In late May, a first look at the latest Air Jordan silhouette surfaced on social media.
But it didn’t come from the Jordan Brand’s official @Jumpman23 handle, or even one of the brand’s NBA athletes in the playoffs. While in Germany, preparing to compete in a FIBA 3×3 Olympic-qualifying tournament, 23-year-old women’s basketball star Satou Sabally received a box featuring the Air Jordan 36 and didn’t hesitate to show off the new sneaker on Instagram and Twitter:
“Sorry @Jumpman23, I’m terrible at keeping secrets … I’m just too excited to hold this in,” captioned Sabally, the half-German, half-Gambian small forward, who signed an endorsement deal with the Jordan Brand in April ahead of her second season with the WNBA’s Dallas Wings.
That’s right: A woman unveiled the next model of Michael Jordan’s storied line of sneakers. But Sabally isn’t the only one representing the brand in the WNBA. Now in its 25th season, the league has more players rocking the Jumpman logo on their feet than ever. It’s just been a long time coming.
In September 1997 (six months before Sabally was born), when Nike officially launched the Jordan Brand as a subdivision of the global footwear company, Michael Jordan handpicked an exclusive group of young, up-and-coming NBA players to form “Team Jordan.”
Five men made the Jumpman roster — Ray Allen, Derek Anderson, Michael Finley, Eddie Jones and Vin Baker — as the Chicago Bulls embarked upon their “Last Dance” season and Jordan began to transition from hooper to businessman. By 1998, the Jordan Brand expanded even further in basketball, releasing its first women’s sneaker, designed by Nike’s first African American footwear designer, Wilson Smith III, and dubbed the Women’s Air Jordan. But it wasn’t until 2011 that the brand found its face of women’s basketball, when Maya Moore became the first woman to sign an endorsement deal with the Jordan Brand. She repped the Jumpman on the court while hoisting four WNBA titles before stepping away from basketball in 2019 to focus on off-the-court initiatives, from ministry to criminal justice reform.
A decade later and Moore, who’s sitting out for a third season, is no longer the lone Jumpwoman. In 2019, the brand began adding to its women’s roster, with the signings of New York Liberty guards Kia Nurse and Asia Durr. And now, there’s a collective of 11 WNBA players endorsing the brand:
Moore, Nurse (now with the Phoenix Mercury), Durr (who’s sitting out for the second-straight season due to COVID-19 complications), Jordin Canada of the Seattle Storm, Dearica Hamby of the Las Vegas Aces, Te’a Cooper and Arella Guirantes of the Los Angeles Sparks, Crystal Dangerfield and Aerial Powers of the Minnesota Lynx, and Chelsea Dungee and Sabally of the Dallas Wings.
Even retired WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes — who, in 1995, became the first woman in sports history to receive her own signature sneaker, the Nike Air Swoopes — has taken notice.
“The Jordan Brand has signed more WNBA players than any other year,” Swoopes, who now works for Nike Basketball, told . “I think what that says is, even Jordan sees something different and something special in female athletes and the women in the W, that they don’t want to be left behind.”
The WNBA finally has a Team Jordan, the brand officially announced Monday as part of its “WNBA Family” campaign. And it’s a pretty accomplished group at that. There’s the O.G. who’s already cemented as one of the greatest — if not, the greatest — of all time; two rookies, including a top-5 draft pick and a member of the Puerto Rican women’s national team; the WNBA’s reigning Rookie of the Year and its two-time reigning Sixth Woman of the Year; seven combined WNBA championships and seven combined All-Star appearances, while every player, except Moore, is under the age of 28.
But maybe most importantly, all 11 of the Jordan Brand’s WNBA athletes are Black women.
“I think these incredible athletes are defining a lot of things about Jordan Brand and are leading real conversations that are impacting culture and our communities across the globe,” said Michael Jordan in a statement. “The world needs female voices, and we can’t ignore that or else we’re not growing. The Jordan Brand is committed to giving women a platform to amplify their voices, which influence, inspire and push culture forward.”
At the start of the 2021 WNBA season, ’s Aaron Dodson caught up with several members of Jordan’s revamped women’s basketball roster, via Zoom after a brand photo shoot with MJ himself, for a roundtable discussion on joining the Jumpman, Moore’s legacy, representation and more.
(It’s also worth noting that the powerful image of MJ surrounded by the Jordan Brand’s WNBA athletes was captured by Ming Smith, the first African American female photographer to have her work acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.)
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How exactly did the opportunity arise to join the Jordan Brand? And what does it mean to you to rep the Jumpman in the WNBA?
Crystal Dangerfield (guard, Minnesota Lynx): I heard a little something during the 2020 season. Then I didn’t hear anything else, so I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is really gonna happen or not.’ But a little over a week after going home from the bubble, I had a Zoom meeting with the brand, and they were like, ‘We want you.’ And everything that they presented to me, I felt like, ‘This is a match made in heaven.’ … It was an easy choice, really … The fact that this is my first endorsement deal … left me speechless. I’m still trying to internalize it all. If you had told me a year ago that this would be possible, I would’ve laughed in your face. Because when you hear Jordan Brand, you think elite.
