The complete history of signature sneakers in the WNBA
Since the league’s debut 25 years ago, nine women have laced up a shoe bearing their names. Here are their stories.
Rebecca Lobo tried. But even she couldn’t remember the entire list.
In April, before the start of the WNBA’s 25th anniversary season, the retired hoops legend-turned-broadcaster took on a trivia question most can’t answer:
Who are the nine players in WNBA history who had a signature basketball sneaker?
“I’m surprised there’s only nine,” Lobo told The Undefeated. “Sheryl [Swoopes], obviously. I had one. … Did Dawn Staley have one? … Lisa Leslie … Cynthia Cooper … Diana Taurasi … Oh! Nikki McCray! And … [Chamique] Holdsclaw.
“I’m still missing one. There hasn’t been one in a while, right?”
Back in 1995, two years before making her debut in the WNBA’s inaugural season, Swoopes became the first woman in sports history to get a shoe bearing her name: the Nike Air Swoopes. Following Swoopes came Lobo with Reebok, Leslie, Staley, Cooper, Holdsclaw and Taurasi with Nike, and McCray with Fila.
The ninth? Candace Parker, whose signature “Ace” line with Adidas was launched in 2008. Now in her 14th season, Parker has laced up three signatures throughout her career, with her last shoe — the Adidas Ace — was released in 2012.
“It really surprises me that it’s almost been 10 years since we’ve seen a woman with a signature shoe,” Lobo said. “I’m buying my own daughters multiple pairs of basketball sneakers every year. … Certainly, if there was a women’s signature shoe, that’s the one they would want. It just doesn’t seem like it makes sense in terms of a share of the marketplace.”
Soon, there will finally be another WNBA player with her own shoe. In mid-May, two-time Finals MVP Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm signed a multiyear endorsement deal with Puma after being with Nike for the first five years of her career. The new partnership will make Stewart just the 10th signature athlete in league history. By comparison, there are currently 20 players in the NBA right now with their own shoe.
“Anytime you hear ‘signature,’ I think that’s jaw-dropping, eye-opening, especially on the women’s side,” Stewart told ESPN. “There haven’t been many.”
While Stewart and Puma embark upon the 18- to 24-month design process for her debut shoe, we tracked down the nine women who came before her to tell their sneaker stories.
As the playoffs begin in the league’s 25th season, here is a comprehensive history of WNBA signature shoes.
SHERYL SWOOPES / Nike Air Swoopes 1-7 (1995-2002)
It all started with a 6-foot, pure-scoring player from Brownfield, Texas.
In April 1993, Swoopes led the Texas Tech Lady Raiders to a national championship, dropping an NCAA tournament title record of 47 points (it still stands). That performance placed Swoopes at the pinnacle of the sport, leading Nike to sign her to an endorsement deal right out of college.
There’s an old questionnaire, kept in the archives of Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, that Swoopes, then 22, filled out the year she joined the brand. On the piece of paper, Swoopes crossed out one of the questions and wrote her own: What advice would you give someone?
“Always,” she wrote and underlined, “aim high and reach for the stars. Anything is possible if you only believe.”
Yet Swoopes said she never imagined getting a signature shoe, let alone becoming the first woman in sports history to do so.
“When Nike first approached me, they didn’t come at me and say, ‘Hey, we want to give you your own shoe,’ ” Swoopes recalled. “It was more of a conversation surrounding basketball shoes. Back then, there were no women’s basketball shoes.”
Swoopes shared with Nike exactly what she, as an elite player, needed out of a performance sneaker.
“I always knew what was important to me in a shoe,” Swoopes said. “I wanted it to be comfortable and not heavy. It had to have really good ankle support … and I wanted it to look good.”
As Nike gathered Swoopes’ insights, the brand revealed its master plan to her: “We’re thinking about calling it the Nike Air Swoopes,” she remembered hearing from Nike. Even sweeter: Her shoe would be crafted by a female designer, Marni Gerber. “Knowing that Nike was going to design a women’s shoe and call it the Air Swoopes — that was a pretty special moment.”
