In Her Shoes: Unlacing my Nike Air Swoopes

Sheryl Swoopes during a Team USA photo shoot in 1994. Tony Duffy/Getty Images

In celebration of Women's History Month, espnW presents "In Her Shoes," a series of essays and features highlighting women, their journeys and perspectives on sports.

When Sheryl Swoopes laced up her Nike Air Swoopes to earn the gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and again to win the inaugural WNBA championship the next year, there were girls across the nation lacing up their Air Swoopes along with her.

They no longer had to try to be like Mike because the potential to be like Swoopes was a reality. A woman had gone pro, and like Mike, this woman -- Sheryl Swoopes -- now had her name on her very own Nike basketball shoe. For girls, it was now possible to play ball and get the kind of endorsements that cemented a professional career.

Ten years after the WNBA was formed in 1996, I was a 17-year-old ballplayer who'd competed on my elementary, middle, church, AAU and now high school teams in Louisville, Kentucky, a state with a special relationship to the game of basketball. After each eight-hour school day, I lined up, with 12 other black girls, toes to the baseline.

We were all delirious endorphins and descending heart rates. Our black and yellow practice jerseys stuck to our thick parts. The scent of chemicals from our hair relaxers mixed with sweat rose around us. The squeaks of our Nike Air Swoopes ghosted across the glossy wood floor. As the signature basketball on the tongue of Swoopes' eponymous sneaker spun, we waited to run.

We were going through things. No one understood a 16-year-old black girl. Somewhere, Sheryl was crouched like us, flame-eyed, ready for whatever. Somewhere, she was getting called "mean," too, by people who didn't understand that to be mean meant to survive. The world had been mean. Like her, we learned to use that, to turn rage into athletic creativity, into a cool dynamism on the court, to create what we'd been through -- the seemingly impossible, the impenetrable.

After three hours of practice on an easy day, our three coaches -- the only men in the gymnasium -- held their breath around the whistles, training us when to react and when not to. Our knees bent in anticipation. Thirty seconds up on the clock. By then we were covered in three layers of sweat, long since dried, from being called into a play -- hustling and cutting, driving and blocking out, elbows to the neck and nails across skin -- then banished to the sideline, with a jammed finger or swollen ankle, where we waited, cooled down, drifted into thoughts of our girlhood predicaments, where we stood menstruating and aching, chanting and crying, and most alive.

When the whistle blew, we sprinted against time. First to the free throw line, then back, then to half court and back, to the far free throw line and back, to the opposite end and back. Suicides. We ran against an idea. The idea that as athletes we didn't matter, that what we did didn't fit neatly into femininity -- that we should give up and do normal black girl things, like get a job at McDonald's, babysit, or try out for the step team. For us -- girls who played basketball at our Southern city's all-black high school -- we beat that idea for three hours every day, and we had Sheryl as motivation. She had made it out of Brownfield, Texas, a place that looked like ours, a place where we were supposed to fail at school and basketball. A place full of people who no one was ever supposed to know existed.

The boys can do it in 8 seconds! Our coaches yelled each time we crossed the final line. We smiled our so-what smiles. We beat the clock. Deep down we knew we could beat the boys, too, if we really wanted to. No breath left for speech, we lumbered to the locker room. The showers hadn't worked for years, or maybe the pipes were unsafe, so we put our coats on over our sticky skin and left out into the cold air, electric-pored, to catch our bus home.

For some of us, home was straight to bed hungry, dreams of rectangle pizza at lunch the next day. A hand where it didn't belong in the night. Or a wide-eyed newborn with no intention of sleeping. But Sheryl had just finished her 10th year in the WNBA and was also moving into her 10th year of motherhood. She'd been the first to be named WNBA MVP three times, WNBA Defensive Player of the Year three times, and to score a triple-double in a playoff game, all while raising her son. She set the standard for us.

Basketball was our drive and our refuge. A refuge from news that a picture of our body, one we didn't know existed, was being passed around school. Refuge from the rumors that we did things girls weren't supposed to do, like love one another. Refuge from home when home was a fistfight on the block before we got to our front door, or one behind the door from a mother whose Newport-green thumbs bloomed only bruises.

We were going through things. No one understood black girls. Except for Sheryl. She was there when we unlaced our shoes at the end of each day. When we took them off our feet, the basketball on our tongues kept spinning.