Just after Sabrina Ionescu turned pro as one of the most decorated college athletes in NCAA history a year ago, the bidding war was off to the races. Nike, Under Armour and Puma all wanted to sign the former Oregon Ducks star, who was the all-time leader in triple-doubles and the only Division I player to record 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds in a career.
Ionescu chose Nike. She now jokes she simply couldn’t tell Nike founder and fellow former Duck Phil Knight no.
Another key factor was the prototype sneaker Nike showed Ionescu in its official pitch meeting last spring. The brand had been working behind the scenes all along to feature the No. 1 overall pick as the headliner of a new sneaker series down the road, the first shoe in its Greater Than franchise that was slated to be Nike’s key hoops launch for 2021.
The New York Liberty point guard was already familiar with the concept, given that she had been involved in shaping and framing the insights that drove the design, even while still at Oregon.
“About 2½, close to three years ago, we started seeing the world a little bit differently,” said Ross Klein, Nike Basketball’s senior creative director, of the Greater Than concept’s starting points. “How great could an athlete be? How great could a person be?”
The result was a design approach to maximize every element, component and nuance of a basketball shoe around the performance needs for three of the game’s staple movements and abilities: cut, run and jump.
Klein and a team of product engineers from Nike’s innovation lab met with Ionescu and her Ducks teammates during her senior year, poking for nuggets and feedback that could help inform their vision for a perfect shoe. Ionescu is now the leading face of the first shoe in the series, the GT Cut.
“Being the headliner for the GT Cut is an honor because of how much insight I’ve been giving on the shoes they’ve been creating,” she said. “Also, just the learning process to figure out what I like, what helps me as a basketball player and what’s going to help other people that’re looking to find a shoe as well.”
At its core, the GT Cut’s design is tailored to the variables that floor generals value most, such as a lower court feel, protective fit and extra padding over the toes to provide more comfort on hard-stopping, step-back moves. There’s a full-length Zoom Air unit sitting under a React foam sockliner, all atop a computer-generated traction pattern optimized for screeching grip.
“I know that a big part that I honed in on was having a shoe that was comfortable and low to the ground, but also covered all the aspects of comfort – you’re able to jump, you’re able to run and having all of that in one – and not sacrificing one for the others,” she recalled. “That was a huge thing that I had said.”
All along, Nike’s designers focused on crafting the shoe with insights from both men and women, a notable difference from the way in which men’s preferences and input have long been prioritized over the last decade across the industry.
“When we dive deep into other genders, we can find things that’ll influence not only women’s products, but also men’s products,” said Klein. “It can be a really big unlock for us. … It’s not his game or her game – it’s their game.”
A player from both the WNBA and NBA will be featured as the headliners of each shoe in the GT series throughout 2021, with Ionescu and recently named Western Conference Player of the Week De’Aaron Fox of the Sacramento Kings leading the way for the GT Cut.
Fox and Ionescu’s relationship goes back to their high school playing days as fellow members of the Class of 2016 featured in both the McDonald’s All American Game and Jordan Brand Classic.
“She’s legendary,” Fox told The Undefeated’s Aaron Dodson. “She’s going to be up there with the Sue Birds and the Diana Taurasis – she’s definitely going to be up there. As a college player, she’s one of the greatest college players ever – [among] both men and women.”
The two will be debuting the GT Cut in the shoe’s launch colorways and their own exclusive editions. Ionescu’s pairs highlight her teal Liberty hues and the beloved green and yellow of the Ducks.
She also left the door open to honor the late Kobe Bryant through her footwear, as the bond with her late mentor, his daughter Gianna and the Bryant family will continue to be a driving force throughout her career.
“I’ll definitely still be wearing some Kobes at times as well,” she said. “That’s something that I really respect of Nike, being able to understand that I still want to rock those and pay tribute to him and Gigi with the shoes that I wear.”
Between the GT Cut and Kobes, whether that’s her recent favorites such as the Grinch and All-Star 6s or the Bruce Lee 5s, she’s looking forward to a strong sneaker rotation for the 2021 season.
“Understanding that this new shoe that I’ve inspired and that we’ve created is going to also impact a younger generation of girls and boys that want to wear the shoe, because of the people that are wearing them and the impact that they have, I’m excited to be able to wear both,” she said.
While this new shoe isn’t “The Sabrina 1,” the possibility of a true signature shoe also remains, though it’s a rare designation in the WNBA’s history.
Only nine women have had their own signature shoes in the last 25 years — six at Nike, and one each at Adidas, Fila and Reebok. The last women’s signature shoe was worn by Candace Parker in the early 2010s, meaning Ionescu’s generation of up-and-coming players grew up in an era entirely devoid of a female signature shoe.
Ionescu remembers wearing a Kevin Durant shoe once, a Chris Paul shoe early on and mostly Nike’s Hyperdunk series throughout her prep path. She laced up a variety of Bryant’s models throughout her college years and in her rookie WNBA season. She’s never owned a woman’s signature shoe.
“It’d be awesome,” she said. “It’d be awesome for me to do it, or for any other player to have that platform, and have little girls showing up to basketball practice wearing a woman’s shoe for once, and not wearing a men’s shoe. It’ll be really cool if I get that opportunity, and I’m going to just keep my head down and keep working.”
After playing just three games of her shortened rookie season in the bubble in Florida due to an ankle injury, Ionescu is looking forward to the prospects of playing in front of a New York crowd during the Liberty’s first season at Barclays Center.
Just a year in, the hype surrounding Ionescu is ramping up as the season nears. Last week, she was featured on the cover of SLAM Magazine, which declared her both “The Queen of New York” and “The Future of New York Basketball.” The issue sold out online in 36 hours.
“I don’t think there’s any added pressure — honestly, I’m excited,” she said. “Especially coming off the injury, there’s going to be a lot more doubt and a lot more people that don’t think I’m going to come back better than I was. I’m just excited for the adversity and getting back out there, getting better than I was before and finding ways to grow my game.”
She’s been ramping up her workouts over the last month leading into training camp, cutting, running and jumping at full strength and playing in full contact 5-on-5 scrimmages.
Once she hits the hardwood again, she’ll have an added push with the new GT Cuts on her feet, the first of many shoes she’s hoping to lead, and a shoe representing the ability for an athlete to be “greater than” what they’ve been.
“This shoe can be a lot bigger than just a generic shoe,” she said. “I think it can be the source of inspiration for anyone that’s looking for some, and that wants to be great and achieve whatever it is that their heart and mind is telling them to do.”