The Nike Air Swoopes released at retail in October 1995, beginning a signature line that included seven silhouettes. No WNBA player has more models than Swoopes. And in 2018, when Nike brought back the Air Swoopes II, she became the first woman to have a shoe retroed.
“I was never that kid that said, ‘I’m going to have my own shoe.’ That just wasn’t something I thought was even possible,” Swoopes said. “When I think about it, I understand how big of a moment that was. Not just for me, but for so many young girls and women coming after me.”
— Aaron Dodson
REBECCA LOBO / Reebok Lobo (1997)
“Coach [Geno] Auriemma told me, ‘Reebok is interested in signing you,’ ” Lobo remembered. “He said, ‘I think you need to get an agent.’ ”
It was the spring of 1995, and Auriemma’s University of Connecticut women’s basketball team had just won an NCAA title to complete a perfect 35-0 season, during which the Huskies were sponsored by Reebok. After Lobo was named the unanimous national player of the year, she skipped her college graduation to try out for Team USA. A month before she made the roster for the 1996 Olympics, Lobo traveled to Reebok’s headquarters in Stoughton, Massachusetts, where she signed a deal with the brand, fittingly, in a building full of young girls on Take Your Daughter to Work Day.
“I remember my agent saying, ‘Reebok doesn’t have any other women’s basketball players. … This is the way to go for you,’ ” Lobo recalled. “Their first offer wasn’t for a ton of money. But I said to my agent, ‘It’s enough for me to buy a used car! I’ve never owned a car before.’ ”
Not only did Lobo’s agent negotiate a more lucrative contract, he secured a commitment from the brand to deliver her a signature shoe.
“Reebok had an ad campaign called ‘The Promise,’ ” Lobo said. “It was an ad in magazines, on T-shirts. Basically, ‘I’m a promise you made to yourself when you were a little kid and I’m coming true.’ That was their thing and they wanted to name the shoe ‘The Promise.’ ”
When the company couldn’t get the original name cleared legally, the sneaker became a true signature, named after the athlete who inspired the design.
“Reebok ended up saying, ‘We’re just gonna go with the name ‘The Lobo.’ I was like, ‘Even better.’ ”
After Team USA won gold, Lobo became one of the first three players to join and headline the newly formed WNBA. Swoopes went to Houston, Leslie went to Los Angeles and Lobo started her pro career in the league’s biggest market with the New York Liberty. She cherishes a memory of seeing “The Lobo” at a store in New York City, around the time she debuted the shoe in the WNBA’s inaugural game in 1997.
“I walked by a Lady Foot Locker,” Lobo recalled. “They were the exclusive place you could get my shoe. I remember seeing a banner of me and they also had these 5×7 postcards, with me holding up the shoe. … When I was a kid, I loved to walk by sneaker stores or walk in. I didn’t have a lot of money to get them but was just checking stuff out. So, I just remember seeing the display and being like, ‘That’s really, really cool.’ ”
— Aaron Dodson
LISA LESLIE / Nike Total Air 9 (1998)
When the Los Angeles Times reported that Leslie was being assigned to the WNBA’s new Los Angeles franchise in late 1996, it didn’t highlight the fact that she was a former USC standout who had once scored 101 points in a high school game. Instead, the paper called her a “promising young fashion runway model from Inglewood.”
At 6-foot-5, Leslie was one of the most dominant players in league history, the first woman to dunk in a WNBA game and a member of the 1996 women’s Olympic team. Off the floor, Leslie had been signed to the renowned Wilhelmina modeling agency before she signed with the Sparks.
After Swoopes’ groundbreaking first signature shoe was released in the lead-up to the 1996 Games, Nike selected Leslie as its second signature athlete.
Most of the women involved in the design of their shoes first stressed performance elements. Leslie, however, brought a whole new flavor to the sneaker game.
