In the convergence of sports apparel and high fashion, the biggest footprints trace back to Lisa Leslie and the Nike Total Air 9.
The last decade of basketball culture has been defined by high fashion finding its way to the hardwood. From NBA tunnels turning into catwalks to Jordan joining forces with Dior, the blur between the athlete and the entrepreneurial auteur has never been bigger.
However, it has been big before.
6-foot-5, to be exact.
Ahead of Team USA women’s basketball’s date with destiny Saturday for an incredible seventh straight gold medal, let’s talk about Lisa Leslie.
For Lisa Leslie, paving the way for her own success — and legions of ladies who would come after — has always been a calling card.
In 1990, the Inglewood, California native became a national name thanks to scoring 101 points in a high school basketball game. Famously, she could have broken Cheryl Miller’s single-game US record of 105 points, but the contest was canceled at halftime.
She did all that damage in 16 minutes of play.
That performance sparked media interest from coast to coast, with a teenage Leslie showing grace and charisma as a late-night television guest. The Morningside High School phenom’s star ascended at the nearby University of Southern California, where she led the Lady Trojans to three Sweet 16s and a Pac-10 title, adding National Player of the Year honors in 1994.
And shortly after scoring her last basket in the ’94 NCAA Tournament, Leslie made more history: She negotiated her own Nike deal.
At that time, there was no WNBA, so the California queen quickly looked beyond basketball. In 1996, Lisa landed a modeling contract with New York’s prestigious Wilhelmina agency just weeks before winning Olympic gold for Team USA in Atlanta.
In the mid-1990s, Leslie was truly everywhere, appearing in ads for Nike and on red carpets. Famously, ribbons adorned her hair while lipstick scored her smile in venue after venue.
“I signed a modeling contract in early 1996 before the Olympics,” the Hall of Fame hooper recalled to Boardroom, weighing the strong possibility that her professional career would cater more towards runways and less towards groundball.
However, when then-NBA commissioner David Stern launched the Women’s National Basketball Association, Leslie immediately became a leading lady for the new league.
In a League of Her Own
Staying close to home, Leslie led the local Los Angeles Sparks to the playoffs, quickly becoming an All-Star and a face of the women’s game.
The late 1990s spurred not only the birth of the WNBA, but the boom of signature basketball shoes. With Nike knowing Michael Jordan was near retirement, the Swoosh started handing out exclusive sneakers to NBA veterans such as Scottie Pippen, Tim Hardaway, and Alonzo Mourning — all bonafide All-Stars who had appeared in ad campaigns for the brand but hadn’t yet received namesake models.
But in building a new generation of athlete endorsers, Nike didn’t rush to invest in the NBA’s youth. Rather, they looked to the WNBA to lace their emerging faces in footwear tied to their games and their names. Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes, and Cynthia Cooper represented the backcourt ballers in the league for the brand, while Lisa Leslie held it down in the paint.
Instead of pandering to tropes of rough and tough post play, however, Leslie looked to the world of luxury when working on her debut design with Nike.
“I patterned my shoe off Chanel,” Leslie said of what would be her one and only signature sneaker, 1998’s Nike Total Air 9. “I couldn’t afford Chanel back in the day, so it had the black Chanel puffs.”
Years before legions of ballers became infatuated with high fashion, Leslie was living in both worlds and bringing a hybrid product to the market. In fact, her Chanel-inspired signature sneaker predated Don C’s beloved Air Jordan 2 collaboration of similar energy by almost two decades. By carrying the torch for female hoopers, “Lisa Lagerfeld’s” ideas, ideals, and interests were ahead of her time. Even now, today’s talent is still finding its footing in the same arenas.
However, the story of her exclusive shoe doesn’t end here.
“I always wear silver jewelry,” Leslie said. “So it had a silver Swoosh on it. It had my touch. You hear people talk about it, but I helped design my shoe and I loved it.”
When it was all said and done, the $139.99 Nike Air Total 9 was Lisa Leslie inside and out. The basketball shoe carried the brand’s newest technology, Total Air cushioning, in full-length fashion that was typically reserved for the likes of Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
Not only did Lisa lace the shoe for the Sparks, but she also modeled it and matching warm-ups in spreads for Eastbay and appeared in nationally televised Nike ads with a young Kyla Pratt.
While Swoosh sisters like Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes appeared in their own ads grabbing breakfast at a diner or pushing their child on a swing at the playground, the fashion-forward Leslie leaned into her runway persona by shopping in her spot. The banter between the poised, refined Leslie and youthful Pratt proved magnetic.
“Kyla was a great actress already as a kid,” Leslie noted. “I really wish that we could’ve done more of those commercials and really built a brand off of our shoes. That’s what I wish would’ve happened.”
Ultimately, Nike’s push to develop a new crop of signature stars in the WNBA became a one-and-done for just about everyone. Leslie, Cooper, and Staley all saw their lines come to a screeching halt, though Swoopes continued to have a model on the market for years to come.
Always one to push, never one to pout, Leslie laced a later signature model of Swoopes to show support for her sister.
“That’s just a shout-out to being supportive of women before that became a cliche,” Leslie acknowledged. “I believe that none of us can block each other’s blessings. I’ve never been in competition with Swoopes or Staley. Those are my sisters. Even though we played ball against each other, I’m always rooting for us because if you see Sheryl Swoopes and she’s getting a shoe? I’m coming right behind her.”
While Leslie wouldn’t see another signature shoe, she’d continue to see her star shine and her curiosity open new doors. Since the release of the Nike Total Air 9, Leslie left her mark on the game by becoming a two-time WNBA Champion, three-time league MVP, four-time Olympic Gold medalist, and inductee to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
And her Olympic points per game record (19.5) has continued to stand tall since she hung up her shoes after the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.
Life Beyond the W
In her post-playing career, Leslie has continued to star on the court by becoming a coach for the Triplets in Ice Cube’s BIG3 basketball league. An immediate success, Leslie led the expansion team to a 7-1 record and the 2019 BIG3 Championship.
Off the court, she’s ascended to success as an author, realtor, and actress, appearing in movies like Uncle Drew and Think Like a Man while still living the life of a trailblazer for the latest generation of multi-hyphenate hoopers.
To this day, she’s grateful for her opportunity at Nike and remains a supporter of the Swoosh family, which now includes Converse and Jordan Brand. But she does see her one-and-done signature shoe as a missed opportunity to market the women’s game bigger and better.
“I wish they would have continued that process so it wouldn’t be so foreign for women to have their own shoes,” Leslie told Boardroom. “We didn’t know what our value was because at that time. There was nothing to compare it to. We have so many women who are really stepping up, and other companies are allowing a lot of Black women to have their own shoe and say in apparel.”
At a media event for this year’s BIG3 in Las Vegas, the ever-graceful Leslie acknowledged the good work done by Beyoncé at Adidas in the female sneaker space. Additionally, she feels that the power of social media makes it easier to support women with footwear deals from both fanfare and financial perspectives.
Still, the biggest and most stylish footprints set on the path to empowering women amid the convergence of athletic apparel and high fashion all trace back to her.
In a world where the respective industries of sport and style are as intertwined as ever, where Louis Vuitton works with Nike and Rihanna calls on Liz Cambage to walk her fashion show, thank Lisa Leslie for laying out the path for basketball’s big runway.