Follow the Leader

by September 05, 2011

Ever since KICKS 3 (summer 2000), each issue of the annual sneaker mag—KICKS 10 not included—has contained two or three new inductions into the KICKS Hall of Fame, where footwear legends past and present are honored. This may not be fresh material for those of you who’ve been copping the mag since before the new millennium hit, but for the younger heads, we’re posting the entire HOF online over the course of the next few weeks. (It’ll be archived under the KICKS tab above.) Enjoy, and don’t forget: KICKS 14 is on sale now! —Ed.

Originally published in KICKS 5

by Jake McKim

Sheryl Swoopes’s game is solid, stimulating and sexy. The WNBA’s equivalent to Kobe Bryant, Swoopes scorches opponents in so many ways it’s ridiculous: She’ll stop and pop in your face, then coyly smile about it as if to acknowledge the embarrassment just handed out. If she feels like exerting more energy, she’ll burn by you making you look like Forrest Gump before the leg braces came off.

No problem, you say: Just double-team her. Sorry. An easy dish to any number of her four-time champion Comets’ teammates, and you can pretty much call your mom and have her pick you up, because the game is over. Swoopes, with the speed of a cat after its prey and the finesse of a shampoo model, can humiliate you in more ways that that, but by now your probably get the picture.

So it wasn’t exactly shocking news to those who had witnessed the six-foot guard’s ill hoop skills, when Nike announced in 1995 that the country girl from the farming town of Brownfield, TX, would be the first woman to be designated her own signature shoe. If you know Nike, it’s easy to understand why they chose to hook up with Swoopes before the WNBA was even a twinkle in the L’s eye.

“Nike has a policy that says we only want to align with the best, and Sheryl is definitely one of the best women’s players in the world,” says Nike spokeswoman Ilana Finley.

By ’95, people in the know were already well aware of the magnitude of Swoopes’s game, after a ridiculous 47-point outpouring in the 1993 NCAA Tournament championship game for Texas Tech, catapulting the Lady Raiders to a national title. In ’95, Nike released the Air Swoopes, a shoe that was hugely popular from the moment it hit stores.

“We’ve seen pretty much anyone who plays basketball wearing her shoes, including guys,” says Ritch Graham, Nike’s promo development manager.

Since then, Swoopes hasn’t done all that much—except win a gold medal in the ’96 Olympics, be a top pick the in the inaugural WNBA Draft, win four championships with the Comets and earn MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2000. Oh, and don’t forget that in the middle of it all, she gave birth to a son, Jordan, then returned to the game just six weeks later, proving that can’t nobody hold her down.

Swoopes is a walking contradiction. She plays the game with the grace of a runway model, but make no mistake, opponents can only hope she goes easy on them. She’ll nail a trey, then stare you down like she has so many time in the Comets’ title marches. But any expert who has followed her career will tell you it’s Sheryl’s scrappiness, her willingness to dive for loose balls, her no-tolerance D and her determination to win that define Swoopes.

But Nike officials say there’s more to Swoopes than her Jordan-esque talent. “In addition to players’ on-court skills, we look at their off-the-court personality,” Graham says. “We look at whether they’re good people, involved in their communities, things like that, and Swoopes qualifies as all those things.”

Given that, the relationship between Nike and Swoopes has remained strong, with the company releasing the Air Swoopes II and Air Swoopes Zoom in ’97, Air Swoopes IV in ’98, Air Tuned Swoopes in ’99, Air Swoopes VI in 2001 and now the Air Swoopes Premier in June. And like any superstar with a signature model, Swoopes rocked a special make-up for the 2002 WNBA All-Star Game.

It’s safe to say Swoopes paved the way for women today, allowing the Chamique Holdsclaws to have their own shoes as well. What Swoopes has accomplished is nothing short of remarkable—proving to young girls that they can dream about being a star just as their male counterparts have always done.

No doubt, Swoopes will accomplish much more before the curtain closes on her career, but after all she’s done already, no one should be mad if she decided to hang up her sized ten-and-a-half’s tomorrow.