“I patterned my shoe after Chanel, ’cause I couldn’t afford Chanel back in the day,” she said with a laugh. “So I wanted my Nike shoe to have a little Chanel puff on it.”
With a quilted black leather upper reminiscent of the French designer’s multithousand-dollar handbags, Leslie’s Total Air 9 model also featured Nike’s then-groundbreaking Total Air Max unit in full-length form.
“I always wear silver jewelry, so it had the silver swoosh on there,” she added. “It had my touch on there.”
At $140, it was also the highest-priced signature shoe of the ’90s era of women’s models. Nike launched the shoes with a TV commercial dubbed Little Rascals, featuring Leslie getting playing advice from three young girls at the mall.
Decades later, high fashion brands regularly collaborate with athletic brands, but Leslie’s insight to incorporate luxury details was ahead of the curve.
“I appreciate Nike allowing me to be a part of the process, because you hear people talk about [not being involved], and I really helped design that shoe,” she said. “I loved it and I was really thankful.”
After a 12-year career with the Sparks, Leslie retired in 2009 as the league’s all-time leader in both points and rebounds. Being part of that select signature sneaker group is a point of pride all these years later.
“It was awesome,” she said. “To have your own shoes, who wouldn’t want that? It’s what dreams are made of.”
— Nick DePaula
DAWN STALEY / Nike Zoom S5 and S5 II (1998-99)
Staley traveled to the Nike headquarters in the mid-’90s to attend a meeting on marketing female athletes. The company had gathered its brand reps and women’s basketball endorsers to discuss culture and sneakers.
Different models of performance footwear made their way around the room for feedback, and the lifelong sneakerhead in Staley took over. In her mind, this session was the moment she earned her signature shoe.
“Growing up in the projects of North Philly, I was just so up on shoes,” said Staley, now the coach of the University of South Carolina women’s basketball team. “I didn’t really care what I looked like from my ankles up, as long as ankles down were nice, new and clean. … And I think that came off as supercool to Nike … authentic.”
Staley didn’t officially debut the Nike Zoom S5 until her first WNBA season in 1999, having started her pro career with a two-year stint in the American Basketball League (ABL). However, during the design process of her shoe, she took a sample pair to a blacktop court in Philadelphia, where in 1996, Nike commissioned a 67-by-100-foot mural of the future signature athlete.
“The prototype probably wasn’t wearable but, yeah, I took ’em back to my ’hood to get some feedback,” Staley recalled. “Nobody had a bad thing to say about it, because I think they were all in awe that I actually had a signature shoe.”
The S5, crafted with a supportive strap system, stabilizing molded carbon fiber and Zoom Air-cushioned soles, looked like a pair of gloves and, at Staley’s request, fit like them, too.
“I wanted a leather shoe that had a little shine to it,” she said. “Not too high or too low … a good height where I could maneuver. But I couldn’t have a lot of movement in my shoe. I needed that tightness. I got the most out of my game with that feel on my feet.”
Staley speaks of her shoe with great pride, and a bold proclamation about its place in the history of women’s basketball sneakers.
“I think my shoe was the flyest of them all,” she said. “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.
“The Zoom S5 was a beautiful shoe. Nike needs to bring that thing back.”
— Aaron Dodson
CYNTHIA COOPER / Nike Air C14 (1999)
In the late ’90s, the Houston Comets built the first dynasty of the WNBA. And during their run to four straight championships, the Houston Chronicle published a weekly Q&A series called Coop’s Scoop, with the squad’s leader, Cynthia Cooper.
“Why don’t you have a sneaker bearing your name?” read a question submitted to the newspaper in late August 1997, nine days before the Comets played in the first title game in WNBA history.
“Currently, I’m under contract with Nike, but I do not have my own shoe,” Cooper responded. “Every basketball player has dreams of … having his or her own shoe. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll get that shoe.”
Cooper, now the coach of the Texas Southern University women’s team, recalled her journey to achieving that goal.
