Sheryl Swoopes and the legacy of her signature shoe
Twenty-five years ago, the launch opened the path for more WNBA players to receive this prestigious honor
As the Tokyo Olympics came to a close over the weekend, the dominance of the U.S. women’s basketball team was on full display, continuing one of the greatest dynasties in sports with a seventh straight gold medal. It’s been a 25-year run of excellence that began with the 1996 roster which made its mark at the Summer Games in Atlanta.
When the current faces of the WNBA donned a special edition red USA uniform, featuring an unmistakable squiggly-lined collar design and stars down both the jersey and shorts, it was a tribute to the ’96 team that paved the way, and for professional women’s hoops.
To raise awareness around the team leading up to the 1996 Games in Atlanta, USA Basketball built out a yearlong calendar of open practices and exhibition games to showcase the skills of its stars.
When it came time to introduce No. 7, a smooth 6-foot scorer from Texas, there was one fact that stood out above them all: Sheryl Swoopes was the first woman to have a Nike signature shoe, the Air Swoopes.
Swoopes, now 50, vividly remembers the day, more than 25 years ago, that she laced up her signature shoe for the very first time.
“I was in the locker room, and there was a box,” she recalled with a smile of her first Team USA practice. “The box says ‘Air Swoopes’ on it, and I was actually trying to hide the box from my teammates seeing it.”
One by one, the other players laced up their Nike Force Strongs, Air Flight Ones, Converses and Reeboks in white and red hues, and met coach Tara VanDerveer out on the practice floor.
All except Swoopes.
“I didn’t know how they were going to react,” she said. “I waited till everyone was out of the locker room, and I pulled it out. I just wanted to take it in. … The players knew about it, but they hadn’t seen it on my feet.”
With one pull of each heel tab, Swoopes slid her feet into the Air Swoopes for the first time. She calls the tabs “the fingernail hold” – a design element she specifically requested to help get the shoes on, since she liked to play ball with long fingernails.
It was a moment Swoopes has looked back on often in the decades since, as that shoe, that team and the launch of the WNBA the following year would lay the foundation for a generation of female basketball players to come.
“I go out on the court, and I start warming up, and all of my teammates were like, ‘Oh! That is so dope!’ ” she said. “They all came over and checked out the shoe, and said, ‘Congrats, this is awesome.’
“Then Tara was like, ‘All right, that’s enough, let’s get to practice,’ ” Swoopes said, laughing.
With a bold red strap making for a recognizable court read, the shoe stood out right away on the floor.
“They were sweet. The Air Swoopes were really good-looking shoes,” said Olympic teammate Rebecca Lobo. “I just remember looking over at Sheryl like, ‘How cool is that?’ Like when she’s pulling up the tongue of her shoe, it’s got her name on it. It doesn’t get better than that.”
In 1995, only Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Penny Hardaway and Chris Webber had Nike signature shoes. The addition of Swoopes to that rarefied space came as Nike launched a nationwide marketing campaign to promote women’s sports.
But Swoopes’ inclusion was a long time coming. Not long after she dropped 47 points to lead Texas Tech to a national championship in the 1993 NCAA tournament – still the all-time finals scoring record – Nike came calling.
“One in three high school girls plays sports,” Liz Dolan, Nike’s vice president of marketing at the time, said in 1995. “But most women basketball players have bought men’s shoes believing they’re better. It’s not true, but people have that feeling. So we needed to make a women’s basketball shoe to make sure they’re viewed as equal.”
The WNBA followed with its own “We Got Next” campaign for its inaugural season the following year. Swoopes was the first player to sign with the new league.
Swoopes was a natural scorer on the floor, and was also known for her two-way play and all-around game.
“Sheryl was a household name. Sheryl’s game spoke for itself. Sheryl was most deserving of it,” said Olympics teammate Dawn Staley. “She was built like just an athlete. She looked like she could play any sport.”
“All I ever played in were men’s shoes,” Swoopes said. “The conversation initially was just, ‘What do you look for in a basketball shoe? … We’re thinking about designing a women’s basketball shoe, so that’s why we want your input.’ … Then, it went from that conversation, to, ‘And we’re thinking about naming it after you.’ In that moment, I lost it!”
