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Dawn Staley is the arch women’s basketball drillmaster at the University of South Carolina. She won three Olympic gold medals and is one of the greatest WNBA players of all time. And aback she was a kid, basketball shoes were everything.

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“You know, I grew up in the projects of North Philly,” Staley says. “I grew up cutting a lot of altered sneakers. I didn’t affliction what I looked like from my ankles up — I had to accept the newest, the best brace of sneakers out there.”

Staley remembers cutting Charles Barkley’s signature line. She wasn’t abundant of a Jordan fan. In any case, she wore men’s shoes.

“Everyone I played with were males,” Staley says. “That’s what I wore. That’s what I was adequate wearing. And I aloof absolutely didn’t apperceive the difference.”

Basketball shoes for women didn’t abide aback Staley was growing up. But afore long, that changed. In the summer of 1996, Staley and Aggregation USA won their aboriginal gold badge at the Olympic Games in Atlanta.

“Women’s basketball was appealing abundant at an best high,” Staley says.

The American Basketball League, or ABL, had been founded a year earlier. The WNBA followed anon after. And as the country saw women’s basketball accepting popularity, Nike saw a groundbreaking business opportunity.

“To me now, afterwards in life, I feel that it was added appropriate and amazing than it acquainted at the time,” say Marni Gerber, a chief artisan at Nike aback 1992.

In the lead-up to the ’96 Olympics, she and Nike partnered with Aggregation USA brilliant Sheryl Swoopes to architecture a signature basketball shoe. By then, Nike had appear 10 Michael Jordan signature shoes in the Air Jordan line. Several added NBA players had their own models, too. But in the women’s game, Sheryl Swoopes’ shoe would be the first. And for Gerber, that meant rethinking what basketball shoes could be.

“At the time, basketball shoes were absolutely overbuilt,” Gerber says. “Sheryl’s not behemothic like some of these guys are. So, how could I architecture a shoe that was beneath shoe and added her?”

Sheryl’s Shoe

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Gerber watched Sheryl comedy at the Aggregation USA training camp, demography addendum on how she confused on the court. She alike aing Swoopes on a cruise to her hometown of Lubbock, Texas, to get to apperceive her alfresco of basketball.

“I went to her beautician with her,” Gerber says. “I met her mom. We went to the Outback Steakhouse — and that was affectionate of the air-conditioned atom to go to in Lubbock aback then.”

Gerber says she had never formed so carefully with an athlete.

“We absolutely got to apperceive anniversary added appealing able-bodied afore I alike started designing,” Gerber says. “And I anticipate that was accessible — again she acquainted adequate talking to me. She’s beyond than life. She’s an amazing athlete. Everybody knows her. But she’s additionally aloof this down-home, real, candied person. 

In 1995, Nike appear the first-ever women’s signature basketball shoe: The Air Swoopes. It featured a lower abate cut so Swoopes could move quicker on the cloister and a Velcro band beyond the top of the shoe for added stability.

“There’s an S appearance on the basal of that shoe,” Gerber says. “And basically, aback she’s up in the air, that was to put Sheryl Swoopes — SS — in your face. The affectionate of swirliness of that logo with Sheryl’s name was to appearance the feminine ancillary of her. And then, also, the shoe was appealing adventurous and dynamic. And that was the amateur ancillary of her. Aback I drew that SS on the basal of the shoe, it acquainted like, ‘OK, this is the appropriate way to go.’ “

‘I Achievement My Adventurous Can Cull These Off’

In the aboriginal ’90s, Jane McManus was a adolescent able amphitheatre auto basketball in New York City.

“I was actually demography the brawl in my own hands, and you know, walking into courts area there were aloof guys amphitheatre and adage I capital next,” McManus says.

She remembers activity into shoe food and actuality told that there weren’t shoes fabricated accurately for women.

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“I anticipation it was affectionate of garbage,” McManus says. “But I heard about the Air Swoopes advancing out. And I absolutely wasn’t abundant of a aerial roller to apperceive if I could go for one of those brand-name sneakers.

“But these shoes … I aloof absolutely acquainted it was important, if I’m a woman amphitheatre basketball, to buy a brace of shoes that’s been accurately advised for a woman and marketed to her.

“They were, like, a navy, agleam — they looked like aqueous metal. They were not alike an absolute color. And I opened up the box. And they aloof looked so cool. I aloof thought, ‘Wow, I achievement my adventurous can cull these shoes off.’ You’re gonna abrasion those shoes assimilate a court, you bigger be able to aback it up.”

More Signature Shoes

Nike appear a additional Air Swoopes archetypal aloof afore the 1996 Olympics, and the Air Swoopes Zoom a year afterwards that. In ’98, the cast teamed up with brilliant WNBA centermost Lisa Leslie on the Air Total 9s. 

And in 1999, Dawn Staley debuted the Nike Air Zoom S5: her own signature shoe.

“I was absolutely blessed to see the prototype,” Staley says. “When they beatific me the prototype, I capital to go absolutely brawl out. I capital to appearance everybody in the neighborhood. I capital them to attending at it, to accept of it, to appetite a pair.

“And again aback I got the absolute accord … I mean, it was like a hundred Christmases angry up in one. Unbelievable.

“It was white based, and again there were some accents on the toe, some accents on the heel — the band was a altered blush with my S5 logo. And it was aloof a absolutely apple-pie attractive shoe. If you wore a white uniform, they pop. If you wore a red compatible they pop. Bodies were anon fatigued to my feet.”

Staley says she admired it that way.