“I feel like I played my way into a signature shoe from Nike,” said Cooper, who entered the WNBA as a virtually unknown 34-year-old rookie after playing 10 seasons in Spain and Italy. From 1997 to 2000, Cooper was named WNBA MVP twice and Finals MVP four times. Following Cooper’s first season in the WNBA, Nike restructured her deal and put her on track for a signature.
In 1998, when she averaged a career-high 22.7 points a game, Cooper headlined a model called the Nike Air Max Shake ’Em Up that she promoted in the brand’s Little Rascals commercials, featuring young actress Kyla Pratt.
“In my mind, the Air Shake ’Em Up was my first signature shoe,” Cooper said. “I know it wasn’t technically … but, man, I loved that shoe.”
Cooper wasn’t the only one who regarded it as her first shoe. Her mother, Mary Cobbs, was surely proud.
“You had to see my mom … walking around in the Air Shake ’Em Up,” Cooper recalled. “She wore my shoes around the house. She had to represent. She was like, ‘My daughter has her own shoe!’ ”
Cobbs knew Cooper had an official signature on the way, though she never got to see it. Cooper’s mother died from breast cancer in February 1999, six months before the Aug. 1 release of the Nike Air C14. Less than two weeks after it dropped, Cooper’s best friend and Comets teammate Kim Perrot died from brain and lung cancer at age 32.
“3 for 10” is the phrase, a nod to Perrot’s jersey number, that the Comets used to rally their run to a third straight championship. In September 1999, Houston completed that quest, with Cooper named Finals MVP.
“That year I wore the C14s will always stand out in my mind,” she said. “I had ‘Mom’ and ‘10’ written on my shoe … after I had lost two people who were very special to me. So that shoe is memorable.”
— Aaron Dodson
NIKKI MCCRAY / Fila Nikki Delta (1999)
When the WNBA expanded by two teams in 1998, adding one franchise in Detroit and another in Washington, speedy scoring guard Nikki McCray became the first player signed to the Washington Mystics. At that same time, her Converse shoe deal was set to expire. She had signed that deal ahead of the 1996 Games and her lone 1997 season in the ABL, where she became the rival league’s first MVP.
Fila came calling, looking to complement the success it was having at the time with Grant Hill’s signature series on the men’s side. The company offered a deal worth $1 million, and guaranteed McCray her own signature shoe.
“For me, it was about the impact,” she said. “I recognized how Sheryl’s shoe really impacted the lives of young girls and boys. It was amazing. … It was just so inspiring, because you saw the trends changing.”
McCray was the first of three former Tennessee players, including Holdsclaw and Parker, to receive her own sneaker in the WNBA, and she was the only woman to receive a signature shoe with Fila. McCray was heavily involved in the design of her “Nikki Delta” model.
“I wanted it to be my personality and just have my flavor,” she said. “One of the things was I was really fast, so there’s a little flame on the shoe. My number was 15 … I had a 15 on the bottom, so every time you stepped, you saw the 15.”
Her name was also on the insole, and the shoe was made in both white and red to link with the Team USA unis she donned in 1998, as well as in white, blue and gold hues to match the Mystics’ debut jerseys. She remembers that first game in her Deltas well.
“It was an amazing feeling to finally put my signature shoe on in a game,” she said. “You got your uniform on, then you got your shoes on, and it was one of those things where you just feel like you’ve arrived. It was just that feeling of, ‘Wow! I’ve got Nikki McCray shoes on. Is this real?’ ”
Besides giving her input on the design throughout the process, one of the most important points for McCray was making sure her shoe was released in both women’s and men’s sizes.
She recalls a “line of thousands” wrapping around the block at Fila’s official “Nikki Delta” launch event in Washington, where she met with fans and signed autographs for hours as the first face of the league’s newest franchise.
“It was little girls, it was families and it was little boys, and that’s what it’s about,” she said, smiling. “It’s about the impact that it gives little girls hope.”
