May 30, 2024 

Jewell Loyd’s best friend’s kids design player-edition shoes for autism awareness

‘That story needs to be told’

Justice Swann was only 1 year old and not yet diagnosed with autism when his mom, Laci Swann, realized he had a special relationship with her best friend, who happens to be star Seattle Storm guard Jewell Loyd.

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The WNBA star was visiting the Swanns in Italy, and the pair of friends wanted to take Justice and his sister on a day trip to Milan. The train ride was only about an hour, but Laci warned Loyd that Justice could be difficult to travel with. Loyd was unfazed. She wanted to spend time with the family, whether or not the trip was going to be calm.

Justice sat quietly on Loyd’s lap the entire train ride and didn’t make a sound. Laci was blown away but says it solidified what she already knew about Loyd.

“She is the most loving, calm, genuine person. She shows up as herself, and kids feel that. So that trip really solidified the fact that she was someone special in my kids’ lives,” Laci told The Next.

That connection has only grown over time to the point that Loyd had Justice and his older sister, Sloan, design her new, sold-out Nike player-edition G.T. Cut 3s that promote autism awareness.

“For people to understand who I am, they need to understand my environment, and they’re part of my family. And that story needs to be told,” Loyd told The Next.

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Loyd called her relationship with Justice organic.

“For me, that was my first interaction really, with autism and a nonverbal, awesome child, and I [had] never been around that, but it didn’t matter. There’s an understanding of who we are. There’s an understanding of just love and a bond, and he feels that.”

Though Justice says only a few words, the shoes showcase that whether it is “through art, through creativity, through music, through dancing, through stimming, there’s a lot of other ways to connect other than just talking,” Loyd said.

The shoes capture Justice’s unique and colorful childlike joy, with a powerful message.

Colorful player-edition sneakers from Jewell Loyd featuring red, blue and yellow smiley faces with Nike swooshes
Official Nike product photo of the G.T. Cut 3 “Jewell Loyd” Dusty Cactus and Lilac Bloom shoes.

This is Loyd’s third player-edition shoe, which continues her tradition of having a story behind the design and selling out. Loyd hopes that her shoe brings more awareness to how much work and how many expensive resources are needed when a family member is autistic, but also the joy that can be found along the journey.

“It’s a full journey,” Loyd said. “I think the words compassion and empathy kind of come hand in hand because you never know, right? There’s a lot of things that happen and that go on, and at the end of the day, they just want to be able to enjoy life just like everyone else. And it gets a little harder here and there.

“But there’s still joy. There’s still happiness with the development and the growth every day. And the kids are still kids. They’re still learning, they’re just going on a different way. And so understanding that allows people to have empathy about it and go about it in a different way.”

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Laci emphasized just how important simply being kind is. She still encounters people who make fun of autistic people with slurs.

Laci encourages people to give people grace before you pass judgment on a child having a meltdown in a grocery store, for example, and use that opportunity to ask questions. Be inclusive and teach your kids to be too. Maybe a kid on the playground plays a little differently, and you could make a big difference by asking them to join and being patient.

A teammate helps Jewell Loyd stand up on the court. Loyd is wearing her new player-edition sneakers.
Jewell Loyd wears her player edition G.T. Cut 3s in a game against the Minnesota Lynx  on May 17th, 2024 at Target Center in Minneapolis. (Photo credit: John McClellan | The Next)

Even though Loyd had talked for some time about having the kids design her next pair of shoes, when Laci got the email from Nike “it almost seemed unreal.” Soon, they were sent a blank G.T Cut 3 with instructions for the kids to creatively color as many as they’d like and then send them back.

Justice has always loved to color, so much so that the family would have to hide all the markers and crayons in the house to save their walls from needing to be repainted. Justice’s coloring in his therapy appointments, very purposefully choosing different colors with his therapist, was a tool for growth.

Sloan and Justice sent several sketches back to Nike, and their ideas were combined with collaborative input from Loyd. The kids were still involved in every step. Loyd insisted that they choose everything, down to the inside of the shoe and the laces.

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“They really welcomed the opportunity for my kids to be as hands-on and creative as possible, which was really really cool,” Laci said.

Both kids are very happy with how the final shoe came out.

“When the opportunity came for him to color the shoe, I didn’t know what he was processing or what he was thinking. However, when the shoe came and we got a glimpse of it before it hit the public, Justice was so happy,” Laci said.