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“I did. You know, I was a 1996 sneaker head.”

A claimed artisan from Nike didn’t appointment Staley in her hometown. But she still feels that her shoe represented her and the expectations she had for herself.

“My shoe was congenital on Philly,” Staley says. “It was congenital on toughness. It was congenital on actuality able to handle whatever was befuddled at me. It was congenital on actuality an allowance beater. Aback I had my signature shoe on, I was in my approach of, ‘This is it. This is, like, basketball utopia for me.’ “

The Aing Generation

As Dawn Staley and Sheryl Swoopes rocked their signature shoes on the WNBA stage, a new bearing of players was watching. Including approaching four-time WNBA best Seimone Augustus.

“I bethink my aboriginal adventurous that I went to,” Augustus says. “My parents adored up money to drive us bottomward to Houston from Baton Rouge. And we were, you know, at the Toyota Center. And we were actually at the top of the rafters. We had our active adjoin the poles at the top of the arena. And I had to watch the adventurous from the Jumbotron.

“But I did not affliction because I was in the building. I was acquisitive and absent to one day be in their shoes. It aloof fabricated me appetite to go home appropriate again and aloof get to work.”

Just like their idols, Augustus and her accompany were sneaker heads.

“Back in those days, like, they would appear in and they’d accept their sneaker towel,” Augustus recalls. “They’d apple-pie off the chafe marks if there were some — or a besom that really, like, accomplish abiding the elastic sole was clean.”

Augustus was in boilerplate academy aback Sheryl Swoopes and Aggregation USA took home gold at the 1996 Olympics.

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“But by the time her shoe came out, I was, like, too big to boutique in the lady’s Bottom Locker — and I couldn’t get them,” Augustus says. “I affected they would accomplish shoes for the basketball amateur — like, we’re acutely taller, bigger than the boilerplate woman. I was air-conditioned abject out because it was the aboriginal women’s shoe to appear out, and I wasn’t able to get it. And I’m a hooper! And I adulation Sheryl Swoopes!”

To accomplish affairs worse, two of Augustus’ boilerplate academy teammates had the new shoes.

“I was aloof kinda appetent of anybody abroad that had them,” Augustus says. “Every day, advancing to practice, it was annoying to see them. I’m like, ‘Ah, I achievement the elastic avalanche off or the shoe strings break.’ ” 

Augustus went on to advance the LSU women’s basketball aggregation to three beeline Final Four appearances. In 2006, she was the No. 1 all-embracing aces in the WNBA draft.

“After Swoopes got her shoe, I aloof affected that so abounding added abundant women who came through the alliance would get their shoes — and that I would be able to, obviously, get a pair,” Augustus says.

“But it didn’t happen.”

Augustus began her able career at a agitated time for the WNBA. In the years afore her debut, three teams bankrupt and addition two relocated. She says the alliance acquainted the furnishings of the recession in the backward 2000s. And by then, it had been years aback Nike had appear its aftermost signature shoe for women. No added brands had abounding the void.

“We talked about it often,” Augustus says. “Like, ‘Man, what would a shoe attending like? What would it feel like? Who would get a shoe?’ That’s why we formed so hard. We was, like, ‘Maybe we aren’t alive adamantine enough. We got to put good, affection assignment on the attic to argue them that we do deserve this.’ “

Today, players like Augustus or alliance MVP Breanna Stewart sometimes get custom models of men’s signature shoes. But alike with the boundless sneaker ability in the league, no WNBA amateur has a signature shoe to alarm her own.

Last year, Augustus begin an befalling for article different.

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“I appetite to accomplish my shoes cool,” Augustus says. “I don’t appetite them to be the basal Kyrie — I appetite it to accept some affectionate of Seimone in it.” 

In November, Augustus acquaint a video on Instagram of her shoe accumulating from aerial school. And it got the absorption of an absolute shoe artisan based adjacent in Minneapolis. He messaged her with an offer: For a brace hundred dollars, he would booty a brace of her shoes and duke acrylic them application her architecture ideas.

“I adulation watching cartoons,” Augustus says. “I’m a big kid at heart. And so I started to comedy about with the cartoons and things like that.”

And aback the WNBA has no blush or architecture restrictions for its players’ shoes, Augustus took Scrooge McDuck, Penny Proud and alike the Affliction Bears assimilate the cloister with her.

In a lot of ways, she says, this activity has been her way of authoritative her own signature shoes.

“I’m acquisitive that it will accessible up people’s minds to be, like, ‘You apperceive what? We should accord her a shoe and let her architecture something,’ ” Augustus says.

In August, aloof afore the alpha of the WNBA playoffs, Nike rereleased the Air Swoopes II. And alike admitting Nike still doesn’t accomplish them in her size, Augustus was aboriginal in line.

“I said, ‘Forget it, I’m affairs a pair,’ ” Augustus laughs. “I got a admeasurement 12, and I’m acquisitive that I can clasp my bottom in there. I think it larboard an amazing mark to see an amazing woman like Swoop, who’s able all that she’s able in the WNBA — and in basketball, aeon — to be acclaimed in that way.”

Seimone Augustus hopes that by acknowledging the Air Swoopes and agitation custom kicks, she and added WNBA players can affect the aing bearing of women’s hoopers — and maybe alike a shoe aggregation or two.

“It’s so black to me to airing into the store, and I accept no added best but to buy a macho sneaker,” Augustus says. “It’s time to change the narrative. We’ve put in the work. We’ve becoming our moment to be able to prove to bodies that we can do this. It’s time.”

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