Every sneakerhead remembers their first favorite pair of shoes. While it’s been more than two decades in some cases, the short list of WNBA stars who received their own signature shoe during their playing careers can still recall every meeting, every last detail and the emotion that came along with the launch of their namesake sneakers.
It all began with Sheryl Swoopes’ groundbreaking Nike Air Swoopes in 1995, with several more following the success of the 1996 women’s Olympic team and the launch of the WNBA in 1997.
“I understand how big of a moment that was,” said Swoopes. “Not just for me, but for so many young girls and women coming after me.”
From how they found out they were being awarded a signature shoe to their involvement in the design process and their favorite moment wearing their models, these trailblazing women share some of their sneaker memories.
These comments have been edited for length and clarity.
How did you find out you were getting your own signature shoe and what was your reaction?
Swoopes: When Nike first approached me, they didn’t come at me and say, ‘Hey, we want to give you your own shoe.’ The conversation initially was just, ‘What do you look for in a basketball shoe?’
They said, ‘We’re thinking about designing a women’s basketball shoe, so that’s why we want your input.’ I thought that was the coolest. I thought that was the best. The fact that they were going to design a women’s shoe and they seeded me for it, I thought that was pretty cool. Then, it went from that conversation to, ‘And we’re thinking about naming it after you.’
It still didn’t hit me. Even hearing that, I didn’t know what that meant. They said, ‘We’re thinking about calling it the Nike Air Swoopes.’
In that moment, I lost it!
Rebecca Lobo: I do remember my agent saying, ‘There’s a chance that Reebok will give you your own shoe.’ And I was like, ‘Well, that’s amazing.’ I remember early on they had an ad campaign called ‘The Promise.’ It was an ad that was in magazines, they put it on T-shirts. It was basically, ‘I’m a promise you made to yourself when you were a little kid and I’m coming true.’
They wanted to name the shoe ‘The Promise.’ But they couldn’t because when they went to clear it, that had already been taken. …
Because, you remember at the time, that’s when they had Allen Iverson and his shoes were the Question and the Answer. It was never ‘The Iversons.’ That just wasn’t something Reebok was doing at the time. But then they went with ‘The Lobo.’ And I was like, ‘All right, I like the sound of that.’
Dawn Staley: What Nike did was, as we were just getting into promoting and marketing women, they sat down with us a lot. We sat down in Beaverton. We talked about culture. We talked about sneakers. … They really picked up on, ‘Hey, she kinda knows what she’s doing.’ They really didn’t expect me to give them that much insight. That’s why I feel like they kind of bestowed that honor on me. And I think my game was relatable to people. I had a lot of flash to my game … I was just so up on shoes. I didn’t really care what I looked like from my ankles up, growing up in the projects of North Philly. As long as my ankles down were nice, new, clean, I didn’t really care. And I think that came off supercool to [Nike] … and authentic.
Michelle — she’s since gotten married — but it’s Michelle Brink. Cameron Brink’s mom … Cameron Brink plays for Stanford and won a national championship. Her mom was the person who was on my signature shoe from Nike. I had numerous conversations with her about my shoe. It was supercool to be approached. Because getting a signature shoe was something that was so far-fetched. It was not even a thought. You have goals of winning a national championship or being an Olympian and winning a gold medal. Those are goals that you saw growing up. I didn’t see a woman with a signature shoe.
Nikki McCray: My second shoe deal that I signed was with Fila. Grant Hill was the face of Fila and we know what an amazing player he was. I became the female version on the women’s side. They said they wanted to do a signature shoe — I was like, ‘Wow! This is a dream come true.’
Cynthia Cooper: When I first started playing in the WNBA and I came over from overseas, everyone was talking about Rebecca Lobo, Sheryl Swoopes and Lisa Leslie. Nobody really knew who I was and what I had been doing for the last 10 seasons. Nike signed me to a very basic contract and I was just really happy to be a Nike athlete. We won a couple championships, I won a couple MVPs, and so we went back to the negotiation table and [Nike] was happy to do it. That’s kind of how the whole concept of giving Cynthia Cooper a signature shoe [happened]. It wasn’t in the cards before. I feel like I played my way into a signature shoe from Nike. They didn’t really know who I was and, of course, everyone knows who Nike is. Everyone dreams of having their own signature shoe. But, for me, it was a dream come true.