Justice Swann making an art project on the ground while wearing Jewell Loyd’s player-edition sneakers
Justice Swann wears the shoes he designed in a photo shared on Laci Swann’s Instagram page.

Justice loves them so much that he makes his family keep them on whenever he gets home. (Usually, he immediately takes off all of this clothes, especially sneakers.) Laci and her husband, Isaiah, were beside themselves because they knew at that moment that he saw his art and design.

While Sloan still encourages Justice to talk, they communicate in other ways, whether it is playing, hugging, teasing or even some typical sibling squabbling.

Sloan, a bit of a perfectionist, is annoyed that her handwriting is now better than it was when she wrote the phrases that adorn the back of the shoe. But she still loves them and that she was able to design them with her brother, even if no one at school believes she helped.

The back of Jewell Loyd’s new player-edition sneakers, with expressions reading “Got you!” and “Go be great!”
Official Nike product photo of the heel of the G.T. Cut 3 Jewell Loyd Dusty Cactus and Lilac Bloom shoes featuring the phrases “Got you!” and “Go be great!”

Loyd, last year’s leading scorer in the WNBA, particularly wants the shoes to draw attention to the Swann family’s nonprofit foundation, Little Boy Blue Foundation, and its three goals.

The first goal is education, to teach people about autism while acknowledging that they are still learning too.

The second goal is to bring programming and events to Tallahassee, Florida, where the Swann family lives, and beyond. Laci points out they are looking to fill a local gap first because even though they are in the state capital, they don’t have robust programming. “It’s not that people don’t care, it’s that the need becomes overwhelming and there aren’t enough resources and people to facilitate those needs,” Laci said.

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The nonprofit’s first event will be a summer camp for neurodivergent kids in July at Roberts Elementary in Tallahassee. There will be behavioral therapists as camp counselors, and the foundation will tend to other needs that prevent autistic children from attending a standard camp, like providing additional security and smaller ratios of kids to counselors.

More programming is coming, too, like a haircut afternoon and a Christmas giveaway with sensory toys or ones that support kids’ growth. While these programs are their first priority, the Swanns hope the nonprofit grows to a point where they can provide financial resources for families to help with what goes into caring for an autistic child that may not be covered by insurance.

The foundation’s third goal is to create community and “a village to support the autism journey.”

It had been reported that some proceeds from the shoes are going to the Swanns’ nonprofit, but Laci told The Next that is not the case. Nike did not to respond to a request for clarification. But Loyd is using her platform and the popularity of the shoes to promote the foundation.

With Loyd leading the initiative, the Seattle Storm have also been very involved with “trying to spread the word about our nonprofit and the programs we’re trying to get off the ground,” Laci said.

Loyd made sure all her Seattle teammates got a pair, and several so far have joined Loyd in wearing the shoes in-game. Storm center Ezi Magbegor, guard Jordan Horston and Loyd all wore them during Tuesday’s game against the Chicago Sky.

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“She’s had shoes in the past, but just to see her work with her friend Laci and represent Justice, who has autism, I think is amazing, to use his voice in a different way and see that through the shoe they created together. I think it shows Jewell’s character off the floor as well … so we’ll be sure to rep them this season,” Magbegor said.

Sami Whitcomb, who won the 2018 and 2020 WNBA championships alongside Loyd, added, “It’s a beautiful, I think, representation of her relationship with him, and I just think it’s a really nice way to include that story and use her platform for that. She’s a super loving person, so I think it’s nice to see that vulnerable side of her and the way that she was able to storytell.”

Jewell Loyd wearing her player-edition sneakers in a game
Jewell Loyd wears her player-edition G.T. Cut 3s in a game against the Minnesota Lynx  on May 17, 2024, at Target Center in Minneapolis. (Photo credit John McClellan | The Next)

Laci hopes the awareness translates to donations, saying, “We’re very committed to making sure that every dollar is put to a wonderful use.”

She will continue to promote the nonprofit’s mission, bring awareness and encourage more conversations about autism all year.

“If you want to donate, that means a lot to the foundation, to the kids, to the families out in Florida, but just a lot of it helps a lot of the parents,” Loyd said.

Written by Bella Munson

Bella has been a contributor for The Next since September 2023 and is the site's Seattle Storm beat reporter. She also writes for The Equalizer while completing her Journalism & Public Interest Communication degree at the University of Washington.

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