by Russ Bengtson (@russbengtson)
It would not be completely out of line to call Sheryl Swoopes the best female basketball player ever. Yes, Cheryl Miller once scored 105 points in a high school game, won three National Player of the Year awards, two NCAA Tournament MVPs, and an Olympic gold medal. Nancy Lieberman was nicknamed “Lady Magic” and played in men’s leagues. Anne Donovan followed in Lieberman’s footsteps to Old Dominion, where she became the first female Naismith Award winner, and won five gold medals in five international tournament appearances. But all three of those talented predecessors had the misfortune to play in a time when women’s professional options were few. Swoopes had no such difficulties.
Instead, what Swoopes had were firsts. Coming out of Texas Tech (where she scored a record 47 points in a national championship game), she was the first player signed to the fledgling WNBA in 1996, where she joined the Houston Comets, then became the first female basketball player to get a signature sneaker from Nike. That first sneaker, which released during her rookie season, was essentially just a slimmed-down and Vis Air-free version of the popular Air Modify Force. Her second was a wild, side-laced mid-cut that looked more like a cross trainer. But her third shoe — the Air Swoopes Zoom — that was the one.
Her third shoe — the Air Swoopes Zoom — that was the one.
If Swoopes’ status as the best female basketball player is open to debate, which it certainly is, the status of the Air Swoopes Zoom as the best female basketball player’s signature shoe surely isn’t. Swoopes would go on to get seven signature models in all, and Nike would also produce signature product for Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley, Cynthia Cooper and Chamique Holdsclaw. Meanwhile, in those early days of the WNBA, FILA and Reebok put out signature sneakers for Nikki McCray and Rebecca Lobo respectively.
But 1997’s Nike Air Swoopes Zoom, a toothy sibling to Jason Kidd’s Zoom Flight Five, wasn’t just a great women’s basketball sneaker design — it was a great basketball sneaker design, period. Not only did it look great, but its construction predated conceptually similar designs like the Fly By U Uptempo and even the Air Jordan XX8 SE. It became one of the first women’s specific sneakers to get national ads — and that guys made a point to chase down.
Swoopes retired for good in 2011 at the age of 40 after playing a single season with the Tulsa Shock. She finished her career with a trophy room full of accolades — six All-Star appearances, four WNBA titles, three MVPs, three Defensive Player of the Year awards, two scoring titles and, oh yes, three Olympic gold medals. She will be eligible (and likely inducted) into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016. Here’s hoping a retro of the Air Swoopes Zoom comes before then. Which would be just another first for Swoopes in a long line of them.
And Nike? Make them for everyone this time. Sheryl Swoopes wasn’t just a hero to girls.