Jordin Canada (guard, Seattle Storm): I was in the bubble last summer. Toward the end of the regular season, going into the playoffs, my agent called me and was like, ‘Hey, I have an opportunity for you if you’re up for it. I think it’s great.’ She left a voicemail and didn’t tell me what it was exactly. I called her back and she says, ‘Well … the Jordan Brand really wants to take over your Nike contract.’ I said, ‘Yes.’ Without a doubt, without hesitation. In college at UCLA, I used to say how I wanted to be a part of the Jordan Brand when I graduated. I didn’t get the opportunity but fortunately I got signed to Nike. So when they approached me with this opportunity, I immediately said yes and have loved it ever since I joined. I actually got to wear some of the sneakers in the bubble during the playoffs, even though it wasn’t official. But since I’ve officially become a Jordan Brand athlete, it’s been amazing. I’m glad I made the switch.
Te’a Cooper (guard, Los Angeles Sparks): When you get that call like, ‘Jordan wants you to be a part of the brand.’ Then you get invited to a Zoom call, then you’re getting gear … It’s like, ‘Whatttt? You picked ME? No way!’ I was amazed that Michael Jordan knew about me, knew my name and wanted me to be a part of his brand. I was really shocked. I felt real special.
Dearica Hamby (forward, Las Vegas Aces): Initially, when my agent came to me, I kinda thought I was gonna be telling Jordan why they should sign me. A few years prior, I had been on my agent like, ‘Let’s do Jordan Brand. Let’s do Jordan Brand.’ But at the time, they weren’t really signing many women. We kinda just kept it in our back pocket. Then, after the bubble season, my agent was like, ‘You’re gonna have a meeting with Jordan.’ I thought I was going into the meeting like, ‘Hey, I’m Dearica …, ’ and I go into the Zoom call, there’s a presentation that says, ‘We want you to be a part of Jumpman.’ I was like, ‘Say less!’ Because coming out of college, I told my agent I only wanted to be with Jordan. So, to see this come to fruition, it’s a blessing. I’m thankful. Because I’ve just been myself and it’s worked.
Aerial Powers (guard/forward, Minnesota Lynx): I’ve worn No. 23 most of my career, because I’ve been watching Jordan all my life. The first sports DVD my dad gave me was a Michael Jordan DVD. So the fact that I’m a part of the brand now is just crazy. So surreal.
Arella Guirantes (guard, Los Angeles Sparks): It’s special to be a part of the Jordan family because Jordan just brings a level of confidence. When you have that Jumpman logo on, you’re representing greatness.
Kia Nurse (guard, Phoenix Mercury): I’m really grateful to be a part of a brand that’s encouraging the next generation and growing the future of women’s basketball and women’s basketball culture.
Before joining the brand, how much experience did you have hooping in Jordans?
Dangerfield: None really. I think I had one pair and they weren’t even performance shoes. I wanted some so bad. But they never came my way until, I think, my senior year of high school.
Canada: In high school, my senior year, we were sponsored by the Jordan Brand. This was back in 2014, so I got to rock some Chris Pauls … That was the only experience that I had until now … I was kind of mad because now UCLA is sponsored by Jordan. When I was in college, we were sponsored by Adidas and Under Armour, so I didn’t get that opportunity. But I’m very happy for UCLA and now I get to rock everything that they get.
Hamby: My rookie year, I hooped in some 11 lows. I wanna say Concords. And I twisted my ankle in them. But I played in them for a bit. Other than that, I’ve stuck to Nikes, like LeBrons and Kyries … Growing up, my mom definitely didn’t lace me up with Nikes or Jordans.
Powers: My dad bought me my first pair of Jordans. I forget how old I was but I was young. They were white with red trim. In college, I wore Nike. So now I’m with Jordan, I’m tryna find my fit. The shoes run a little different for me. I like some of [Russell Westbrook’s signature sneakers] the Why Nots. But I think the 35s are gonna be my thing.
In the past few years, player exclusive (PE) sneakers have become a key form of expression on the court for Jordan Brand athletes. What’s one story you’d like to tell through your PEs during the 2021 WNBA season?
Cooper: The brand asked me that and I had to pick something special that I wanted on a shoe. I wanted it to be loud but simple. Like, ‘You see me!’ but not too much going on like a Christmas sweater. I just wanted a bright-colored shoe with my No. 2 on it, because that number is special to me.
Powers: I haven’t done PEs in the past few years I’ve been in the league. I usually just wear one shoe. But before I even signed, I wanted to switch it up. Now, I got the drip to really switch it up. So you’ll see me expressing myself through shoes this year, for sure.
Dangerfield: I already have one in the works but I’m not telling what it is yet! It’s about my childhood and surrounds a sacrifice. That’s the most I’ll say.
