Inside the sneaker room of Tamera ‘Ty’ Young — the WNBA’s biggest sneakerhead
With a 500-pair collection, despite no endorsement deal, the veteran forward is changing the shoe game
ATLANTA — The room is the perfect size for an office. Not too big, not too small, a single window, and a closet for storage. Yet Las Vegas Aces forward Tamera Young had other plans for the space when she moved into the house four years ago. She hasn’t been around much, since her basketball career led to a move out West, to join a new team, in a new city, and to take on a secondary residence.
But there’s no place like home. “This is a no-shoe house,” says Young’s girlfriend, reality star Mimi Faust from VH1’s Love & Hip Hop Atlanta. Oh, but in reality the house is the ultimate shoe sanctuary.
It’s the second week of August, and a two-game road trip brings Young to the blisteringly humid metropolis of Atlanta, near which the 11-year veteran, who signed with the Aces in February, keeps her primary residence. She’s been back only once this season, and that was months ago.
True to the bubbly greeting from Mimi, Young (known to most as “Ty”) kindly asks that you take your shoes off upon entering. That’s her rule — the irony of which is oozing, given what lies in a room on the next floor, directly above the house’s entryway.
You have to walk up the stairs and turn right at a framed poster of legendary Chicago Bulls trio Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. Then go around a banister and past a wall featuring photos and plaques from her glory days at James Madison University (where she became the first player from the school to be drafted into the WNBA). And then, straight ahead, adjacent to a guest room, there it is. Young’s own little sneaker shrine, with one purpose: to be packed to the brim with kicks she’s collected for almost 15 years.
“It’s one of my happy places,” says Young, 31. “I take pride in knowing I worked hard to get … the things I have. My shoe room is one of them.”
Young, who some think should have been an All-Star this year, used to keep her sneakers in individual containers. But last year, she commissioned a handyman to mount shelves that stretch across the room’s two main walls. There are more shelves in a compact area of the back left corner. In all, there are five sets of shelves, each with nine rows. And after the shelves were installed, Young spent countless hours organizing the kicks. She allowed her (self-diagnosed) obsessive-compulsive disorder to lead the way.
Eventually, the North Carolina native settled on starting with one of her favorite sneakers of all time, the Retro Air Jordan 1s, at the top left of the first group of shelves. Young’s extensive ensemble of 59 pairs of 1s transitions to her Air Jordan 2s and 3s. On another set of shelves across the room, the run of Jordans continues with the 4s, then the 5s, a whole row and a half of 6s, two rows of 10s and a few pairs of 14s, 15s and Spizikes. The final three shelves hold her deep arsenal of Jordan CP3s, as well as pairs of Pippens, Pennys and LeBrons. Wait a minute … aren’t we missing some Jordans? “I don’t like 7s like that,” she says of the first apparent gap in her organization.
Her lone pair, the N7s, sit on the floor, next to just two pairs of 8s — the Aquas, her favorites — which she wore so much in college that she had to buy them again when they re-released a few years ago. And there is a small crop of 9s that includes a superexclusive pair designed by a collective of customizers known as the Canvas Project. Young has a whole section of the room dedicated to Air Jordan 11s, 12s and 13s, and the small back corner wall is for Air Maxes and Air Force 1s. The last remaining shelf arrangement features what she considers miscellany: Adidas Ultra Boosts and NMDs, Nike Huaraches and PUMA Fentys.
“Close to 500.” That’s Young’s estimation of total pairs.
Unaccounted for in this number is a towering stack of four full plastic tubs — one of which contains close to 20 pairs of Kobes. Stray boxes are scattered, and the closet door opens to additional piles. “In my lifetime, I’ve probably owned thousands of pairs … maybe more … because I’ve given away so many,” Young says. “I try to get away from them and say, ‘OK, look. I’m not buying any more.’ But it’s so hard. It’s like an addiction. … The smell of a fresh pair is like ahhhhh … I’m addicted to that fresh pair of kicks, you know?”
“Her sneaker room is like Foot Locker,” says Bria Smith, co-founder of the @WNBAKicks Twitter and Instagram accounts, which were launched in February to showcase the dopest shoes that women players break out nightly. In early May, before the start of the season, the platform teamed up with ESPN’s Brooke Weisbrod to unveil a countdown of the top 10 players in the WNBA who bring the heat on their feet, on and off the court.” Young claimed the No. 1 spot and earned the social media crown of “Sneaker Champ.” But, most importantly, she is helping dispel the myth that women can’t love sneakers as much as their male counterparts.
“She brings the term sneakerhead, and female sneakerhead, to life,” Smith says. “She could wear a pair a day for a year and not repeat.”
Yet the spoils of sneaker riches lead to some tough style choices, especially on this August evening, as she sifts through her collection about 25 hours before the Aces face the Atlanta Dream. “I haven’t decided yet what shoe I’m gonna wear tomorrow,” she says slyly. “Because I’m home now and have a room full of shoes that I can pick from.”
