JACKSON AND STILES GET IN ON THE ALL-STAR ACTION
The Rookie Experience: Game On!
By Lina Balciunas
By the end of the night, they had managed to shed at least one label. Lauren Jackson and Jackie Stiles could be called All-Star rookies no more. Just refer to them as All-Stars. Been there. Done that.
Now they go back to their respective teams in Seattle and Portland and their respective spheres of existence, chasing each other for that final playoff spot in the West. But they return with some great stories for their teammates after a wild weekend in Orlando.
While Jackson slept in on Monday until 10 a.m., Stiles got up with the roosters to participate in an AAU clinic with West coach Van Chancellor and some of her fellow players. At that point, the rookie label was still very firmly affixed.
Jackson met up with Stiles and the rest of the West for a shootaround at 11 a.m., the second and final time the team would work together before the All-Star Game. Stiles fielded more interviews while Jackson returned to the hotel to nap for a couple hours and make phone calls to her friends back in Australia.
Finally the hour came for the All-Star Weekend hoopla to give way to the actual All-Star hoops. The two spent pre-game in the locker room soaking up the atmosphere.
"Cool. Everyone was so laid back," Jackson said. "Everyone was just like, go and have fun. It was great."
But Jackson's relaxed attitude didn't carry over to her teammate.
"Everybody was trying to calm me down because they could tell I looked nervous, probably scared to death," Stiles laughed. "They were all great. Lisa Leslie was by my locker and she was really taking me under her wing and really trying to help me out and get me through my first All-Star Game. So it was a lot of fun being with all the players."
The trickiest part of the night may have been getting through the player introductions, choreographed so that they'd enter through this All-Star "arch" carrying a basketball to give to one of the kids on the court. That presented an early snag for Jackson.
"I got so emotional the first time I ran out there in front of the fans," Stiles said. "I was thinking, 'Wow, what am I doing at the WNBA All-Star Game?' So it was just really neat when it came game time."
The game tipped off with both players watching wide-eyed from the bench, with the stomach of each doing a little cha-cha. But they didn't have to wait long, as Chancellor made his first substitution a little more than five minutes into the action, replacing the entire starting lineup with the entire second unit.
"My heart was racing," Stiles explained hearing Chancellor call her into the game. "I just sprinted up to the desk. I was very excited and also very nervous to go in for the first time. After I got in there for the first time, I really calmed down and it just felt like another game."
And true to form, there were no nerves for Jackson, only an anticipation to strut her stuff.
"I just wanted to play," she said. "It was so exciting. In the first couple of minutes I was like, I just want to play; I just want to play."
And play she did. Running the high post alongside Leslie, Jackson showed the versatility that has made her an international star. She hit two of four three-point shots, along with a couple flashy drives to the basket that netted her a total of 11 points, the third leading scorer in the West.
This earned her the highest of praise - from herself.
"I'm happy," she said. "I went out there and I did my hardest. I played probably better in those couple minutes than I did all season. I'm happy with that."
Stiles meanwhile ran the offense with the easy task of finding any of her talented teammates. She hit all four of her free throw attempts and admitted to playing the dual role of both competitor and fan on the court.
"It was awesome. I caught myself just watching half the time, watching these players do their thing," she said. "Especially Lisa, she just dominated inside. One time a player got a step on me in the lane and I didn't have to worry about it because Lisa was right there, had my back. It was just so much fun playing with all these great players."
After the West chalked up its third straight victory, both players agreed that the game was the best part of the weekend. They talked about the new friends they had made in the players they got to know for the first time. Jackson was especially impressed with Yolanda Griffith and Katie Smith, while Stiles continued to rave about Leslie.
"I was always really intimidated by her because of her presence, in the Olympics and everything," Stiles said. "She was really so friendly and down to earth, kind of watched out for me."
Jackson's friends and fans followed her All-Star experience from home in Australia and as she left for yet another autograph session, she sent a message to everyone Down Under.
"I wouldn't have been able to do it without them," Jackson said. "They've been so supportive the whole time I've been over here. I get emails from fans back at home and I just think they've been great. Tell them that."
"And I miss them a lot," she added a bit wistfully before disappearing into the crowd.
No matter what the rest of their WNBA career holds, Jackson and Stiles will now forever be All-Stars. It's a stature they carry back to their respective teams to finish out the season and an experience they will never forget.