Ruth Riley and Jackie Stiles both competed in the 2001 Final Four, but they were friends before that. They met playing USA Basketball where they were roommates, and hit it off right away. They could tease each other about who came from the smaller town. Riley grew up in Macy, Ind., and Stiles in Claflin, Kan.
“We still don’t have a stoplight,” Stiles said recently as she sat in a locker room at a gymnasium in Coldwater, Kan.
Claflin, which is right in the geographic center of the Sunflower State, would strike you as rural, of course, but … the area of Kansas where Stiles and Riley were last week was truly deserving of the description “in the middle of nowhere.”
It was funny, actually, to hear Stiles looking out a car window at the landscape and expressing amazement at how empty it was of houses and humans. This is coming from someone who used to drive a half-hour to get to the closest McDonald’s.
“That was in Great Bend,” she explained. “The nearest ‘big’ city to Claflin.”
Riley and Stiles were out in southwestern Kansas coaching in a benefit basketball event called the WEPAC Hoops for Hope game. I was out there, too, along with my pals, broadcasters Brenda Van Lengen and Patti Phillips.
We three live on the Kansas side of metro Kansas City, some six hours away from the communities _ Wilmore, Englewood, Protection, Ashland and Coldwater – that the acronym “WEPAC” stands for. For Brenda, who’s from Nebraska, and me, from Missouri, these little towns are very familiar. They’re like the places we grew up.
But for Patti, who grew up first Norfolk, Va., and then greater KC, it was more like, “Wow, we’re REALLY way out here, aren’t we?” At one point, the GPS had us on a little dirt road apparently headed into nothingness instead of the school we were looking for, and Patti pointed out that fact with just the tiniest hint of semi-annoyed panic.
Brenda and I, being somewhat mischievous, acted like it was quite reasonable to believe maybe the road did go somewhere.
Hey, I’ve seen smaller roads go places.
And what I found myself thinking about a lot on this trip was how paths intersect.
The exhibition contest, involving area high school girls’ players and former college women’s standouts from Kansas State, Kansas, Missouri State, Nebraska, Wichita State and Iowa, raised money to help provide cancer-screening services for women in this rural area of Kansas.
Along with Riley and Stiles, another big name in women’s basketball came, despite having no ties to Kansas: Cynthia Cooper. The WNBA legend who now coaches at Prairie View A&M in Texas lost her mother to breast cancer and readily agreed to take part in both the game (as a co-coach of one team along with Stiles) and in a health-issues forum the next day.
“Any cause that helps encourage women to get their mammograms and take care of themselves, I want to be involved,” Cooper said. “The enthusiasm to help in the fight against cancer is universal. Here it’s a small town, but when I walked into the gym and saw that sea of pink, the energy that they’ve generated, it was amazing.”
Benjamin Anderson, CEO of the Ashland Health Center, was a driving force for the event. A part of the proceeds go to the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund. But the majority of the funds raised will allow things such as a mobile digital mammogram machine to come to the WEPAC area once a month. Otherwise, women there had to make about a five-hour round trip for that service.
Stiles knows a lot about such drives. She used to regularly travel long distances from Claflin to play on an AAU team in Kansas City. Often, her grandfather, Joe Stiles, would take her.
“My family always says it added years to his life,” Stiles said. “He would drive me all over the country for basketball. We just had a special bond because of all those hours we spent together.”
Stiles also knows about how the proximity to health care might change your life if you’re in a small town or rural area. She won a junior-high hoops championship game the night her baby sister, who had health issues from birth, stopped breathing.
“I can remember the whole day vividly,” Stiles said. “I remember dressing her in overalls, and she was at my game, I talked to her afterward. Then later I saw my grandpa’s car rushing by our bus.
“They ended up having to rush her on to Wichita … well, that’s a two-hour drive. Unfortunately, there was an accident somewhere else, so they didn’t have the helicopter to get her there. It was being used. They had to take her in the ambulance.
“And I’ve always wondered: Would she have survived if she had care closer or could have gotten there quicker?”
Stiles is the oldest of four children, and none of them will forget the sibling they lost. One of her brothers, P.J., is in his fourth year of medical school. The youngest, Roxanne, followed Jackie to Missouri State, but her basketball career was cut short by a hip problem that eventually will require replacement. Roxanne, 21, hopes to attend medical school, too.
Jackie has had enough surgeries, she jokes, that she should have been a doctor, too. Injuries limited Stiles to just two seasons in the WNBA, and she never really has been able to play much basketball since.
