LOS ANGELES -- Every sneaker has a story. Whether emotion is woven into the design or history is crystallized by a special game-worn pair, these stories matter to a basketball star concerned with his legacy. These stories matter to Kobe Bryant.
That’s why Kobe laces up a new pair of kicks before every game, stashing away the old ones. Some are tucked inside the bowels of the Lakers’ practice facility and others that carry the most cherished stories secured in a vault. Every shoe, every emotion of his 19-year career cataloged by the shoes that commemorated the moment.
Speaking to SI.com earlier this month in Los Angeles ahead of the launch of his 10th signature shoe with Nike, the Kobe X, Bryant said that while his latest shoe gives us a snapshot of where he is right now, every shoe he’s helped create tells a story and represents as an important chapter of his evolution.
“When I first started the process working with Nike, I told them about my vision and my idea to look 20 years from now and literally pick up (any) product and understand what that represents,” Bryant said. “Some products are darker than others, a snapshot of a moment of time. You can almost look at that shoe and pull out a certain emotion. That is what I was going through at that time.
“What I’ve done in the latter stages of my career is become more transparent. As I’ve evolved and continue to grow, I have become more comfortable to let people in and see me as a person.”
In 2005, during Kobe's early stages as a designer and the prime of his career, we saw a clean style focused on technology. But by 2008, the Lakers star was ready to challenge the norm in basketball design and opt for a low-cut shoe for more lightweight movement. “I wanted a low shoe,” he said, “I believed I could perform better.”
Critics said the low-cut wouldn’t work. “The truth of the matter is I stepped out on the court and scored 60 points and everybody believed in the s---.”
With the help of Eric Avar, the Nike designer behind all of Kobe’s signature shoes from the past decade, Kobe brought the low-top style to the forefront in 2008. He also introduced a little extra edge on his look that would quickly catch on: the Black Mamba persona.
“It has become an attitude,” Bryant said while wearing a white sweatshirt with a Mamba print down the sleeves. “It gives you a cover to be able to go out and kick ass. No, that wasn’t me, that was my Mamba personality. It is like a hall pass.”
The Mamba print played major roles in the look of Kobe’s recent shoes, but Avar turned it into a “discovery” element in the simplified design of the Kobe X, appearing only under the tongue of the brand-new model.
While Kobe underwent surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff this week, it was his torn Achilles that served as motivation for his last shoe, the Kobe 9. After a grueling and painful rehabilitation process, Bryant added nine red stitches to the back of his shoe to represent the nine stitches left on his leg from his Achilles surgery. Kobe said the stitches served as a reminder to what he had to go through to get back on the court. It's a story that he continued with the Kobe X, which bear four red stitches on the heel, paying homage to the four feet of thread doctors used to repair Bryant's Achilles.
But 2015’s emotional snapshot proves much larger than stitching. Clarity. Transparency. Not just as an athlete, but a person. That’s how Kobe tells it.
“As I’ve aged, I’ve become more and more comfortable being able to just really open up,” he said. “It is like the governor disappears and I wanted to reflect that in the shoe. I wanted to be able to communicate that.”
To create that look -- a process in which Kobe brings unrivaled intensity to, says Avar -- Bryant borrowed inspiration from the clear back of the first Mac computer. Bryant and Avar built a transparent outsole, adding in design and technology to fill out a transparent Kobe story.
The first of five colorways in the Kobe X collection is the "5 AM FLIGHT" (release date Feb. 7) a design that possesses transparent soles and stories.
“It means commitment,” Kobe said. “Waking up at 5 a.m. to do anything is hard. But I get up at 5 a.m. and I train. I can get more training if I start earlier.”
Potentially the boldest design move comes in a large gold X on the underside of the heel, pronouncing the 10th edition of the sneaker. Kobe’s signature written in gold across the X accentuates the color.
“The gold sole, I’m not playing to be second, not playing to be third,” he said. “I’m not playing to be this close to number one; I want to be number one. When I put on those shoes and I walk, that is the path I’m walking down.”