On Christmas of 1995, Tamera, then 9, received her first pair of basketball shoes: the Fila Grant Hill 1s. She never wore them on a basketball court, but a pair of the Fila Grant Hill 2s, which she copped when they retroed in 2013, now sit on one of the top shelves in her sneaker room as a reminder of her sneaker beginnings.
Young’s mother, Lynda, gave her the original Filas – and she hasn’t bought another pair of sneakers for her daughter since. “My mother was never a fan of paying hundreds of dollars for shoes,” she says. “But I would ask my father and he would come through.”
In 1996, Greg Young succumbed to Young’s begging and purchased her first pair of Air Jordans: the “Taxi” 12s, which she broke out with black shoestrings, accented by white specs, for the Girls Inc. basketball league in Wilmington, North Carolina. In March 2001, a special early release of the Air Jordan “Cool Grey” 11s landed at noon on a weekday. Despite being in school, a preteen Tamera had to be in that line. So she faked sick and called her dad to ask if he’d come to the rescue. “After he picked me up, I’m like, ‘Daddy, it’s these Jordans that’s about to come out at 12 o’clock that I really need to get’ … and he took me to get them,” she remembers. “I didn’t go back to school. It was pointless. I was ‘sick,’ and I had my sneakers.”
On her shoes, Young frequently pays tribute to her dad, who died three years ago from pancreatic cancer at age 59. She has a pair of CP3 10s from her time playing with the Chicago Sky that she customized via Nike I.D. for the WNBA’s annual breast cancer awareness game. Yet once she became aware of studies that predict pancreatic cancer to become the second-deadliest cancer in the United States by 2030, she wrote “4/16/2015 RIP DADDY” on the heel of each shoe. Greg Young was diagnosed right before Young flew to Brazil in 2015 to play overseas and died while her team was in the playoffs.
So on her “Brazil Pack” CP3 7s, there are handwritten messages honoring her late father. In two games with the Aces this season, Young sported 1-of-1 purple, red and white CP3 10s, with “RIP DADDY” professionally painted on the shoes by Los Angeles customizer Kickstradomis. She wore them last on Father’s Day in June.
“My dad supported my love of sneakers,” she says, “wholeheartedly.” He’s the one who first bought Young her all-time favorite kicks, the “Concord” Air Jordan 11s, which she wore essentially her entire time on the court at Wilmington’s Laney High School.
Yeah, that Laney. The same school Michael Jordan attended, although Young isn’t shy to joke that, unlike the greatest of all time, she played varsity all four years. “I scored more points than him as well,” she adds with a smile. Both her No. 11 and Jordan’s No. 23 are retired and hanging in the rafters of Laney’s gym. It was also in high school that she began working part-time jobs at places such as Chuck E. Cheese’s, and as a waitress with her aunt’s catering business — to save money to buy her own shoes.
That hustle continued in college with her JMU teammate and roommate Jasmin Lawrence. The two have remained best friends over the years, and Young is the godmother to Lawrence’s 5-year-old son, Josiah, who she frequently spoils with new shoes. “One summer, we got a job at Finish Line just so that we could get a sneaker discount,” says Lawrence, who’s from New York, where she works as a school guidance counselor. “She probably doesn’t even remember.”
Once the two friends got tired of certain sneakers, after a few wears, they’d flip them on eBay and use their profits from the sales to buy new pairs. They even sacrificed meals for shoes. “When we’d travel for games, we’d get per diem money. How much depended on what state you went to,” Lawrence says. “New York was very expensive, so you’d get good meal money. We’d hold on to it … or eat inexpensive meals … and buy the new Jordans, or whatever was coming out.”
But no one supported her passion for shoes more than JMU head women’s basketball coach Kenny Brooks. “I used to think I was a sneakerhead until I met Tamera,” says Brooks via phone. He’s now head coach at Virginia Tech. “She took it to another level.”
About midway through Young’s freshman year, Brooks noticed that she didn’t like to wear the team shoes that were provided. She conformed at first but eventually wanted to operate under her own terms of swag. So Brooks looked out for Young, the first recruit he signed as a head coach.
“I always knew when the new Jordans were coming out because she would come in my office … sit down … and she’d get this little grin on her face,” Brooks says. “It was different from any other grin. So I’m like, ‘OK, well, which Jordans are coming out next?’ She would really burst out into laughter. … I’d have my director of operations be on it to figure out when they would come out, and we’d kind of surprise her with them.”
Because JMU was sponsored by Nike, Brooks could see that his star player got essentially any sneaker she wanted, even Jordans, within reason from the team’s equipment budget. Between the kicks she received from her coach and the ones she bought herself, Young began wearing a different pair on the court almost every week. In college, she played in everything from the triple-white Air Max 2 Charles Barkley 94 low tops to the all-black Air Jordan 10s, the Nike Air Penny 4s and “Statue” Air Jordan 9s. Her go-tos were the “Grape” Air Jordan 5s and “Linen” Air Jordan 10s, both of which she’s repurchased since getting to the WNBA.
