Sneaker Stories

New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu joins WNBA rare air with her first Nike signature sneaker

She becomes the eighth woman to earn a basketball shoe with the Swoosh

New York Liberty All-Star Sabrina Ionescu will launch her signature shoe, the Nike Sabrina 1 this spring, marking the release of the 12th signature sneaker franchise in WNBA league history.

“I think it’s super important that it’s not just a shoe,” said Ionescu. “It’s about the story that it tells and what it’s going to do for everyone that sees it and buys into it.”

The Sabrina 1 will enter the marketplace alongside Breanna Stewart’s Puma Stewie series and Elena Delle Donne’s Nike Air Deldon signature model. Before those two models were released last summer, there had been a decade-long drought for namesake basketball sneakers headlined by women. Candace Parker’s Ace series with Adidas was the last true WNBA signature shoe in 2011.

The Nike Sabrina 1 is the first signature shoe for New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu.

Nike Basketball

Puma and Under Armour’s Curry Brand swung big to potentially sign the Oregon Ducks’ star point guard and No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft with dedicated marketing campaigns and plans to make her the face of each company. Nike founder Phil Knight, a prideful Oregon graduate, made it a personal priority to land her.

Ultimately, Ionescu stuck with the only brand she had ever known.

“Having the relationship with Phil always helps,” she said with a laugh. 

While other brands promised a pathway to a potential signature sneaker — a groundbreaking clause inclusion in a WNBA player’s endorsement offer at the time, it wasn’t a sure thing with Nike.

“Early on, that was floated in my conversations with Phil,” she said. “Until you hear that it’s something that is actually going to happen, you don’t get your hopes up too much.”

Now three years removed from her 2020 draft class, Ionescu is upfront about the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic that summer. She couldn’t lead her No. 1 seeded Ducks into the postseason in her final collegiate campaign because the NCAA tournament was suspended just before the annual March Madness kick-off.

When WNBA play began in the Florida-based “wubble” in July 2020, a left ankle injury in her third pro game sidelined Ionescu for the remainder of her rookie season.

Despite the rocky start, the brand still believed in her potential. In between her standard Zoom check-in meetings before her second season started, the team at Nike prepared a video for her.

“It was actually in the midst of when I was coming back from injury, not playing well and not in a great headspace,” she reflected.

As she pressed play on the video, each of the execs and employees she had seen in Zoom squares appeared in an admittedly low-production compilation of videos shot on their iPhones, repeating their congratulations.

“I was like, ‘What are they congratulating me on?’ ” she recalled. “It ends up with, ‘You are our new signature athlete.’ ”

Ionescu said she just stared at the video, overwhelmed by the emotion of what that meant. She would be the 30th basketball player in company history in the NBA or the WNBA to receive signature shoes and just the eighth woman.

“It was just one of those things, where in that time of my life, I was able to see the support from Nike and their belief in what I’m able to accomplish,” she said. “It kept me going that entire season.”

The design process of the Sabrina 1 started shortly afterward, with the typical 18- to 24-month window of sketch revisions, sampling and storytelling ahead.

The first big decision was that her shoe would be available in unisex sizing, with the connected signature apparel collection also styled to be versatile for all. 

“I think it’s just part of my story,” she said. “Growing up with brothers and being told that I can’t play basketball or play on the men’s team. So many things in my life have shaped who I am now.”

She’s looking to unlock the barriers she sometimes felt early on by launching a sneaker that all genders can wear.

“I don’t want to put anyone in that box,” she said. “I want kids and people of all age ranges, males and females, to be able to get this shoe and see themselves in it and the possibility of being who you want to be.”

The silhouette’s design has a “clean and sleek” approach, as she describes it. There’s some similarity to the sharpness and stance of one of Ionescu’s most beloved shoes to play in, the Kobe 5, along with midfoot fit and support cables that take cues from the shoe she wore throughout college, the Hyperdunk X Low.

“The look was kind of second to the comfort and what it was going to be able to do for me on the court,” she said. “Nike doesn’t create any shoe that doesn’t look cool, so I knew going in that what I was going to get out of the looks of the shoe was going to be elite. I wasn’t worried about that.”

Nike senior footwear designer Ben Nethongkome and the team of designers built a bullet point list of elements to focus on while working through the creation process.

“For the overall vision, we were trying to focus on making sure that we keep Sabrina fast on the court, increase speed and reduce fatigue,” said Nethongkome. “We focused on three things to achieve that goal: support, responsive ride, and keeping the shoe lightweight overall.” 

Full-length Nike React foam is used in the footbed for the first time in a basketball sneaker, with a large Zoom Air bag covering the forefoot for responsiveness.

As she emphasized performance, Ionescu was also looking to create a versatile shoe for people to wear in any setting.

“Hopefully, this won’t just be the best basketball shoe, but it’ll be the best shoe,” she said.

The team also looked to layer in some signature nuances, designing a pattern through the toe and a subtle bar graphic that Ionescu is most proud of. The toe cap features a geometric pattern inspired by Romanian art styles.

“It was important to me [to incorporate] where I come from, how I got here and a lot of the sacrifices that my parents and my family have taken for me even to play the game of basketball and the game that I love,” she said. “I wanted to showcase that in the shoe.”

Ionescu’s tagline “Anywhere. Anyone.” appears on the shoe’s arch, embedded in the foam.

“Her thing is that dream seekers can come from anywhere and be anyone,” said Nethongkome. “If you’re wearing the shoe and look down, you can see that messaging, which is inspiring.”

Along the tongue, her simple S logo can be found, with the two negative space spheres alluding to a set of eyes and the court vision that led to her being named an All-Star starter last season.