But as he’s gotten older, No. 24 has taken a slightly different approach to his path. With more caution. Proceeding more gingerly. Early on, remaining low to the floor for quickness and speed was key to Kobe's game. Padding and support didn’t matter. “Now as I get older, cushioning becomes a real major aspect,” he said.
Kobe wanted to morph his love of low-to-the-floor quickness with his need for cushioning in the Kobe X. He clearly shows us his age-required importance on cushioning with a combination of air and foam cut to the movement of his foot. Cushioning doesn't matter much, though, without constant contact with the floor. Hundreds of tiny "nodules" make up a new grippy traction in the Kobe X. The nodules, new for a Nike basketball shoe, have proven so traction-oriented that Avar said they had to detune the grippy factor during testing. The forefoot and midfoot feature Lunarlon cushioning, the lightweight yet resilient foam see in many Nike shoes, cut so that the foot can move naturally. The heel, though, contains a giant Zoom Air bag for intense cushioning. The combination of Lunarlon and Zoom Air is a unique twist for Bryant’s signature line.
Staying with a low-top cut with engineered mesh on the upper helps cut down overall weight. While the Kobe 9 introduced Nike’s lightweight engineered yarn, Flyknit, to basketball in a super high-top, the X flips the script and returns Kobe to a lower form, although Avar reminds us that even the 9 saw low-top engineered mesh versions appear later and quite possibly Nike is simply “changing up that formula a little bit” for the roll-out of the X.
A carbon fiber wing helps with stabilization during those hard basketball cuts, giving high strength without much added weight. Avar said they moved the carbon fiber forward to allow the foot a more natural movement during those 90-degree cuts on a 45-degree angle.
Kobe said at this stage of his career he’s learned how to “make things work” on the floor, using different parts of his game as needed. It was the same with his 10th signature for Nike, combining bits and pieces of technology together. “Let’s take some of the most innovative technologies and morph them into one shoe,” he said. “Not supposed to work? Let’s make them work together.”
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Making sure the story, the design and the technology all mesh doesn’t bring Kobe in during the 11th hour. “I don’t know how other athletes go about doing it, I just so happen to love the process, love design, love storytelling,” he said. “I was crazy involved from the start. The first shoe we designed together, that process was insane.”
It started with Kobe, Avar, legendary shoe designer Tinker Hatfield and Nike CEO Mark Parker “sitting around throwing out ideas and concepts.” Originally, the team was transfixed with great white sharks and how they stealthily move and have a simple, slick design. There are even elements of the slick simplicity early on in Kobe's line. But eventually Kobe and Co. evolved and moved past the shark and straight to a snake, signifying his drive.
“The great thing about Kobe is that he is so direct, he is so honest,” Avar said. “He has a strong point of view, he has a strong voice. The public knows him as an incredibly intense, driven individual. He brings that to the creative process. His level of depth and intensity is by far off the charts.”
With a nine-month rehabilitation now facing him, the 5 AM FLIGHT colorway will continue to serve as a reminder that in order to build more on-the-floor snapshots for his future shoes, he has work to do off it. But no matter how much basketball Kobe has left, he doesn’t see leaving the world of hoops or sneakers anytime soon.
“It is kind of weird to talk about when players or athletes or people in general talk about retirement,” Kobe said. “What I learned from basketball, I continue to evolve those and apply those to other areas, apply those to my next passion.”
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And that will include continuing his line of shoes, saying he’s already looking forward to the 11th, 12th and 13th iterations. “Continue to build, continue to go,” he said as he flipped a basketball between hands. “I don’t set out to make a really hot shoe, I set out to make a product that is true to where I am.”
The sneaker snapshots have not come by accident. Kobe's line of signature shoes have purposefully told the story of his evolution. He’s always approached life philosophically. “That’s what happens to a kid who is 10 years old and has to read the Iliad cover to cover in Latin,” Bryant said. “You end up with a very philosophical perspective on things.”
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.