cancer — so rare, in fact, that the doctor hadn't seen it before.
“That was definitely very shocking,” Stiles said. “It’s not something that you think, ‘Oh, this could be serious.’ I just thought I needed contacts.”
Missouri State radio broadcaster Tom Ladd, who called every game of Stiles’ career at Missouri State, said the town of Springfield, Missouri, was stunned by the news.
“It was (a) shock when that first came out,” Ladd said. “Right away, when you hear the ‘C-word,’ your first inclination is to fear the worst. So there was a lot of shock in the community.”
Stiles had been a local celebrity to the Springfield community following her run as one of the best scorers in NCAA women’s college basketball history. She was the first player to score 1,000 points in a season during the 2000-2001 season, and during her four years at Southwest Missouri State, now Missouri State, the 5-foot-8 guard scored 3,393 points — an NCAA record that stood until it was broken by Kelsey Plum in 2017.
In 2016, Stiles was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame alongside Oklahoma head coach Sherri Coale, further cementing her place as one of the legends of women's college basketball. Three years later, Coale hired her as an assistant coach.
At 7 p.m. CT on Thursday, Missouri State will come to Norman, marking Stiles' first game against her alma mater. For the first time, Stiles will face the school where she became a legend and the school that helped her face one of the toughest battles of her life.
"I think just as a women's basketball player, you know the name Jackie Stiles," junior forward Mandy Simpson said.
'She was a one-man band. I mean, she did everything.’
Born in a small town in Kansas, Stiles wasn’t heavily recruited nationally, but those who had seen her play knew she was special.
Former Southwest Missouri State head coach Cheryl Burnett began recruiting Stiles when a scout was visiting a summer event to evaluate some potential high school recruits. During a break, the scout wandered into a gym of fifth and sixth graders, and Stiles blew them away.
“We really did start recruiting early, but that was really early,” Burnett said.
Southwest Missouri State was beginning to develop a solid women’s basketball program in the 1990s. The Lady Bears made the NCAA tournament every year from 1991 to 1996, including a Final Four run during the 1991-1992 season. That team featured a childhood idol of Stiles, Melody Howard. Burnett said having Stiles watch the Lady Bears’ success at the time was huge in their recruitment of her.
One school that did show a lot of interest in her was Oklahoma. Coale made her first official in-home visit to Stiles’ home in Kansas in 1996.
“She was so charismatic and won my mom over,” Stiles said. “My mom wanted me to choose OU, and I gave Oklahoma my official visit, so they ended up in my final four. But I ended up obviously not choosing Oklahoma. But man, I knew how impressive she was the instant she was at my home.”
Stiles chose Southwest Missouri State during her senior year, and many Lady Bear fans had begun to hear the stories about the talented recruit they would be getting. They had heard the legend of a young girl who could score from anywhere on the court. Stiles broke the Kansas high school state record for points in a game twice, with 61 and 71. They heard the story of how those 61 points came in just 17 minutes. Some may have heard the rumors that during her junior season, Stiles broke her shooting arm and went on to average 25 points per game with one arm.
So in January 1997, before the Lady Bears were set to take on Wichita State in one of the biggest games of the season, dozens of fans made the journey to a small high school gym in Kansas where Stiles was playing.
Stiles didn’t disappoint those who came that night. Ladd stood in the crowd among Lady Bear fans in the tiny gym that didn't even have bleachers.
“She was a one-man band. I mean, she did everything,” Ladd said. “She had 55 points in the game and really only played about three quarters of the game.”
When Stiles arrived on the Southwest Missouri State campus in 1998, she was immediately put under a lot of pressure from both the high expectations of fans and the success the team was having. Despite being just a freshman, Stiles thrived under the pressure.
Burnett will never forget the game when her squad was struggling on the road against Arkansas. That was when then-Arkansas head coach Gary Blair called for a full-court press to try to rattle the freshman point guard. Burnett knew that was a mistake.
“Even as a freshman, I felt she was as good as anybody, if not the best in the country, against full-court defense,” Burnett said.