Chamique Holdsclaw: My agent at the time, Lon Babby, he contacted me and said, ‘OK, Nike wants to give you your own signature shoe.’ I said, ‘What? Are you serious?’
And, man! I was just so excited. I’m from Astoria, Queens in New York, and I remember calling all of my friends back home. Some of my teammates at Tennessee just couldn’t believe it. My name was going to be on a shoe. It was just such an exciting moment, and I just knew it would pave the way for a lot of young ladies to have the opportunity. I knew the impact with younger kids. Being able to go into a store, sometimes the women’s shoes didn’t necessarily have the same colorways and they were a little different. Now, this is a person that’s on television, and little girls are excited that they can wear them with their AAU team. They can go and say, ‘I want the Holdsclaws,’ just like I did with the Swoopes and the Staleys.
Candace Parker: I say, unofficially, I’ve been with Adidas since I was a junior in high school. My team was sponsored by Adidas my junior and senior year, and then going into college was four straight years of Adidas and three stripes. …
When I got to Adidas, it was like a perfect storm and we really matched. They really wanted to make that dream become a reality. I was going to be involved, which was exciting. My rookie year, we started planning that next year for the signature shoe.
What was your involvement in the design and what were you hoping to express?
Swoopes: The crazy thing is the first shoe is the one I had the most input in. The second I did too, but when I got to the third and fourth one, it was more of a, ‘OK, here you go Sheryl, here’s your shoe.’ By that point, they really knew me and knew my body and my style. They knew what was important to me and what I looked for. I didn’t necessarily have to be involved at every step.
But the first shoe, flying out to Portland and having that conversation and going through the entire process. When Nike took a mold of my foot to make my shoe, and now they’re selling it, I really do feel like everybody that buys and wears that shoe, they’re walking in my footsteps.
Lobo: My level of involvement was Reebok coming to me, presenting some drawings and saying, ‘Do you like this? … And do you like this?’ And me just saying, ‘Yeah, I really like how that looks … I like how that looks.’ At that point, I’d worn their sneaker for just about a year during the 1995-96 season with the Olympic team. So, I knew which styles of their shoes that I had worn that I had liked. That’s kind of how it came together. They were the ones to say, ‘With you playing for the Liberty, we’re gonna have it be a blue and orange colorway, because that will sell well, and we think that’ll look good.’ There was some give and take, some back and forth. But it was a lot of them presenting styles of shoes similar to what I had been wearing and found comfortable.
Staley: When Nike does things, they don’t just say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna put your name on this shoe.’ They’re like, ‘Hey, we want some input. … How you like this? How you like that?’ They want input. And I just thought it was supercool. You have that connection to the shoe that you’re actually wearing and promoting. I do think my shoe was the flyest of them all … the best-looking one that could crossover. Some people are just like, ‘Women’s shoes … ehhh.’ But dudes really liked my shoe. To this day, they still like my shoe.
I wanted a white shoe with accents. I wanted white to be the most powerful color, but then when you throw in some color on the tongue and accents throughout the shoe, it makes it pop a little better. I wanted a leather shoe. I didn’t want nubuck. I wanted leather so you had a little shine to it. I liked the Zoom sole. For me, it was just a comfort thing.
McCray: They came to my home. They did custom-made shoes for my feet, so the shoes I wore were really customized to my feet, versus what was in the store. I could’ve wore brand-new shoes for every game if I wanted to, but I didn’t do that ’cause I liked to break them in. It was really surreal to know that you were part of the process, you have your own shoe, and you can look in the closet and say, ‘I want to wear that, that or that today.’ It was pretty neat.
Cooper: It was a special process. [Nike] flew me up to Beaverton, Oregon, the world headquarters there. They wanted to just talk to me, really get to know me, my personality. I was involved in the entire process, from them interviewing me to the mock-ups, the design and the colorways. What I wanted, and what they felt in my personality, was just my journey. I’d come from the inner city and just the toughness that I demonstrated when I came from Watts to a private university, going overseas to play and then at the age of 34, starting my rookie year in the WNBA. My toughness, my warrior spirit, my determination and perseverance through tough times — I felt like they wanted to put all of those things into that shoe.
Holdsclaw: I just remember sitting down, and the designer was going through and saying, ‘Think of a rocket, and how powerful it is and how smooth it is. This is the concept we want to go with.’ They put the craters and the little marks on the side, and I really loved it. That was a part of my game. I made an impact, but I was also very smooth with it. I loved it! When he said ‘smooth,’ I ran with it.