Canada: I’m really into style — that’s the most important story I want to tell. I love fashion off the court, which I wanted to bring on the court through different colorways.
Hamby: The first one is gonna be dedicated to my family — my mom, my sisters and my daughter, Amaya. And after that, Amaya will probably create a lot of them … I’m really into bright colors and I think I’ll be able to get away with it because our colors [on the Las Vegas Aces] are simple so there won’t be a ton of clashing. They’re definitely gonna be vibrant and loud like my personality. The colors in the PEs will speak to who I am as a person.
Exactly a decade ago, in 2011, Maya Moore became the first women’s basketball player to sign with the Jordan Brand. What do you think is Maya’s legacy when it comes to the Jordan Brand and sneakers?
Dangerfield: In my head, growing up, she was the equivalent to Jordan. Maya is the female GOAT. For her to sign with him back then, it felt like they were equals, to me. Maya is who I still regard as the face of the women’s side of Jordan.
Hamby: She was the first. They gave her a deal and what she’s done for women’s basketball since then has been incredible. It sucks that she’s not out here right now, but she’s the reason that we’re here. She was at the forefront of all this and set the pace, set the wave. We appreciate her … I do.
Canada: A trendsetter. A game-changer. … Maya changed the game tremendously and created opportunities for me and the other women who are now a part of the Jordan Brand to experience this.
Cooper: Mannn, she the Jump Girl! … In 2015, they had the first Jordan Brand Classic with women and I was invited. Maya was there. She took us to this shoe store with Melo [Carmelo Anthony] in New York. We practiced at this facility that was real cool. It had all the Jordans in there. Maya made the Jordan Brand feel like it was the function.
Powers: She was my favorite player growing up. I remember she went to Paris with the brand and I was watching videos of her on YouTube. It was just so cool to see her in Jordans. She was like the female Michael Jordan. People pave the way, right? There have been WNBA players who’ve paved the way for me in basketball, like Maya Moore. And she did it in another way, signing with the Jordan Brand. And, now, us girls doing it now are paving the way for others. What the Jordan Brand is doing is very empowering.
There are now 11 players reppin’ the Jordan Brand — the most ever in the history of the WNBA. What does it mean to you to be a part of this exclusive club?
Cooper: You see athletes sign with sneaker brands all the time now, but this is the most prestigious thing you could think of. It’s literally Michael … Jordan. He handpicked us. It’s not like any other brand where it’s like 25-30 athletes.
Dangerfield: It’s special. A select few out of over 140 players … I know we don’t take this for granted. We’re very thankful for it. We’re blessed to be here.
Hamby: It feels like Jordan took on players that other brands wouldn’t necessarily take. We aren’t the MVPs of our teams or the biggest names. But we all bring something different to the table. We’re a diverse group of women and I think that’s what the Jordan Brand speaks to.
Guirantes: What I like about our WNBA Jordan family is that we are all different and have our own special and unique gifts both on and off the court. We have a lot of different personalities … we’re not just basketball players or a certain type of basketball player. I admire all of my fellow Jordan teammates who are letting people know it’s OK to be yourself.
Nurse: This is a strong group of women. It goes beyond basketball. Just being happy to be confident in who we are and what we wear — hopefully that translates to the next generation … I think everybody who looks at our group of Jordan Brand WNBA athletes will be able to resonate with one or two of us and find different ways where they can feel like, ‘She represents the brand the way that I want to wear it.’
Canada: Being a part of this group, it’s an honor. This is the next generation. But, hopefully in the future, there’s more to come … more athletes reppin’ brands in the women’s game. This is a testament to how our game is growing. And to be a part of this initial forward movement is great.
How special is it that all of you are Black women?
Hamby: I was talking to one of our reps and was like, ‘Is everyone a part of the Jordan Brand like … Black?’ She was like, ‘There’s a few baseball players and golfers that aren’t but for women, yeah.’ It shouldn’t have taken this long — and I hope I don’t get in trouble for saying this — but our league, on the Nike side, has done things a certain way and now we appreciate that the Jordan Brand is looking out.
Powers: Am I proud? Of course. I’m a proud Black woman. We’re all proud Black women. And we’ll all continue to push the envelope.
Dungee: I think that the Black community being able to see people representing in a big light … that’s the amazing thing about this brand, the WNBA and sitting on this platform … You give a voice to the ones that feel like they don’t have a voice.
Canada: I think it’s extremely important. Because representation matters, especially nowadays with what’s going on in the world. For Black women to have this opportunity and be at the forefront of a brand like this is extremely important to show young Black women athletes that they can have the same opportunities. I didn’t see this growing up, when I was little. I didn’t see Black women in the limelight having opportunities to be a part of a huge brand, besides Sheryl Swoopes.
Cooper: It’s crazy because we’re really making history. We’re really starting something. It’s huge for women to have shoe deals, period. But to be the first time there’s this many people with the Jordan Brand in women’s basketball, that’s huge. How much love he’s showing us is unbelievable.