The Rookie Experience
By Lina Balciunas

A year ago, they were on opposite sides of the world. Lauren Jackson was practicing with the Australian National Team for the Olympics to be held shortly in her homeland. Jackie Stiles was preparing for her senior year at Southwest Missouri State.

Jackie Stiles and Lauren Jackson practiced with the West All-Stars on Sunday. (WNBA Photo)

Who could have told them about the year that lay ahead? And how could they have believed it anyway?

Jackson won a silver medal at the Sydney Games and spent the next six months a swirling rumor of "will she or won't she" with the WNBA waiting for a decision on her future. In the meantime, she won her second consecutive WNBL championship in Australia. Her draft declaration prompted Storm jubilation and Seattle selected her with the No. 1 pick in April. Now, as a rookie, Jackson makes her first WNBA All-Star appearance.

Stiles broke the NCAA Division I scoring record, an accomplishment that was really supposed to cap her career, but instead fueled it. She led the Lady Bears to the Final Four and took her Midwest hero status on a national joyride that hasn't stopped. The Portland Fire made Stiles the No. 4 pick in WNBA Draft 2001 and she promptly earned league Player of the Week honors in just her fifth week of professional action. Now, as a rookie, Stiles makes her first WNBA All-Star appearance.

They couldn't be more different. Jackson stands 6-5 with fiery red hair that contradicts her Australian cool -- be it real or perceived behind that exotic accent. Stiles is pushing it to make 5-8, with gushing enthusiasm and enough wide-eyed innocence to suggest that she really is flattered -- and baffled -- by all the attention lavished upon her. But here in Orlando, the two players gravitate towards each other. As Jackson noted, they have something in common as rookies on a largely veteran All-Star squad, starting with their surprise at being so honored in the first place.

Jackson at her portrait shoot Sunday evening. (WNBA Photo)

"Wednesday morning when we flew into New York, We got off the plane and Coach (Lin Dunn) was like, 'Congratulations, you made the All-Star team!'" Jackson said. "I was like, no way. Actually I didn't think I was going to make it. I told everybody that I talked to at the time because I don't think I've been playing well lately. So when I found out, I said, you've got to be kidding and (Dunn) said, 'No, you made it.' So I was like, yes!"

"We were coming home from Minnesota and we were in the airport," Jackie recalled her experience. "It was after a really tough loss and I had had one of my worst games as a WNBA player. But that really helped, hearing that news. Coach (Linda) Hargrove told me in the airport. I was very shocked and excited."

With neither the Storm nor the Fire playing on Saturday night, both Jackson and Stiles had the luxury of arriving in time to get a good night's sleep before the frenzied pace of All-Star Weekend began. Both brought their mothers as their VIP guest for the event, fortuitous timing for Jackson's mother who is visiting for the month from Australia.

Stiles' All-Star Sunday began with a photo shoot with Sports Illustrated. " I know, it's weird saying it," she laughed, still amazed at being a media darling. Multi-tasking, she ate breakfast at the shoot. Jackson's day began at 9:30 a.m. when her mother woke her up and the two ordered room service.

Jackson and Stiles met up at the players' meeting where they received their instructions for what to expect over the weekend and signed, as Jackson put it, "about 150 balls."

"I was so overwhelmed at the team meeting," Stiles said. "I thought, what am I doing here with all these stars?"

Then they boarded a bus and headed to the TD Waterhouse Centre for practice. They received their introduction to one of West coach Van Chancellor's All-Star practices and both reacted in a radically different manner.

"Our practice was easy!" Jackson exclaimed. "I wish all our practices were like that at home. We have to do five-on-five on game days! But we didn't do much today, did we? Just shooting and stuff for about half an hour. I can't understand a word Van Chancellor was saying. He speaks very funny."

Jackson and Stiles posed with each other before attending the President's Reception at NBA City. (WNBA Photo)

"It was a laid back practice," Stiles agreed, but in a tone more of consternation than pleasure. "Shooting half-court shots. It wasn't very intense. I'm going to try to sneak into the gym tonight and get in a few extra shots." She laughed conspiratorially. "Keep that hush-hush."

Stiles' practice habits are legendary, including a ritual of making 1000 shots a day. Chancellor had other ideas for his players.

"Jackie Stiles asked me a minute ago what we're going to do," he said at the media availability session before his team took the court. "I said, 'Stiles, play ball.' It is pretty simple. She is worried to death about what we are going to do, what we are going to do in practice."

So while Jackson was enjoying the lighthearted workout, Stiles was still catching her breath at her surroundings -- if not the pace of practice.

"I was at a USA Basketball tryout when I was going to be a senior in high school and we got to have a pizza party with (the 1996 U.S. Olympic team) the last day of the tryout because they were there working out," Stiles said. "And I can just remember I couldn't even talk. I was just in awe of Lisa Leslie and all those players on that team. And then, at the practice, to hear Lisa Leslie say my name, like 'What are you doing Stiles?' It was just so overwhelming. Then I get on the bus and I'm right behind Ruthie Bolton. Every one of them I'm just amazed by."

After the practice, Stiles headed to a press conference for the Read to Achieve program before meeting up with Jackson at the WNBA Summer Jam to sign autographs. Then it was back to the hotel to get ready for a WNBA portrait photo shoot and a reception at NBA City. Jackson wanted to go to bed following the festivities while Stiles went in search of a place to shoot.

The two players are happy to have found an instant and empathetic friend in each other among the frenzy of the weekend.

"Definitely," Jackson said. "When I came here I didn't know anybody and we have something in common."

The game of basketball shrinks the globe and brings people together. Here in Orlando for WNBA All-Star 2001, it has created a bond between an unlikely duo. And having survived Sunday, both Jackson and Stiles are definitely looking forward to Monday's main event.

Check back after the game to hear about the rest of the WNBA All-Star 2001 rookie experience!