SneakerCenter: Sheryl Swoopes on being the first woman to have a signature athletic shoe

Sheryl Swoopes remembers buying a young fan Air Swoopes (1:16)

Sheryl Swoopes reflects on her first trip to Lady Foot Locker to see her Nike Air Swoopes on the shelf and how a young fan's affection impacted her life. To catch full episodes of SneakerCenter, sign up for ESPN+ at https://plus.espn.com. (1:16)

Editor's note: This story was originally published on October 22, 2019.

In 1995, Sheryl Swoopes -- the first woman signed to the WNBA in 1996 -- became the first woman to have a signature athletic shoe.

The Nike Air Swoopes were developed with function and style in mind. The original design featured a strap on the back of the sneaker. The strap was installed to assist wearers with pulling the sneaker on without damaging their nails. The kicks were sleek, had a futuristic aesthetic and were topped off with clean lines. They were light, offered great ankle support and moved across the court with ease.

The Air Swoopes inspired a generation of girls to get into the game. Finally, they could lace up and walk onto the court and aspire to play like the woman whose name was attached to their favorite sneakers.

"My hope is that it opened doors for young girls," Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer Swoopes, 49, said. "It's important that I continue to be that light that little girls can look at and say, 'Look at where she came from and look at where she's been and look at where she's going."

Other early WNBA greats like Lisa Leslie, Rebecca Lobo and Dawn Staley soon followed, garnering signature lines. Fast forward to the present, and not a single current WNBA player has a signature sneaker line. Yes, there have been kicks that honor the greatness of women athletes, like the Maya Moore x Nike Air Jordans -- but those are often limited collections that fall under established signature lines.

Swoopes sat down with SneakerCenter for a "Special Edition" segment to discuss her love of basketball, her many firsts and how her signature line went from dream to reality. The former Houston Comets player's episode can be found on ESPN+.

The below is excerpted from the transcript of the SneakerCenter interview.

espnW: What made you fall in love with basketball?

Sheryl Swoopes: I grew up in the very small town of [Brownfield, Texas]. Basketball was my life. That's what I did. My mom was so strict. For me to leave the house, I had to say I was going to play basketball with my brothers. Which I really was doing, and that's how I got started.

I started playing when I was 7. There was something about that round ball that just drew me to it. I don't know what it was -- the competition, the excitement [or] just me being able to be me.

My oldest brother James then went on to college and played basketball. He got a scholarship, and I saw how proud my mom was, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I wanted to be the next one. I wanted to make [my mom] proud.

Unfortunately, I never got an opportunity to watch women play on TV [growing up]. I didn't know women could do this. So I watched Michael Jordan. Anytime the Bulls were playing, I had to find a way to get in front of the TV. I tried to take things from his game, emulate them, and put those into my game. He became my basketball role model.

espnW: Then came 1997, and league play began for the WNBA.

SS: I was the first player to sign with the WNBA. It was important to be a part of the first season. But I'll rewind a little bit. When I found out I was pregnant (Swoopes formally announced the pregnancy in early 1997), my first thought was, "Oh, my gosh, I'm going to be a mom." Because I'd always wanted that.

My second thought was, "But, I'm letting the league down." The league had done all of this marketing and hype around me being the first player, and now I'm pregnant.

I didn't tell anybody the news until the third trimester. After I had that conversation with the league, then I had a conversation with Nike.

And they [the league and Nike], were so supportive and said, "You do what you got to do. Take your time. We'll be here for you."

I had my son (Jordan Jackson). He was healthy. And I was healthy. It was important to me to be a part of that first season. I did everything to get back in shape. I don't swim, but I got in the pool. I was back out there.

I was just happy that I was able to come back and sit on the bench. I got out there maybe four or five minutes at a time. But I was a part of it.

espnW: Leading up to the WNBA being founded in 1996, you hit accolade after accolade. In '93, you won the NCAA women's basketball championship with Texas Tech. And in '95 your Nike Air Swoopes dropped, ahead of you and Team USA winning gold at the Atlanta Games in '96.

SS: I feel like God put me in the right place at the right time. I can't even sit here and tell you that I had a dream growing up to have my own shoe someday. And to be the first female. I know it's real, but it doesn't seem real.

It's just such an amazing feeling to sit back today and watch the growth of the game. And I think of how many of the [current] WNBA players that deserve a shoe.

espnW: Your sneaker was designed by Marni Gerber, a senior design director at Nike. What was the design process like?

SS: Marni will forever be a special person in my life. Marni is the design diva, the design diva queen. She allowed me to be a part of the process every step of the way. The first [iteration] of Swoopes had a strap on them. And here's what maybe a lot of women can appreciate, especially women with fingernails. I did play with nails, by the way. But the sneaker had this thing. I call it the fingernail hold [on the back of it]. So, if I'm putting the shoe on, and it's a struggle, it would make it a lot easier to get it on. (The strap is not featured on later editions of the Air Swoopes.)

And every shoe had very good ankle support. That was the one thing that was always important to me because, for whatever reason, I never had a serious injury when I played until I started getting older. But my ankle, I would always like roll an ankle, I wore two pairs of socks. I wore ankle braces. I wore tape. And when we started talking about the design of the shoe, I always wanted it to have very good ankle support.

And the idea behind putting "Swoopes" on the bottom of the shoe -- that was all Marni. It was as if she was saying, "Well, that's just so we can kind of be in your face." And it said Air Swoopes on the tongue; that was so sweet to me.