When the best women's basketball players in the world gathered in New York for the first-ever Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) All-Star Game, it was not just a celebration of how far women's sports have come, but also what the women had on their feet. Five of the All-stars wore their own signature basketball shoes designed specifically for them. Athletic shoes for women is a step forward for female athletes who once played in shoes designed for men.
Actually, they can. For years they had no alternative. Sneaker manufacturers did not offer women's basketball shoe models, and female basketball players had to make-do trying to fit their feet into a shoe made for a male. Now female basketball players can get the comfort and support for their feet that the male players have always had.
Houston Comets forward and WNBA All-star Sheryl Swoopes describes the problem.
"I just always wore a men's shoe and it was always too heavy and too bulky. It just made my foot look and feel big."
Teammate and two-time WNBA MVP Cynthia Cooper goes further.
"Our feet are not as wide as men's so our shoes shouldn't be either. Now our shoes fit our feet. We don't have to get a half-size larger (to accommodate the narrowness of the female foot) and wear two pairs of socks."
Washington Mystics rookie All-star Chamique Holdsclaw has her own signature women's model in Mystics colors. In college she had problems with wearing men's shoes.
"I had a hard time with the Adidas shoe in getting a snug fit," she explains. "It's all about comfort. My foot is like, I think a triple A. Men's shoe are just too wide for playing with comfort and support."
For years shoes, not just athletic shoes, have been made using a "last"—a mold of a human foot around which a shoe is created. A signature shoe endorsed by a professional athlete, has a last created from the foot of that athlete. Case in point: the Air Jordan shoe created from a last of the foot of Michael Jordan.
Until recently all basketball shoes were built from a men's last. Because women's feet normally are narrower in the heel and sole and have a higher arch than men's, a woman's foot in a man's shoe can be like a square peg in a round hole. Now female basketball players can play in a shoe made for a woman's foot.
The resulting comfort and support is intended to yield better performance of the shoe and the player. But Marcy Westcott, Nike director of footwear development for women's basketball, says it's not all about the last.
"Now that we've found a last that works well with women's feet, we have incorporated a sock liner (a soft, lightweight insert contoured for greater comfort in the arch, heel, and forefoot) that addresses the narrower heel, the higher arch and overall comfort."
Building a women's basketball shoe from the mold of a woman's foot clearly has yielded a better fit for the narrower female foot. Players like the better comfort and support that the new shoes provide. But that doesn't mean they don't look cool too. Design teams go to great lengths to make sure the signature shoes fit the player in every way imaginable.
"The shoes are designed with your personality in mind. Who you are on and off the court." Cooper says.
Sheryl Swoopes chose a color scheme to dispel the notion that women liked soft colors. "I wanted colors that would be bold like red and black and white and blue."
But players also have functional input with designers. Lisa Leslie explains, "I like to have a lot of cushion but I like to have my shoe fit more like a running shoe, like the Air Max. The shoe is designed to fit close to the insole. I have an arch on my foot, but some people don't so there is an arch placement that you can put inside if you have flat feet."
Chamique Holdsclaw wanted a shoe that would enhance her lateral movement and cutting ability.
"I really like the Air Zoom because I like the feeling of being low to the floor and really being able to move. I also like the snug fit that the Flightposite has."
Nikki McCray of the Washington Mystics is one player who hasn't taken advantage of the chance to have her shoe (Fila's Nikki Delta Basketball) made exclusively for women's feet.
"My shoe is made for a man or a woman. I've always played in a men's shoe and I've never had any problems. I told Fila that I wanted my shoe made from a men's mold because that's what I was used to."
Nike was the first athletic shoe manufacturer to recognize the growing market for female athletic footwear. They have also recognized the need to market to young female athletes with stars that they can relate to.
"Having your own shoe is awesome," says Cooper. "As a kid you dream about playing pro basketball, about becoming a star. It's a dream come true."
In 1984 Nike first came out with a basketball shoe for women. They were unable to market it. By 1995, the women's game had begun to receive the TV exposure it had long coveted. New role models for young girls were now available. The public was ready to buy.
The first women's shoe endorser was Sheryl Swoopes who signed with Nike in 1995 and wore her Air Swoopes during the 1995-96 tour of the US Women's Dream Team which culminated in a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and the formation of two women's professional basketball leagues.
Westcott recalls the atmosphere at Nike.
"There was a lot of excitement around the Swoopes shoe. It was the first shoe after the Jordan shoe that had been named after an athlete at Nike. The concept was the best female athlete with the best women's basketball shoe equals giving girls out there the very best there is."