Her two favorite players growing up were her older brother James, and Jordan. She knew of Air Jordans, of course, but she also knew just how impactful the first signature shoe for a woman could be.
“I screamed. I jumped up. For a minute, I was just quiet. I was speechless. I heard it, but I didn’t hear it,” she said of the instant roller coaster. “After that initial shock, I screamed, I jumped up and down, I cried, and I asked them several times, ‘Like, what does that mean?’ ”
Not only was it a matter of pride for Swoopes to be leading the way in the athletic industry, just as important was having the shoe be created by a female designer, Marni Gerber.
“Marni will forever be a special person in my life,” said Swoopes. “Marni is the design diva, the design diva queen. She allowed me to be a part of the process every step of the way.”
Over the next year, Swoopes would meet with Gerber and the Nike team in Portland, Oregon, while Gerber ventured south to Lubbock, Texas, learning about Swoopes’ upbringing, meeting her family and friends, and looking to layer her personal style and tastes into what would become a long-term signature series.
“She was not a girly girl,” said Gerber. “She was tough and needed her shoe to be agile and responsive, so that is what we designed.”
Swoopes didn’t want to get trapped into the industry’s then-default approach to “shrink it and pink it,” a longtime industry term used to describe the women’s shoemaking process.
“When we started designing and talking about colors, I said, ‘I don’t want to do your typical pink, white, yellow,’ ” recalled Swoopes. “Those are considered girly colors. I’m very simple. Give me black, white, red.”
From the first Air Swoopes, all the way to her seventh model, the series featured Nike’s newest technologies and innovations, splashing in everything from patent leather and molded support elements to everything from Air Max, Zoom Air and Tuned Air on the cushioning side.
After Swoopes led the way in 1995, additional women’s signature shoes would soon follow for Nike athletes, including Lisa Leslie (1998), Staley and Cynthia Cooper (1999). Reebok launched “The Lobo” for the New York Liberty star center, and Fila signed Nikki McCray to a signature shoe deal as well.
“Sheryl Swoopes was the first. And I wanted to be the second,” said Cooper, who won the first four WNBA championships alongside Swoopes. “If I wasn’t the second, I wanted to be the third. Then I said, ‘I just wanna be a part of the club.’ It was amazing to see Nike invest in women in such a strong way.”
Over the years, nine WNBA players have had their own signature sneaker, as Washington Mystics star Chamique Holdsclaw launched her own Nike Shox Miques in the early 2000s, Diana Taurasi received her signature Nike DTs in the mid-2000s, and Candace Parker became the first and only female signature basketball athlete with Adidas in the late 2000s.
A decadelong WNBA drought of new signature shoes spanned the 2010s though, building anticipation across the league and industry over who would be the next athlete to be added to such a select group.
After signing with Puma in May, Seattle Storm star Breanna Stewart announced that she would be the 10th player to receive her own shoe as part of a multiyear deal. The shoe, perhaps dubbed the “Stewie 1,” is expected to be released in 2022.
“Anytime you hear signature, I think that’s jaw-dropping, eye-opening, especially on the women’s side,” Stewart said. “For Puma to be able to put the signature element out there, and respect me enough where they think that I deserve a signature shoe, is something that’s superexciting.”
Stewart said she hopes the race to more signature shoes for WNBA players “becomes a little bit of a competitive thing and then turns into a domino effect,” with brands across the industry all declaring their own signature stars. In comparison, there are more than 20 current NBA players with signature shoes across nine different brands.
Swoopes is more hopeful that now is the right time for a resurgence in signature representation, much like her first Air Swoopes kick-started the launch of female-headlined pairs throughout the 1990s.
“When you’re the first, you can never really top that,” said Swoopes. “But I think it can even be bigger though, only from the standpoint of people now know about the WNBA. Also, with women being so much into sneakers, just like the men are, I can just see it being even bigger today than it was back in ’95.”
Additional reporting was contributed by Aaron Dodson.