Parker: There’s this other guy, and his name is CP3 [Chris Paul], so we definitely didn’t want to get that confused. He was in the league first, so I was like, ‘All right, I’ll give you the name for now.’ ‘Ace’ was just, I always ended up having to correct people at the end of the day of how to spell my name, and it kind of just became who I was. We just went from there with the logo.
What impact did having your own shoe make while you were playing?
Swoopes: Growing up, I never even thought about it because it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen to many athletes, let alone a female athlete. I’m a firm believer that representation matters. If you see someone achieving or accomplishing things, you can look at that person and say, ‘It is possible. Maybe I can do it.’ But I didn’t have that.
There was Michael Jordan, and that was all I knew. And I was nowhere near Michael Jordan! And I was a female. I say this jokingly, but the tagline ‘Just Do It’ applies to so much stuff that they do. Now, little girls can look at me and say, ‘That can happen to her. It can happen to me.’
Lobo: It was emblematic of what was going on at the time. The WNBA was starting. There were commercials on. If you were watching the NBA Eastern Conference finals, the Western Conference finals, the Finals themselves, there were tons of commercials — ‘We got next.’ The league was really pushing the WNBA hard. And at that same time, there was a lot more attention being paid to these women who were going to be playing in the WNBA. The signature shoes were just a part of the process we were living through at the time.
Staley: I know Sheryl is a guard and her shoe was built for guards, but I think my shoe was positionless. You could rock it as a big. You could rock it as a wing. You could rock it as a point guard. It had a Jordan feel to it. You look at it, and you don’t want to like it but you end up loving it because it was so well put together. It just was a beautiful shoe. Some women’s shoes look like women’s shoes. I didn’t think my shoe looked like a woman’s shoe. It looked like a dude could really appreciate it and wear it, although they gotta get two sizes bigger than what they wore.
McCray: For me, it was about the impact. I recognized how Sheryl’s shoe really impacted the lives of young girls and boys. It was amazing. To be able to say that I was one of a few women that had my own shoe, and it was a women’s version, as well as a men’s version. It was awesome. I can’t even put it into words. It was the best feeling.
Cooper: When you look at your career, you never think that certain things are gonna happen for you. For me, it feels amazing to be a part of a sorority that there’s only nine of us. For Nike to celebrate my career, by allowing me to be a part of this very exclusive group, I’m honored.
Holdsclaw: I can’t remember what college team it was, but it was a Nike school, and I just remember like half the team on television was wearing my shoe. I just remember saying, ‘Oh, my God, this is so amazing.’ Even now, sometimes when you’re in it in the moment, you’re not necessarily hit with the impact. When I retired from basketball and really reconnected with old friends, after being overseas so much, for them to be able to share those stories, like, ‘Man, we remember when you were drafted No. 1, and when Nike gave you your own shoe.’ Those things right there hit hard. I didn’t necessarily understand it at the time.
Parker: I think it had a huge impact, because you may not be the first, but there’s gotta be someone that can show they can continue it. To show that women can have a shoe, and women can play basketball, I hope it’s inspired the generation that has come up now.
What are the downsides for the generation of girls who grew up in the 2010s without seeing another woman with her own signature shoe?
Lobo: It really surprises me that it’s almost been 10 years since we’ve seen a woman with a signature shoe. I don’t understand it. I don’t see how that makes sense. I live now with four kids, three of them daughters. My 14-year-old, in particular, loves women’s basketball. She loves going to Connecticut Sun games. She was paying attention to the draft. She was paying attention to free agency. When Napheesa Collier got drafted to the Minnesota Lynx, [it was] ‘Mom, can I get a jersey?’ You know, I don’t understand that the shoe companies haven’t seen that as a profitable place to invest in a women’s shoe.
I’m buying my own daughters multiple pairs of basketball sneakers every year, as they get ready for their winter season or they’re getting ready for their AAU season. Certainly, if there was a women’s signature shoe, that’s the one they would want. It’s just ridiculous to me that Sue Bird has never had a shoe. Sue Bird? How does that happen?
Staley: I think a few of them are gonna come out, probably within the next six to eight years, at least five or six more signature shoes will come out.