— Nick DePaula
CHAMIQUE HOLDSCLAW / Nike Shox BB4 Mique and Shox Mique (2001-02)
As Holdsclaw headed into her senior season at Tennessee after a three-peat of NCAA titles, Slam magazine made her the first woman to appear on its cover. The editors didn’t hold back, declaring: Is The NBA Ready For Chamique Holdsclaw?
The expectations for the 6-foot-2 scorer were outsize. She was one of the most decorated college players of the decade and capped off her senior year with another sweep of every national player of the year award.
With the WNBA heading into its third season, Holdsclaw was unsurprisingly selected No. 1 overall by the Mystics in the 1999 draft. A bidding war between Nike and Adidas followed, sparking what her agent claimed to be the biggest women’s shoe deal at the time — “by far.”
With six women having received signature shoes before her, Holdsclaw was touted as the star who would carry the league into the next decade. Nike guaranteed her a signature shoe, an apparel line and a series of marketing campaigns that would be released after a yearlong design process in 2001.
“I was just so excited,” she recalled. “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.”
Unlike the first wave of female signature athletes, Holdsclaw believed that having her own shoe was a realistic goal, since she had laced up Swoopes’ and Staley’s signature kicks just a few years before.
“In my opinion, out of all of the shoes I’ve ever tried, the Swoopes shoe, I just think Nike did an amazing job,” she said. “I love that shoe.”
While the Swoopes, Leslie and Staley models touted Nike’s Air Max and Zoom Air cushioning units, the brand wanted to have Holdsclaw headline its next generation technology of the 2000s: Shox.
Before Holdsclaw’s rookie season, designers met with her to talk through concepts and ideas, drawing inspiration from the power of rockets for the moon crater design details on the side of the shoe and a mix of white leather and navy nubuck. The tongue featured her “H” logo front and center.
“That was a part of my game,” she said. “I made an impact, but I was also very smooth with it. I loved it!”
Priced at $150, the “Shox BB4 Mique” is the most expensive woman’s signature shoe. It dropped after her WNBA Rookie of the Year season and she wore it throughout her third season in the league.
“I knew so many guys in D.C. that were like, ‘Yo, if I can fit them, I’m getting those Holdsclaws,’ ” she said proudly. “You would see guys walking around D.C. in my shoe.”
Although the Shox Mique II was released the following season, it’s the first model that left a lasting impression on Holdsclaw.
“I remember that moment. I remember motions,” she said. “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!’ ”
— Nick DePaula
DIANA TAURASI / Nike Air Taurasi and Shox DT (2005-06)
Of the Nike headliners over the last decade, most fans remember the player exclusive and limited-edition colorways worn by Sue Bird, Elena Delle Donne and Taurasi. Few recall that Taurasi once had her own signature sneaker — two models, in fact — and was the last WNBA player to have a Nike signature shoe.
After being drafted No. 1 overall in 2004, Taurasi hit the ground running with the Phoenix Mercury, winning rookie of the year honors before being named a WNBA All-Star 10 times.
Nike awarded Taurasi the rare distinction of her own signature series right away, creating the Air Taurasi for her second season in 2005 — with a bit of a twist. Original promotional posters showed Air Max Taurasi design renderings featuring a full-length Air Max unit, although the version that would be released at retail only featured a heel Air unit and was priced at less than $100.
Nevertheless, Taurasi would go on to wear the full-length Air Max in a series of player exclusive colorways throughout the 2005 season that never saw an eventual release and would’ve likely been priced at $150. With a “DT3” logo along the collar and “Taurasi” text on the toe, the lower-priced sneaker released in a UConn-centric white, navy and red edition, along with an all-white look.
The following year, Taurasi switched technologies, with Nike releasing her Shox DT in a variety of team colors for female hoopers, priced at $100. With less signature detailing, the shoe included “Taurasi” along the insole.
After wearing the Air Force 25 in 2007, the three-time champion and former WNBA MVP has been wearing player exclusive editions of LeBron James’ annual signature series ever since, beginning with the LeBron 6 in 2008, up to the LeBron 18 in Taurasi’s 17th season this year.