She has tremendous aches physically whenever she even tries to seriously play hoops now. She aches emotionally because she can’t play. She tried competitive cycling for a while, but that was too much of a toll on her body as well.
To fill the void, she does camps and personal training. She loves the number of kids she can reach even in just one camp setting; that sheer volume has been part of what’s kept her away – so far – from coaching at the high school or college level.
“There are far fewer kids on just one team,” she said of considering a coaching career. “But I don’t know. I miss the competitive aspect. I still have that itch to compete.”
Riley is still competing, having just finished her ninth WNBA season as San Antonio lost in the first round of the playoffs to eventual champ Phoenix.
Riley’s path first crossed with Stiles in USA Basketball. Then they played in the same Final Four in St. Louis – although not against each other’s teams _ where Riley’s Notre Dame squad won the NCAA title. Then they were both on WNBA teams that eventually folded, Portland (Stiles) and Miami (Riley).
However, Stiles’ career was over quickly, even if it took her a few more painful years to realize that. Riley went from Miami to Detroit _ where she won two WNBA titles – to San Antonio.
Riley, who also has won an Olympic gold medal, was born in Kansas but soon moved to Indiana when her parents divorced. Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw told the story at the 2001 Final Four about going out on a home visit to see Riley and becoming lost in what seemed like miles and miles of nothing but cornfield.
Riley has become one of the WNBA’s best ambassadors, involved in AIDS awareness programs in Africa and the “Nothing But Nets” program to protect people from mosquito-borne diseases. Whenever she can say “yes” to helping with something, she always does.
At this WEPAC event, Riley coached one of the teams, along with Kristi Leeper-Meis, who’s from Protection and captained Fort Hays State (which is further north in Kansas) to the 1991 NCAA Division II championship.
“You’ll find that most of the time, small communities support their local sports at a high level,” Riley said. “These gyms will be packed for a girls or boys basketball game during their seasons.
“But also, you know, in larger cities you might not care as much about your neighbor. In small towns, there’s more a sense of caring for one another, bringing what you can. In an event like this, so many people have just brought what they could. And that’s the beauty of these small communities providing for each other.”
Well … that’s a romantic and hopeful view of little towns, and one that certainly has validity. However, it’s not altogether a complete picture. Not that I want to be Scrooge by pointing it out. But I grew up in a town that had less than 400 people _ there were both nice folks and not-so-nice folks. There were people who cared about their neighbors and people who couldn’t have cared less.
There were those who gossiped incessantly. The types who would have nit-picked an idea like this “Hoops for Hope” game to pieces. They would have felt put-upon if asked to do too much and slighted if asked to do too little.
So I’m sure that there were such elements to be dealt with out in southwestern Kansas, too. Nobody has to tell me this; being from a little town, I just know. But there are always snags to any such endeavor. The bottom line is when it came time to participate, a lot of people took part in an area where there really are not a lot of people to begin with.
They hosted the visiting players in their homes. They wore pink and white “Hoops for Hope” T-shirts and filled the Ashland High gym, in which hangs banners for achievements in 8-man football (which is what the smallest schools in the state play), track, basketball, Academic Olympics, Quiz Bowl, etc.
They bid on silent-auction items, purchased game programs and pink/white lollipops, and then cheered on the girls and women who played the game.
And this part might surprise you, given how such an exhibition might have turned out: The game was actually fun to watch.
I’ll admit we weren’t expecting that as we drove out there. Brenda, Patti and I had figured high school kids mixed in with former college players would produce a lot of turnovers and missed shots. But that everyone watching would be good-natured about it, since the purpose was to raise money for fighting cancer, not to re-enact the Final Four.
Brenda and Patti are both former coaches, and we talked about basketball almost the entire trip there and back. On the way, as mentioned, we figured they would have to steel themselves for broadcasting a mistake-fest. But after an 89-81 victory for the Riley/Leeper-Meis team, we were all commenting on how we got much more entertaining basketball than we’d bargained for. (OK, not a lot of defense, but that was a good thing.)
On the way back, I managed to get pulled over going 40 mph through a 10-second-long 30 mph speed trap around midnight. But the world’s nicest police officer let me go with an admonition to be more wary of the speed limit. The funny thing was, as “lead-foot” Patti pointed out, I was doing well under the limit everywhere except that particular stretch.
