Vahe Gregorian

Keep room in your heart for Jackie Stiles as she battles cancer

Even as harmonic convergences in the world of sports go, the story of Jackie Stiles and the Missouri State women’s basketball team’s run to the 2001 Final Four in St. Louis was on a special tier.

Stiles, from remote and tiny (population 624) Claflin, Kan., was a phenomenon, really, starting with the very fact that she chose to go to the school then known as Southwest Missouri State largely because it had been there from the start.

Never mind that she could have gone anywhere as one of the greatest athletes to ever come out of the state — including 14 track gold medals and once winning the 400, 800, 1,600 and 3,200 meters on the same day.

With 3,393 points, she remained the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer until last year. And her game was punctuated by a range and work ethic and intensity and joy that were magic in themselves.

The legend resonated all the more because of her grace and humility, someone embarrassed by the statue they put up for her in Springfield, someone who somehow has been as good a person as she was a player.

“She almost couldn’t go out in public, because she would talk to every single person and do every single autograph,” then-coach Cheryl Burnett said in a phone interview on Tuesday, adding, “She was not going to walk away from somebody, because she thought it would be rude.”

So think about all she’s given so many: from the mere way she honored the game to how she treats everyone she meets; from the average of more than 8,000 fans that attended the games of Stiles and her excellent supporting cast her senior year to the hundreds who came from all over to line the streets of Claflin in tribute that spring.

And think about now as a time to give back to her in whatever way you might know how.

In your heart or your prayers or thoughts.

Because Jackie Stiles recently was diagnosed with cancer, ocular melanoma, and Burnett says chances are she’ll lose some sight and that there’s more at stake than even that.

“The more prayers the better,” she said. “She’ll be fighting for her life, basically.”

As Stiles takes a leave from her job as an assistant coach at Missouri State to determine her best course of action, thankfully, you can find room for optimism in this.

Or at least hope.

“You don’t understand who cancer’s fighting; cancer picked a battle it ain’t going to win on this one,” said Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson, who was the Bears men’s coach when Stiles was there and considers her among the greatest players, men or women, he ever saw.

Crushed as he was at the news, Hinson added, “There’s nobody that I’ve ever seen, witnessed, watched or heard that would get bad news that would fight it harder than her.”

Crucial to the cause, Stiles believes it was detected promptly.

“Thankfully the cancer was caught early and has not spread, and I expect to make a full recovery,” Stiles said in a Missouri State news release. “I am grateful for any thoughts and prayers during this difficult time. I look forward to speaking publicly about this once I return to the team.”

Basketball was mostly harsh on her after leaving college. She was WNBA rookie of the year for the Portland Fire, but Stiles ultimately would undergo 13 surgeries and struggled at times to find her direction.

But when the woman who used to take 1,000 shots a day came back to Missouri State as an assistant to Kellie Harper in 2013, she told Burnett, “Coach, I have found my passion again: I get to now live through coaching.”

As it happened, that move seems to have been pivotal in detecting her illness in a timely way.

“In practice she was having difficulty catching the ball while she was directing drills,” Burnett said. “Basketball played a part in her understanding, ‘Well, something’s going on with that eye.’ …

“As dire of a diagnosis as it is, there was a blessing in her catching it as early as she did.”

So now it’s time to appreciate her and cheer her on anew, this extraordinary woman who “turned a region on fire,” as Hinson put it, and elevated all of us with her.

Cards would be welcome, care of Missouri State Women’s Basketball, 901 South National St., Springfield, Mo., 65897.

“In Springfield, and Missouri, and Kansas is her home state, and nationally, yes it’s a national love when you look at the Facebook world and the Twitter world,” Burnett said. “I mean, everybody is thinking about Jackie and her well-being.

“And I think that’s far beyond just her as a player.”

Vahe Gregorian is a sports columnist at The Kansas City Star: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian