It’s opening day of the 2017 WNBA season and the New York Liberty are hosting the San Antonio Stars at the World’s Most Famous Arena. San Antonio guards Kelsey Plum and Moriah Jefferson, two of the league’s rising stars, are both injured and won’t suit up for the visiting squad. They sit courtside during pregame, talking to reporters and posing for pictures with fans.
While people circle around Plum and Jefferson, Liberty center Tina Charles quietly starts to warm up. She practices her post moves against former Knick and current Liberty assistant Herb Williams and repeatedly knocks down jumpers from the baseline. She puts in her work methodically, finally ending by drilling a three-pointer from the corner.
It’s business as usual for Charles, always the final Liberty player to get shots up before the game starts. But the Queens native, dressed in a grey shirt and black sweatpants, is rocking a never-before-seen pair of the Nike Kyrie 3 that is most definitely not part of Charles’ tried-and-true pregame routine. The 3s are done up in an icy seafoam blue, their black Swoosh accented by a translucent outsole.
For years now, Nike and adidas have been outfitting the WNBA’s biggest superstars with exclusive PEs that nobody else has.
Sue Bird hoops in green and yellow Nike Kyrie 3s. Candace Parker was the first to play in the adidas Crazy Explosive 2017, wearing a one-of-one orange and purple pair for the month of June, honoring her late college coach, the legendary Pat Summitt.
“I’ll be wearing orange kicks all June; it was my coach’s birthday and the month she passed away,” Parker told the LA Daily News in June.
Go on down the line and the W is chock-full of rare colorways. Some of them are PEs; some of them get made on NikeiD; some of them coincide with Pride Month or breast cancer awareness.
All of them, though, are fire.
“[Nike] knows the month of June is Pride Month,” says Liberty forward Shavonte Zellous, who has been playing in a rare version of the KD 9 with a rainbow-colored outsole. “All across the league they shipped shoes. I got them in my locker and I was like, ‘Oh, what’s this?’ It’s just an honor to wear these guys’ shoes, for us to be able to play in them and remix like they do.”
“We do pick shoes according to the players that [we] like,” says Lynx forward and three-time WNBA champ Seimone Augustus, who’s worn Kyries for the past two seasons. “I love Kyrie as a player. We have some similarities in our ballhandling, [and] his shoe fits me.”
During the Finals last year, Augustus wore a purple Kyrie 2 PE with Prince’s logo on it. Since then, she’s shown off other Lynx-related colorways of the 3.
“We have green in our uniforms,” Augustus says. “I try to bring that green out a little bit more when designing my sneakers.”
Sue Bird, one of Irving’s close friends, doesn’t get as flashy with her Kyrie 3s.
“I’m definitely someone who likes to match,” Bird says. “[Nike] knew that I wanted the colors of the shoes predominately green and yellow. Last year the WNBA switched to where no team has a white uniform, so this year the only thing I asked for was something that could match both uniforms.
“[Irving] actually came to a game earlier this month,” Bird adds. “I think I had the green ones on that day. He gave it the once-over. He approved. It’s funny because obviously his colorways are crazy, but the green and yellow are pretty rare. Nobody’s rocking green and yellow.”
It’s a Sunday afternoon in June and the L.A. Sparks are taking on the Phoenix Mercury at the Staples Center. Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray, the home team’s three leading scorers, are all laced with silhouettes from the Three Stripes.
Ogwumike and Gray signed with adidas right before the season started. Nneka’s little sister Chiney, the 2014 WNBA Rookie of the Year, also inked a deal with the brand.
“I like the [adidas] culture of family and also how much they express displaying and advocating individuality for the athletes,” Nneka told us shortly after her new deal was announced. “They always put the athlete first. That’s definitely what drew me to adidas.”
While the Sparks are on their way to beating the Mercury, Ogwumike’s wearing a black-based pair of Crazy Explosives with purple and teal accents. On the other squad, longtime Nike athlete Diana Taurasi is getting ready to make history.
In the closing moments of the second quarter, Taurasi drives hard to the rim. Ogwumike respectfully plays matador defense, because after Diana flips in a layup, she’s officially become the all-time leading scorer in WNBA history.
Taurasi, 10 years removed from her signature sneaker, the Shox DT, wears a personalized pair of Nike LeBron 14s to etch her name in the record books. “DT” is written across the left heel and “3” (her number) is on the right one.
Her teammate, Danielle Robinson, says sneakers are a big part of the Mercury’s locker room culture.
“We comment on everything we bring in, whether it’s me, DT, [Brittney Griner]. BG just got some KDs from Nike, white with a purple Swoosh. We always comment. Whenever somebody gets a box, we’re like, ‘Open it up, let’s see what you got.’”
Though Robinson’s sponsored by Nike and wears the Kyrie 3, she doesn’t always get kicks sent to her. “I’ll be on NikeiD for hours at a time, just for the simplest details,” she says.
The players fortunate enough to get shipments speak with their player reps about which pairs they’d like.
“I just tell them what shoe I want to play in,” says Liberty guard Epiphanny Prince. “They give us a couple options, [but] they know I just want to play in Kobes. When I come here I’m just anxious to see what colorways they put together.”
Sugar Rodgers, her teammate, has been getting the Nike Zoom LeBron Soldier 10 and 11 delivered to her over the past two seasons.
“It feels like Christmas every time a box comes,” Rodgers says with a big smile.
Seimone Augustus and the Lynx grab a 93-76 win over the Mystics toward the end of June. Augustus only scores 9 points, but she breaks necks in an absurd pair of multi-colored Kyrie 3s that catches Irving’s attention. He reposts them on his IG.
“When we step on the floor, we want to be the best representation for their gear,” Augustus says. “We want it to be cool. That’s something we always talk about in the WNBA, trying to create a cool factor.”
With the level of basketball talent higher than it’s ever been in the W, and a growing push from both Nike and adidas, there are more eyes than ever on the league.
“[The brands] are big supporters of women’s sports,” Bird says. “They understand that we play a huge role, not just in basketball, [but in] pushing women in sports forward.”
Time to start the clock on the next WNBA signature sneaker.
Max Resetar is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @maxresetar.
Photos via Getty Images