“I didn’t want anything that was going to be too much or too complicated,” she said of the logo process.

After last season, Ionescu headed to Beaverton, Oregon, to see her sneaker in person for the first time. 

“At Nike, typically when we have athletes come in, we have a whole presentation set up for the unveil of their shoe,” said Nethongkome. “We were going through it, and she was basically like, ‘Just show me the goddamn shoe!’ That wasn’t exactly how she said it, but that was the energy.”

Cutting the theatrics short, Ionescu was handed a pair of the Sabrina 1s in size 12.

“She laced them up, and the room just got quiet. It was like, ‘Holy s—,’ ” continued Nethongkome. “She stood up and did like an air guitar and jumper. That s— was so monumental. And that was when we had to see it on foot, on Sabrina, for the first time.”

The wait was finally over.

“I was at a loss for words, looking at what was in front of me, and what this meant for me and generations to come and athletes that would be able to accomplish this,” she said. “It’s different seeing a shoe on a screen for the last two or three years and then finally opening up the box and seeing it in person.”

From Sheryl Swoopes to Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley and Cynthia Cooper, Chamique Holdsclaw and Diana Taurasi before her, every player with a signature shoe can vividly remember the first time she laced up her shoe.

“Being able to put them on and see them for the first time, it’s still surreal to me to even hold it,” said Ionescu. “Finally being able to take the shoe home is the next step. I’ll probably sleep with them on.”

While she’s entering a select group of just a dozen female signature athletes, early on, she was sworn to secrecy by the Nike team to avoid any early leaks. 

“That part was hard,” she said with a sigh. “I really stuck to my word on not telling anyone.”

Monica McNutt (left) and Sabrina Ionescu (right) discuss the design of the Nike Sabrina 1 during a Nike-hosted event on February 16 in Salt Lake City.

Nike Basketball

While working with the Nike team, Ionescu conducted informal focus groups, either at her two off-season basketball camps or following online feedback when new shoes were unveiled on Instagram.

“I’ve been super attentive with kids, and why they like a certain shoe,” she said. “Obviously, they didn’t know why I was really paying attention, but for me, it was insight on how I could create the best shoe possible for athletes to wear.”

Priced at $125 in adult sizes, her debut sneaker will also be launched in kids’ sizes.

Besides the footwear, the rollout will include a signature-branded hoodie, T-shirts, shorts and a crossbody satchel, an item Ionescu pushed for that’s often a part of her daily wardrobe. She picked out the materials for everything, looking to incorporate the brand’s Dri-Fit fabric to make each piece playable.

“She’s been so insightful and precise since we first started working together,” said Deepa Ramprasad, Nike footwear product director for men’s and women’s basketball.

The first trio of Sabrina 1 variations will be rolling out in a vibrant yellow “Spark” edition, a “Magnetic” execution that speaks to her ability to lead a team, and an “Ionic” theme that plays off of her last name. Shortly after, Nike will also make the Sabrina 1 available on its fully customizable website.

“We’re also doing Nike By You, so people will be able to create their own colorways, express themselves however they want and tell their own stories through the design and color of the shoe,” Ionescu said.

Of course, there will also be a batch of green and yellow colorways for her beloved Oregon Ducks teams, with the men’s and women’s teams receiving exclusive editions.

“I remember being there and picking from Kevin Durant’s shoe or LeBron’s shoe,” she said. “Now, knowing that my shoe is going to be inserted there for teams to be able to pick at Oregon is going to be special.”

With the spring and summer seasons nearing, the 27th WNBA season is expected to represent another leap in the league’s advancement toward providing teams and players with more resources, support, and a higher level of marketing and visibility. A year ago, the league held its first capital fundraising round, raising $75 million. Nike, the league’s official outfitter since 2018, was among the key investors, making a “significant equity investment,” according to the announcement.

“I wear Nike jerseys, and everything from head to toe is Nike on-court,” said Ionescu. “Just knowing how much Nike backs the WNBA and backs women’s sports, it just seems like a no-brainer to be able to partner with them and create something that’s going to change the landscape of women’s basketball.”

With a revamped New York Liberty roster now touting league MVPs Jonquel Jones and Stewart on the front line, the expectations are sky-high for a franchise that failed to reach .500 in the last three seasons.

“It’s exciting. I see a lot of people are calling us a superteam now,” Ionescu said. “But for me, it’s just a basketball team and we have to really make sure that the pieces fit. There’s going to have to be a lot of sacrifices. There are WNBA MVPs and All-Stars, and chemistry doesn’t build overnight, so it’ll be something that we have to work towards.”

It isn’t lost on Ionescu that she and “Stewie” will be the only two players among the league’s 12 teams to wear their new signature sneakers this season. 

“That’s something that I’ve talked to my GM about, that that could be a possibility before she was coming,” she said. “Having the only two players on the same team rocking their signature shoes, being now projected to be one of the top two teams in the league and potentially winning a championship, while doing it in New York – you just can’t put that into words.”

In joining that coveted community of athletes with their signature shoes, Ionescu understands the responsibility and impact that the launch of her Sabrina 1 sneaker can bring to the game.

“I want to continue to open the door for a lot of other female athletes to get signature shoes and be in this space,” she said. “I’m very blessed to be able to continue to do so, and continue to open the door for other generations to come.”

Nick DePaula is a footwear industry and lifestyle writer at Andscape. The Sacramento, California, native has been based in Portland, Oregon, for the last decade, a main hub of sneaker company headquarters. He’ll often argue that How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days is actually an underrated movie, largely because it’s the only time his Sacramento Kings have made the NBA Finals.