Stiles puts positive spin on plight

Ex-Fire star tries to heal while in limbo with L.A. Sparks

Jackie Stiles may be too young to realize where rock bottom is, but being injured and essentially unemployed, with her basketball future in doubt, sure feels like it.

'It's been a struggle,' the former Portland Fire player says. 'I've learned one thing: When I get back out on the court, and I'm 100 percent, I'll enjoy every minute I'm out there.

'I'll enjoy my workouts and not think they're a chore or monotonous ever again. I'll appreciate it so much. Things can be taken away in an instant.'

Stiles, 24, won't play this season for her new WNBA team, the Los Angeles Sparks, after undergoing a second operation on her right heel. Doctors repaired bone spurs as well as the Achilles tendon; about a quarter of the tendon had been torn.

'Doctors say no way she can't make a 100 percent recovery,' says Steve Owens, her Kansas City-based agent. 'It's not blind optimism' about Stiles playing again, he adds.

Stiles became the NCAA's all-time leading scorer and Final Four participant with Southwest Missouri State. She was the WNBA's rookie of the year and an all-star with Portland Ñ all in 2001. Last year, she played in only 21 games and shot .319 percent as she battled heel and wrist injuries after offseason surgeries.

The Sparks chose her with the 14th and final pick of the league's April 24 dispersal draft. After dressing in uniform and appearing at the team's media day event, Stiles needed medical clearance for her contract to be approved. A Houston physician, Dr. Don Baxter, advised her to have another operation.

'I really wavered, because I wanted to get through the season,' Stiles says. But Baxter told her the tendon 'could rupture and end my career,' she adds.

It'll take nine months for her to recover from the Achilles tendon surgery.

So, the Sparks won't pay her salary, which Stiles says would have been $51,000, or 9.9 percent less than what she was paid last year. They don't have to put her on injured reserve to retain her rights. If the Sparks do not offer her another contract within 10 percent of her previous salary, she becomes a free agent.

'I thought they had to pay me, trade me or waive me, but because I didn't pass the physical, they don't have to honor the contract, and they hold my rights,' Stiles says. 'It would have been beneficial if a team was willing to put me on IR (injured reserve). I can't dwell on it and worry about it.'

She wants to play for the Sparks, who acquired Shaquala Williams Ñ the former Portland prep and University of Oregon player Ñ to fill a spot in their backcourt. She also wants to be an Olympian someday.

Stiles has never won a championship, including in high school when she averaged 46.4 points a game as a senior at Claflin High in Kansas.

She will live at her family's home in Claflin and rehabilitate there and in Springfield, Mo., her old college town.

She plans to pursue her certification in pharmaceutical sales and become certified as a personal trainer. As a big name in Kansas and Missouri, she plans to put on several basketball camps in her free time. And she has one year left on some endorsement contracts, including a deal with Nike, a contract she says she'll honor even though she's not playing.

'If I'm healthy enough to go overseas (and play) in February, I'll go,' she says.

Stiles, meanwhile, has gotten to know former Fire coach Linda Hargrove even better. She has been dating Hargrove's son, Brian, 27.

'I have a good relationship with her,' Stiles says of Hargrove, who's involved in private business in Kansas and not coaching. Stiles met Hargrove's son while playing for USA Basketball in high school; he was an intern with USA Basketball. They started dating after last season, she says.

Stiles wanted to buy a home in Portland, but then the Fire folded. Once on top of the women's basketball world, a lot of things have not gone Stiles' way in 2002-03.

'It's been a long road, and I've struggled with my identity,' she says. 'Everybody knows me as a basketball player. I've had to become more balanced in life. Maybe it was a lesson I had to learn.

'A lot of people will look at me having 'X' number of surgeries and they'll think I'm done,' adds Stiles, who also plans corrective jaw surgery soon. 'I love the underdog role and the challenge. I still believe I'll be the player I was in college and my rookie year.'

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