Though it’s been well over a decade since the last release of her own signature model, earlier this summer, Taurasi enjoyed a new release in her honor. Celebrating her Italian and Argentinian heritage, a black, tan, red and green edition of the LeBron 18 was released, dubbed La Cabra (Spanish for “The GOAT,” the greatest of all time). A logo with a goat inside a basketball could be found on the shoe’s tongue and insole, with a series of additional celebratory phrases also found in Spanish along the heel.
— Nick DePaula
CANDACE PARKER / Adidas Ace Commander and Ace Versatility (2010-11)
The last WNBA player to release a signature shoe, Parker always knew to dream big at a young age.
“Your entire goal when you’re out hooping in your front yard or when you go to the park, is to have your own shoe,” she said. “There are so many people, that when I was growing up, I’d tell them, ‘I’m going to have my own shoe.’ They would say, ‘Well, girls don’t do that.’ ”
She had an answer ready, every time.
“I’m like, ‘Well, good thing I’m not a girl. I’m a woman — so we’re going to do this,’ ” she said.
One of the most touted college prospects to enter the league, Parker landed a long-term deal with Adidas in 2008 after leaving the Adidas-sponsored Lady Vols, opting for three stripes over the swoosh, along with the promise of a signature shoe.
“It was like a perfect storm and we really matched,” she said. “They really wanted to make that dream become a reality.”
Drafting off of the last three letters of her first name (she’d often have to correct people on the spelling), the brand launched her series under the “Ace” nickname. Her logo incorporated a swooping 3 for her jersey number, which also reads as a heart when tilted.
“It’s not a king, it’s not a queen, and there’s no gender with an Ace,” she said. “It’s about the person and the human being.”
Beginning in 2010, Adidas went on to release two “Ace” signature shoes for Parker, who requested elements such as a support strap, and a multicolored outsole inspired by her love for Skittles on her first shoe, the Ace Commander. Her second shoe, the Ace Versatility, featured an intricate stitch pattern along the collar that also spelled out “Ace.”
“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,” she said.
Now a full decade removed from the last retail release of her Ace line, Parker has been wearing player exclusives of Adidas’ newest basketball sneakers in each season since. After 13 seasons in Los Angeles, her first trip to the playoffs with the Chicago Sky will coincide with a launch featuring her Ace logo.
The brand is releasing three colorways of the exhibit A sneaker inspired by Parker, with added logos, details and storytelling throughout.
“I feel like every part of my life has been represented in the shoes, from my Tennessee days to Naperville, out to LA and then back home again,” she said.
The gray colorway represents the concrete under the basketball hoop at her childhood home where she’d learned to play the game with her father. Black and gold honors her decorated career, with highlights including an Olympic gold medal and WNBA championship.
The vivid orange edition honors her time at Tennessee. Every pair includes her daughter Lailaa’s name on the underside of one tongue, with “For Pat” under the other tongue, a nod to her college coach Pat Summitt. A familiar calming phrase from Summitt that Parker also has tattooed on her right forearm — “Left Foot. Right Foot. Breathe. Repeat” — can be found on the insole.
On the heel tab, a childhood mantra drafting off of her name serves as added inspiration.
“I had two older brothers that were great at everything,” she recalled. “I remember I would doubt myself. My mom would say, ‘Can do!’ ”
Considering the decadelong drought in the creation of women’s signature sneakers, having player exclusive editions of a new Adidas basketball shoe released at retail marks a major step toward the potential return of yet another Ace signature model.
“It’s really special, and I do believe in women’s sports and I do believe in women’s power in selling,” she said. “To see this come to light and see all that’s come since in the 10 years in between, it means a lot to me.”
— Nick DePaula
Coming tomorrow, the Signature Roundtable: The players discuss how they found out they were getting a signature shoe, its meaning for the current generation and their favorite memories.