The Linens were tough to find since they’ve only dropped once, in 2005. But a few years ago, Young stumbled across them at a sneaker boutique in Atlanta and threw them in the bag — even despite the hefty $400 resale price. “There were several games where I’d go back and watch film. In one half she’d have on a pair of Jordans. In the second half, she’d have on a different pair of Jordans. I’m like, ‘Why?’ And she’d say, ‘I’m not feeling that vibe … I wanted to go with the other ones,’ ” Brooks says. “She expresses herself through her shoes, and that was an instrumental part for her to be able to play freely, to play loose, to play as well as she did.”
At JMU, Young finished as all-time leading scorer (2,121 points) in both school and conference history. “As we went through college and got a little more savvy with our money, her collection grew,” Lawrence says. “And as soon as she went to the WNBA and was making a salary, she went crazy.”
“Somebody’s salary, for sure,” Young says of her lifetime sneaker tab, shaking her head. “I’ve spent a lot.”
If there’s one plot twist to her saga as a sneakerhead, it’s that Young has never been endorsed by a shoe company. Even despite a decade-plus pro résumé that includes stops with three different WNBA teams in the large markets of Atlanta, Chicago and Vegas. And a crazy collection to back up her expert-level sneaker knowledge — nothing.
Teammates and friends with shoe deals give her kicks and grant her access to their brand accounts so she can place orders. Hoping to capitalize off her considerable influence, random Instagram followers, especially customizers, will send free pairs, just for a shoutout. She also has a virtual Rolodex of contacts and specific stores that look out when the time comes for a hot new drop. She’s always looking for that men’s size 9. But more often than not, Young comes out of pocket to feed her passion.
“Of course I would love to have a sneaker deal. It would save me money,” says Young, who has around 345,000 followers on Instagram and 14,000 on Twitter. The account for her own lifestyle clothing brand, Ty1Gear, has 10,000 followers. “To get free shoes and merchandise from a sneaker company that I could also promote as well? I’m already doing free branding. When I post a pair of shoes, people want to go get them.”
After she was selected with the eighth overall pick in the 2008 WNBA draft, as the first draft pick in the history of the Atlanta Dream’s franchise, Young remembers being sent free shoes from Nike during her first year in the league. She says shipments stopped coming after she fell short of that season’s All-Rookie Team.
“There were people drafted after me that got shoe deals. I didn’t understand why I didn’t. Maybe because I came from a mid-major school?” says Young. “Had I come from a bigger school, I’m pretty sure I would’ve had a shoe deal.”
In conversations with companies, she’s heard that her points per game average is too low, and about specific requirements for WNBA players to be signed to certain brands — making the All-Star team, competing with USA Basketball or ranking in the top 10 in particular statistical categories. “I know players right now with shoe deals,” she says, “that aren’t in any of those categories.” She says she wouldn’t mind being with just one brand. “But — no one’s given me the opportunity, so I’m here wearing whatever sneaker I wanna wear.”
The amount she switches up shoes, and quality of heat she serves up on the hardwood, draws her comparisons to the “Sneaker Champ” of the NBA, who’s also deal-less. “She is the P.J. Tucker of the WNBA,” says Smith of WNBA Kicks.
Even Tucker would marvel at the sight of Young’s sneaker room, so organized and vibrant. Hanging in the center of the room is a portrait of Jordan, looking off into the distance, as if he’s protecting Young’s prized possessions. If she had the choice of what brand would sign her? “Jordan,” she says without hesitation. She and Jordan sharing a hometown, attending the same high school and both playing pro ball in the city of Chicago? There’s not a fit more perfect.
But truthfully, it’s hard to believe she’s isn’t already signed — if not by Jordan, then another company. Especially given the current landscape of the WNBA, which is on the way to its best season in history, with an uptick in ratings, and landmark partnership with PUMA. The league is experiencing a cultural renaissance, and Young is leading the sneaker movement. Yet, sometimes, she revels in being a sneaker free agent.
“There are people who have shoe deals,” she says, “and don’t even have some of the kicks I have.” Like the “Vanchetta Tan” CP3 9s (only 33 pairs made) and the “Red Suede” CP3 9s (only 54 pairs made). Both exclusives were sent to Young by Chris Paul himself, who grew up in North Carolina with Young’s brother-in-law. They’ve become super tight over the years, and Paul often hooks her up with his signatures.
Three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade has also looked out. Last fall, he sent her a pair of “The Edition x Li-Ning” Way of Wade 6s that dropped exclusively in Miami during Art Basel. Young has pair No. 134 of 500. They’re the shoes she picked from her sneaker room to wear against the Atlanta Dream, after she found them hiding under an unboxed pair of “Solar Red” Nike Yeezy 2s.
The day after the game, Wade posted an Instagram photo of Young in his shoes to congratulate her on becoming the first player in WNBA player to wear Li-Ning. She also received a note from the league, warning her of a $500 fine if she wears the shoes again. The message stipulated that because she’s not signed to Li-Ning, and because the WNBA is sponsored by Nike, she can only wear Nikes and Jordans.
“But even without a sneaker deal,” Young says, “I’m still out here making history.”