Throughout the past decade, the Phoenix Mercury have honored some of the most accomplished and groundbreaking female figures from the worlds of business, sports, politics and beyond during their annual Woman Of Inspiration Night.
Past honorees have included the likes of Robin Roberts, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Mo'ne Davis and Holly Rowe. On Tuesday, new WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert will be the latest of a list of diverse women to be honored for her trailblazing business career.
"More than any other league, ours is about more than just the game we are playing," said Vince Kozar, Mercury COO. "It's about diversity, inclusion, widening the circle of acceptance and participation, and uplifting the stories of women who are doing great things on and off the court."
For the first time, the team will be taking things a step further, as each Mercury player plans to acknowledge and highlight the women who have inspired her journey, through a series of specially designed, custom, hand-painted sneakers. According to Kozar, the genesis of the concept was borrowed from the pitch and another set of inspirational female athletes.
"I was blown away by the US Women's National Soccer Team this past year wearing jerseys with the names of women who have inspired them on the back," he said. "We know the women of the WNBA inspire the next generation every day, but I don't think here in Phoenix we've ever given our players a platform to talk about the women who inspire them."
Rather than replicate the jersey idea, the franchise tapped local artist Zoe Ruff, who has worked on custom sneakers under the "Ruff Customs" name for Phoenix Suns and Mercury players in recent years and began customizing her own shoes in middle school.
The project has been in the works for months, as Ruff, a 23-year-old former high school player from the Phoenix area, began working on the "Women of Inspiration" shoes in May. Players provided pairs of the shoes they wanted painted and submitted a list of the women, insights, details and quotes that have inspired them. Ruff spent around five hours on the detailed artwork atop each pair, and the shoes were given to the players this weekend.
"Being able to help them express who they are through what's important to them -- their kids or the place they grew up or a musical artist or a civil rights leader or a Supreme Court justice -- that is an incredible way to storytell," Kozar said.
Every player on the Mercury squad wears Nike sneakers, though the designs of the signature shoes and Hyperdunks took on a variety of depth and storytelling. While the NBA only last season lifted its longtime footwear color restrictions, the WNBA has long been a leader in that space, having encouraged its players for several seasons to go as loud and bright as they'd like.
"I love that the medium we are using is shoes," Kozar said. "A lot of times, those are pretty personal to a player and, frankly, their biggest form of self-expression on the court -- their shoe game."