McCray: I think the sport is really growing, and now, the shoe companies are saying, ‘Hey, this is your shoe [to headline.]’ A’ja Wilson has a shoe that [she headlines]. I’m hoping that the shoe companies can get back to doing signature shoes, because I think women’s basketball is taking off. As you can see, the WNBA is stable, the Final Four is growing. … It’s just a matter of companies trusting it and investing in it again. We had some success with myself, Sheryl, Lisa, Rebecca and Dawn Staley. Now, the women’s game is different. The Final Four sells out, and the WNBA is not going anywhere.
Cooper: I don’t know that there’s a downside yet because there are so many other things that have taken up that space. You’re starting to see players in the W with such fly shoes. They’re putting their own personal touch on their own shoes. Shoot, I saw a couple players and I’m like, ‘Send me a pair.’ But I do think there has to be a place for a female, especially in this generation, having their own signature shoe that fits a female foot and that other younger females can play in and look up to the woman who has that signature. It’s not just about jerseys. It’s not just about watching them win championships. It’s also about saying, ‘Hey, we deserve to have a signature shoe and have women wear shoes that fit their feet.’
Holdsclaw: Right now, the world is watching. We saw what the orange hoodie did, and the excitement it created.
We fought so hard, not just to have our own league and be able to hold down our own brand, but an extension of it is to have your own footwear. We’re not men, we’re women. We should have our own and be able to go into a store and see signature women’s basketball shoes there. Whatever the sport is, there are high-profile athletes that should have signature footwear that resembles and matches up with that.
And that’s what’s so special about seeing an additional woman to be added to it. Stewie [Breanna Stewart] has done everything that can be done in basketball, and she’s still not done. She’s standing on the backs of Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper and all of the people that came before her.
I don’t have a daughter, but one day if I have a daughter, I want to be able to go into a store and have her feel good about herself and have pride to go to the women’s wall and see that whoever is killing it in the W at the time, she can say, ‘You know what, I want to get those A’ja Wilsons.’ You want to be able to say that these women are doing it, because they’re doing such great things in their respective sports.
Parker: I know it’s a process, but that’s kind of what all of us talk about when we get together. It’s about handing the baton forward and carrying it farther. That’s what all of them have done for me, and what I want to do for the next generation.
What is your favorite memory in your signature shoe?
Swoopes: I actually wore my shoe in the Olympics, before I played in the WNBA season. I just remember the first time I wore it in practice. I didn’t get to really enjoy it, because my teammates were all like, ‘Damn!’ They were saying, ‘This is crazy! This is a historical moment.’
I was in the locker room, and there was a box. The box says ‘Air Swoopes’ on it, and I was actually trying to hide the box from my teammates seeing it. I didn’t know how they were going to react. I waited till everyone was out of the locker room, and I pulled it out. I just wanted to take it in. I open it, put it on and go out. The players knew about it, but they hadn’t seen it on my feet.
I go out on the court, and I start warming up, and all of my teammates were like, ‘Oh! That is so dope!’ They all came over and checked out the shoe, and said, ‘Congrats, this is awesome.’ Then Tara [VanDerVeer] was like, ‘All right, that’s enough, let’s get to practice.’
That was the one moment that really sticks out to me. First of all, you’re getting ready to compete at the highest level in the Olympics. I had all of my teammates being very supportive and excited about it, and we had the opportunity to do something that was pretty special. Just getting the opportunity to represent for women, that was a special moment for me.
Staley: I took ’em back to my ’hood to get some feedback. Because those are the consumers. Those are the long-term consumers. Nobody had a bad thing to say about it, because I think they were all in awe that I actually had a signature shoe. ‘This is my shoe. This is the Dawn Staley Zoom S5.’ It was pretty cool to bring it back to the neighborhood to celebrate because all of them at some point helped me hone my skills to the point of Nike bestowing this on me.
I just remember people wanted them. If I wore them, they’d say, ‘Lemme get those.’ Like my peers. For me, that is the highest compliment that you could get from someone who was an opponent or teammate that wanted a pair of sneakers.
Holdsclaw: The first time wearing them. I remember that moment. I remember motions. I remember hitting a step-back fadeaway, and when I made the shot, my leg was up. When I was running back, I looked down, and I was like, ‘Oh, man, I’m wearing my own shoe!’ It was just so exciting.
Parker: There’s so many memories! Lacing them up, for the first, was surreal. They send you the models to try on, and I just remember having the first workout in those shoes. Memories of being out in front of your driveway when nobody cared. Going to all of those AAU trips and things like that. To now have your own shoe, it was just unbelievable.