Jackie Stiles knows she has the letter somewhere.
Back when she was an assistant coach at Missouri State – her alma mater where she became the NCAA’s then-all-time scoring leader with 3,393 points in 2001 – Stiles wrote recruits handwritten letters. That had a profound impact on her as a prospect, and she made it a habit when she became a coach. Stiles always made photocopies, but has moved a lot over the years.
So, off the top of her head, she doesn’t know where she put the one she wrote Caitlin Clark.
She penned it after seeing Clark sometime in 2013 when the future sharpshooter was in the sixth grade. The Missouri State coaching staff used to drive all over the Midwest looking for special players, which is how Stiles stumbled upon a young Clark playing in a tournament in a random gym in Iowa.
While Stiles could have never predicted 11 years ago that Clark would become the bonafide superstar she is today, the coach knew she wanted that kid on her team.
“You could tell she was going to be something really special,” Stiles said, remembering that even in middle school Clark could handle and distribute the ball well.
Turns out, her instinct was correct.
Clark is just 39 points shy of becoming the all-time leading scorer in Division I women’s college basketball history. Kelsey Plum holds the soon-to-be-broken record with 3,527 points, which she scored at Washington from 2013-17, and Clark is currently sitting at 3,489 and inching closer each game. She recently passed former Ohio State guard Kelsey Mitchell and Stiles, who were Nos. 2 and 3 on the list, respectively, when she scored 35 points in a win over Northwestern on Jan. 31.
“She should be celebrated for everything she’s accomplished,” Stiles said. “Records are meant to be broken. You want to see players get better and better, and I’m so excited for what she’s done for the game of basketball. When you are so dominant at what you do, whether you’re a basketball fan or not, she brings people to the game.”
Stiles broke Patricia Hoskins’ 12-year-old scoring record in a game against Creighton on March 1, 2001, and held onto it until Plum passed her in 2017.
Ironically, Stiles recruited Plum out of high school too, back when she was an assistant coach at Loyola Marymount and thought she had a chance with a West Coast kid.
“I instantly saw myself in her,” Stiles said of Plum. “She was No. 10 [like me], we were similar size [at 5-foot-8], and the way she could score in all facets – from long-range shooting the 3 to taking it to the rim to pulling up mid-range – I was like, wow. I wanted her to be my first phone call.”
Stiles, a Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer, introduced herself to Plum as the NCAA’s reigning scoring leader and told Plum she wanted to help her break her own record.
“I like to think that maybe I inspired her to put it in her mind that she could do it,” Stiles joked. “I was so proud of what she accomplished because, at her size, I know what it took to be able to score like that game in and game out and be consistent like that.”
This season, there has been an explosion of excitement and anticipation each time Clark steps onto the court. And while this is a massive milestone, both Plum and Stiles intimately know how much of a burden this particular achievement can be on an athlete.
Plum passed Stiles on Feb. 25, 2017 when she scored 57 points in Washington’s 84-77 win over Utah at home. She has been open about how stressful that period of time was for her.
“To be honest, [the record] was very much a low point in my life,” Plum recently told reporters. “It felt like a lot of pressure, and my identity was kind of caught up in that record. I hope everyone in the media takes time to understand that [Clark] is not just a basketball player, but a young woman that has feelings and emotions. She carries it with grace, but there’s a lot to handle there.
“If anything, make sure that we show her love outside of her performance. She’ll break it. I’m excited for her.”
“The biggest thing is to take care of her health,” said Stiles, who suffered injuries once she got to the WNBA, appearing in only 53 games total despite being named both Rookie of the Year and an All-Star in 2001. “If you don’t have your health, you have nothing. You have to be able to tell people no. If she’s any sort of pleaser and tries to accommodate everyone, she’ll run herself into the ground. I know she wants to be great at her craft and to do that, you’ve gotta protect your time as far as your workouts, your recovery, taking care of your body and getting sleep.
“I hope she is balancing it all OK because one thing I didn’t do well was take care of myself. That eventually caught up with me and shortened my career.”
Social media didn’t exist when Stiles played, but she still faced challenges and pressures when she was on the brink of making history. She told her roommate that “we absolutely cannot have the TV on, we cannot read the paper.” Back then, Stiles didn’t even have a cell phone, but it was still difficult to escape the mania.
“I remember going to Taco Bell and just getting bombarded by people leading up to the game that they thought I would break the record,” Stiles said.
Missouri State hired a security guard to follow Stiles and keep fans at bay. She loved signing autographs, but it became overwhelming during warm-ups. At shootaround the day she set the record, she noticed the school had printed out thousands of pictures of that day’s date so fans could hold it up when she scored to celebrate. She saw the tape by the end lines behind the basket on both sides so they could organize all the media in attendance, too.
“It was wild,” Stiles said.
All she could think about, though, was hitting her first shot.
“I was like, please, first shot go in,” Stiles said. “It went in, so that was good. There was no way not to know how many points I needed because the fans were counting. You could not escape it.
“When the [record-setting] shot went down, it was so loud and honestly, it was just relief, you know? And then it was just like, OK, I can enjoy the game, enjoy my teammates and enjoy our last run as a Missouri State Bear.”
Stiles scored 30 points in a 94-59 win that night, and Missouri State later went on to make a Final Four run.
“When I look back on it, I was like, ‘Was that really me? Did that really happen?’” Stiles said. “It was such a surreal experience.”
This is an important moment in women’s basketball with plenty of big-time playmakers and stars who are changing the game and gaining more exposure in the process.
But Clark is pushing it forward on another level. She leads the country in scoring (32.2 points per game), 3-pointers (5.3) and assists (8.2), and the players in second place in those categories likely won’t catch her. For reference, USC freshman JuJu Watkins, who recently scored 51 points in a win over Stanford, is the nation’s second-leading scorer and is a full five points behind Clark (27.3).
And stats are only part of the show. Clark has an infectious swagger. She loves playing to the fans, and they love it back. Iowa has been selling out arenas – home and away – and has become a TV ratings bonanza. Clark is a senior, and despite technically having one more year of eligibility due to COVID, fans want to make sure they catch her in person before she heads to the WNBA.
“She’s just made our game so much better,” Stiles said. “Growing up, I never missed Michael Jordan play and that’s kind of what she is for the women’s game. When she’s on TV, no one wants to miss it because there’s a chance you’re gonna see something special.”
More on Caitlin Clark chasing the all-time Division I scoring record:
Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.
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