One of the small towns we passed through going to and from the WEPAC region was Greensburg, which might have affectionately been referred to as just a dot on the map until it was, horrifically, almost wiped off the map by a monster tornado in 2007. Virtually 95 percent of Greensburg was destroyed and 11 people died – the relatively “low” death total thanks to the warning systems.
It is still eerie to drive through Greensburg, especially at night as we did on the way home. It was shortly before 10 p.m. on May 4, 2007, that a tornado a mile and half wide went right through the town as if it were a giant eraser. You consider how small geographically Greensburg is and how randomly unfortunate it was that this storm took the exact path it did. A slight move east or west by the funnel would have spared Greensburg entirely.
We imagined what it must have been like during those initial hours of darkness amidst the utter devastation of a place where the nearest “medium-sized” town – Dodge City, with about 25,000 people – is nearly an hour away. And the soul-shaking shock of the first sunrise that showed just how complete and total the calamity was.
Now, two and half years later, Greensburg – home to around 1,400 people at the time of the disaster _ is rebuilding as a “green” town with wind-powered energy and all construction being to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards.
It’s the kind of impossible-to-foresee situation – a small town left in ruins turning into an experimental project for some of the best technological ideas for sustainability _ that makes you marvel at how our planet gives and takes away and gives again.
The WEPAC communities are south of Greensburg, near the Oklahoma border. And even further west is the town of Sublette, Kan., now known as the home of Shalee Lehning, who completed her stellar career at Kansas State last season and played well for the Atlanta Dream this past summer.
Lehning had a collision with Washington’s Lindsey Harding on the final day of the WNBA’s regular season that left her with a shoulder injury doctors proclaimed was like what they usually see only with football players.
Lehning had surgery and couldn’t play in the postseason or this WEPAC game. But she was still on hand for the WEPAC event, as were her parents, who had made the absurdly long drive from Sublette to Manhattan probably 100 times when she was at K-State.
Then again, as Stiles said, it is on such lengthy drives that people bond. You have time to actually talk to each other in person.
Umm … especially when you’re not getting a cell-phone signal.
Jackie and Roxanne had come from Springfield, and Jackie had to be back there quickly the next day. Why? She’d been asked to judge the Miss Missouri pageant.
“Never done that before,” she said.
A man involved in the pageant whom Jackie had befriended said, “No problem,” and let the Stiles sisters use his six-seat plane to go to Coldwater, Kan., where a practice was held in the afternoon before that night’s game in Ashland.
You might wonder what kind of “airport” is in Coldwater … well, there is a runway. That’s good enough. Jackie said it was “kind of frightening” as they’d encountered some rough weather and then thought, “Really? We’re going to land here?”
But it all turned out fine… they got to the Coldwater gym and the pilot left for Dodge City, where the Stiles’ parents were going to take them after the game was over for the flight back to Springfield. Only one thing had been left to chance: Who was going to drive them the half-hour from Coldwater to Ashland?
There would have been any number of volunteers – Jackie is legendary in Kansas, after all, and an incredibly friendly person – but our intrepid media crew was on its way to Ashland after watching practice, and we had room for two more in Patti’s car.
During this stretch of the trip, Jackie told us about one of her workouts, which involves doing pushups with your hands and feet balanced on basketballs. Yeah, one of those core-strength show-off things that most of us would not even attempt out of the certainty we would land on our faces and break our noses. Jackie, of course, did the exercise for the cameras once we got to Ashland, to be shown during the broadcast.
Jackie seems to have been born with enough energy to have completely worn out about seven bodies in a normal lifespan, but sadly, she only has one body. She runs her own business now, J. Stiles Total Training, but says she actually has no problem not pushing other people too hard.
“It’s one of those ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ things,” she says, laughing at herself as she frequently does. “I’ll tell people to back off if they are over-doing it. I wish I could do that with myself.”
During the WEPAC game, she got a chance to coach along with Cooper, who had been one of Stiles’ idols. Further, Nike’s Cynthia Cooper shoe was the only one Stiles wanted to wear in college, because she said it fit her perfectly.
After the game, Stiles was headed to Dodge City and then back to Springfield, Mo. Cooper spoke at the health forum the next day, then returned to Texas.
Riley is recovering from postseason surgery and expects to play overseas starting in January. Where? “I don’t know,” she said, smiling. “It’s always kind of ‘whatever comes up.’ ”
Brenda, Patti and I went back to our homes in suburban Kansas City, and each of us will be on the road again soon to college games all over the place this winter.
Our paths intersected for a brief time in an area of Kansas that we had never been to before … and yet now will always mean something to us.