It wasn’t long before the media learned about the young point guard, and reporters from across the country began showing up to her games. Stiles eventually broke the school and conference scoring records, both for career and a single season during her senior year with 3,393 and 1,062 points, respectively. Meanwhile, pressure began to peak as she was on the verge of breaking the national all-time scoring record, but it disappeared after Stiles finally broke it.
“They put it all together," Ladd said. "They got on a run at the end of the season, and especially after Jackie broke the all-time scoring record, I think everyone kind of relaxed because there was a lot of pressure on that team and really a lot of pressure on Jackie to break the all-time scoring record.”
With a veteran team around her, Stiles led Southwest Missouri State to win the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, and the team earned a berth in the 2001 NCAA tournament as a No. 5 seed.
After making it to the Sweet 16, the Lady Bears pulled off an upset win against No. 1-seeded Duke behind Stiles' 41 points and knocked off Washington in the Elite Eight. Just as her idol Melody Howard had done nine years prior, Stiles had led the Lady Bears back to the Final Four. Stiles’ legendary career ended with a 81-64 loss to Purdue in the Final Four in 2001.
“I definitely had an amazing four years there," Stiles said. “The community support was incredible, and to be able to accomplish a dream of making the Final Four and, even more importantly, looking at it as an impossible dream. Definitely a lot of special memories from my time at Missouri State.”
‘Now it’s my time to give back and help lift others up.’
Stiles had a short career in the WNBA after suffering several injuries. But after a brief stint of trying things outside of basketball, she just couldn’t stay away from the game she loved.
In 2012, she became an assistant coach for Loyola Marymount before accepting a job at her alma mater a year later, where she would stay until 2019. For Stiles, the transition from playing to coaching was natural.
“I just get so much joy in helping these student-athletes that I’m so privileged to coach to become the best they can be,” Stiles said. “I look back and so many people sacrificed so I can do what I did and, now, it’s my time to give back and help lift others up.”
Even during her lowest moments after being diagnosed with cancer, the support from the community was what kept her passion for the game of basketball strong.
Stiles underwent surgery followed by seven days of isolation in which she was treated with radiation therapy. Sick from the difficult experience she was going through, Stiles remembers the few moments her mother, Pam Stiles, was able to visit her. Her mother would bring along cards from people across the country showing their support for her.
“The support I got through all of that — I don’t know if I would’ve made it through the treatment without it," Stiles said. “I was so touched and blown away by the number of cards, texts and even financial support. The different ways people supported me ... That’s honestly forever changed me.”
Stiles was determined not to let her cancer slow her down. She missed only about two weeks from the season during her treatment.
“That helped me recover and heal faster,” Stiles said. “Just getting back into what I knew was normal and, you know, being around the team. It took the attention off my cancer and helped me get back quicker.”
The tumor was controlled through the surgery and her radiation treatment. Her doctors told her the tumor should remain dormant, but she would have to get checked out every six months for the rest of her life to make sure it hasn’t spread.
Less than a year later, Stiles was offered a job as an assistant at Oklahoma under Coale.
“I don’t know if I would’ve had the courage to take this job if it wasn’t for my cancer diagnosis,” Stiles said. “Now I have an attitude of, ‘If you want to do something, why are you waiting?’ None of us are promised tomorrow.”
Stiles jokingly said she was happy to be able to redeem herself to her mother by taking the offer and finally joining Coale in Norman. Despite having some vision trouble, Stiles said she feels very grateful to have any vision in her eye after the situation she had gone through.
Stiles’ toughness and positive outlook on life is contagious, according to the people who know her. Her story has continued to be an inspiration not just to those who know her, but to women's basketball players around the country.
Equipped with a new view on life, Stiles is excited to take on a new challenge in Norman. Simpson said Stiles has spoken with her about her battle with cancer several times and uses it to teach her players.
“I think she has such a positive outlook on it,” Simpson said. “She has told me constantly that cancer is the best thing that’s ever happened to her, just because it completely shifted her perspective on life, and she used it for the good. I think that’s just what makes Jackie, Jackie. She’s so strong and has such a great, positive outlook on life.”