Vahe Gregorian

With cancer in remission, Claflin, Kansas native Jackie Stiles starts new chapter at OU

Through her enchanted and enchanting basketball career … through 13 surgeries and twists including an alarming confrontation with ocular melanoma (that she says is now in remission) … Jackie Stiles always has been sustained and grounded by family, friends and faith and the perspective that comes with that:

“I just truly believe things happen for a reason,” she said.

So it was Thursday that she came to be driving into the horizon of Norman, Oklahoma.

Into the next chapter of her life after six seasons as an assistant at Missouri State — the alma mater she cherishes and honored and graced as she became the nation’s career leading scorer (a record she held until two years ago) and pointed the Lady Bears to the Final Four in 2001.

“I’m out of my little comfort zone,” she said.

She laughed as she looked at the road ahead of her. And she thought about how she might not have had the courage to do this if not for the liberating fearlessness that comes with contending with cancer and being willing to “jump off a cliff” to continue to grow.

When Kellie Harper recently left for Tennessee after Missouri State’s Sweet 16 run and Amaka Agugua-Hamilton was hired to replace her, Stiles was thrilled for Agugua-Hamilton, on whose staff she would have had a place.

But Stiles felt compelled, almost called, by an offer from Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale, with whom she was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016 and who had extended Stiles one of her first scholarship offers coming out of Claflin, Kansas.

“I couldn’t turn her down a second time,” said Stiles, calling Coale part of her journey from the beginning.

All of which helps explain why Stiles said she never felt more alive than these last few weeks. It’s been a time that clarified for her that she ultimately does want to be a head coach, a time that invigorated her with the idea of how much she can learn through change and from Coale.

“I told my mom, if I could handpick a coach to get into this business with, if I had my choice, it would be (Coale),” said Stiles, who felt terrible that the job change meant she had to postpone until May a previously scheduled appearance in Kansas City, Kansas. “I can’t think of a better mentor. I can’t even put into words how amazing Sherri is.”

Meanwhile, Coale believes Stiles can help rekindle her program, which went 8-22 last season to miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999.

“Jackie’s resume speaks for itself. Not only is she one of the most decorated players to ever play our game, but she is also a rising star in the coaching profession,” Coale stated in a release issued through the school. “Jackie has the unique ability to develop student-athletes to the height of their potential on the court, as she knows first-hand the mental and physical commitment that is necessary to excel at this level.

“We are excited to welcome her to our family, and we know she will make an instant impact on our team and coaching staff.”

The truth is Stiles makes an instant impact on anyone she meets because of the heart and sincerity and humility she radiates.

Indeed, her heart made this hard to do. Of the 20-ish phone calls Stiles made either to current players, arriving players or others she was recruiting, she cried during approximately … every one of them.

When she spoke to a marketing class on campus Wednesday, her last day at Missouri State before starting at OU on Thursday, she started tearing up when she shared the news.

Then her teacher friend started up. Then people in the class did.

“We all were crying,” she said, laughing and adding, “So many amazing memories, just all rolled into one. (During this year’s Sweet 16), I never felt so much pride and excitement. It’s sad to leave.”

The transition is always the hardest part of change, of course, the time when you’ve left one world but haven’t yet entered the next.

But Stiles is awed at the idea of what’s ahead, believing her eye problems will be limited now and knowing that once again things happened for a reason — just like her example is for the rest of us.

“If I didn’t do this,” she said, “I’d always wonder.”

Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.