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Jack McCallum has tough time revising his best NBA players list
Friday February 5th, 2016

Kyle Lowry leans forward in a swiveling office chair with one hand holding a colored shoelace and the other touching a textured material sample. At the same time he’s talking color—faded grays, stealth blacks and Villanova blue. Lowry is immersed in a process devised to build special “player edition” sneakers for NBA players.

Kyle Lowry is at Adidas headquarters in Portland, swimming in all things sneakers.

“It is everybody’s dream,” he tells SI.com. “When you are at a certain point, yeah, you are trying to figure out how to leave some sort of legacy or your print on a company or a shoe.”

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Lowry started his NBA career wearing Adidas, the German-based brand that owns a North American headquarters about three miles from Portland’s Moda Center. But he then switched to Peak, a Chinese brand. He returned to Adidas about 18 months ago, and now the Raptors’ two-time NBA All-Star starter—don’t forget the “starter” part—has a chance to create for Adidas. For himself.

“It is cool, it is like, ‘Wow, a company wants you to look good, wants you to be comfortable, but wants you to do it your way,’” Lowry says. “It makes you feel good.”

These player edition meetings are about looking and feeling good.

Sure, the pinnacle of NBA sneakers comes from the signature model. But that is an elusive goal for many, with less than a dozen active contracts among North American brands. The rise to signature starts with player editions, known as PEs in the sneaker world, is an easier plateau to reach. These can be anything from a mainline sneaker in team colors with a nickname, number or special word added somewhere on the sneaker to full story-filled designs told through colors, graphics and words.

courtesy Adidas

For Lowry, who Adidas certainly wants to promote ahead of an All-Star Game in his current hometown, an upcoming wave of player editions will go far beyond the norm. Lowry will be one of the faces of the new fall line and he loves the process, you see.

“I am able to stimulate the creative side of my mind,” he says. “We don't always get to use the creative side off the floor, but right now I want to get me some purple, some orange, (colors of shoes he had just brainstormed with designers) and be creative.”

Lowry embraced all that Adidas had to offer during a once-a-year occasion that fit perfectly with the Raptors playing in Phoenix the night before the meeting. The Raptors had an off-day in Portland before a game the following night in which Lowry scored 30 points and dished eight assists to help defeat the Blazers.

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He started his day thanking a roomful of Adidas staffers, folks who work in all facets of basketball sneaker design, a category based in Portland and not Germany. He welcomed a quick question-and-answer with the crowd, reliving his favorite pair of Adidas sneakers (the Pilrahna from 2006, correcting an Adidas staffer about the year along the way, calling it “one of the best shoes ever”) and joking about how he tells teammates he has no access to the latest Yeezy releases (he does).

Then start the meetings, where Lowry assumes his position in a seat at the head of the small conference room table with views of Portland’s drizzly weather. Apparel starts it off. Lowry tells designers he travels in comfort and needs matching sweatsuits for the road, zippers on every pocket and free-flowing fabrics for postgame. He shares details about NBA players’ love for the 3/4th-cut short these days and how he needs multiple options for the variety of cities he visits. He wants Adidas to taper down and tailor the other gear though, jokingly telling them to “make it sexy and show off my body.”

courtesy Adidas

Designers want to know his favorite fashion brands and figure out what he enjoys wearing off the court. That will help define how they design in the future. They show off some unreleased All-Star collaborations, giving him a boxful of “East” gear he can sport during the Toronto festivities.

With apparel discussed, those designers file out, making room for the sneaker folks to fill the table. Here they want to know what Lowry does and does not like about the Crazylight Boost line he plays in. They want to make sure he’s happy. Playing in a Primeknit version now, Lowry explains how stability is the most important attribute of a sneaker, especially for a player who doesn't tape his ankles and wears just a single pair of socks. “I just play,” he says. “I go left or right and it shifts with me. That is one thing that is important to me so I don’t have to worry. I’m in and out and the shoe is responsive. I’m hoopin’.”

And then comes the showing off, with designers giving him low, mid and high top examples of a new basketball sneaker silhouette planned for fall/winter 2016. Adidas wants Lowry to be one of the faces of the shoe, a position atop the PE food chain. With a dozen models and colors both of this new line and updates to current lines spread across the table, Lowry looks them over commenting on attributes he enjoys. “I don’t even have to touch it to know it is a comfortable shoe,” he says.

The designers want his feedback. Lowry keeps repeating the word “crazy,” which makes Adidas folks happy, as the word crazy appears in many of the names of their shoes. From there, though, he starts talking about the look of the new design, pointing out he prefers to play in the low tops, and color schemes he gravitates to. But if Adidas wants him to help sell the sneaker, he’s willing to play a preseason game, a half of a game or whatever they need in a mid top or high top to show it off. “I’m willing to do what it takes,” he says.

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With Lowry’s preferences in hand, the design team can then figure out the best way to roll out the new line, knowing his input proves invaluable. “This is crazy, this is impressive,” Lowry says as he soaks in the shoe and his role.

With much of the big-picture discussion done, the tone shifts to details, such as shoestrings. Lowry cares about shoestrings. He wants ones with a bit of stretch as he pulls them tight. He also wants more shoestring options, as he’s now taken to switching strings out to mix-and-match his look.

But the biggest personal discussion comes with the third meeting, one about colors and materials, where less than a handful of designers fill the table with books of color swatches, piles of materials and sneakers.

For colors, Lowry knows he loves blue. The Philadelphia native played at Villanova and the blue still resonates with him. And maybe a shoe that fades, starting with blue and fading lighter, maybe to gray, maybe that would work. He talks about that. But as the brainstorm session takes shape, you see Lowry’s interest in all black, white, even a garnet and gold color option to throwback to his high school days play in his mind. He’s intrigued by the mixes of purple and orange, but wants to stay away from solid red.

“The shoe is the pop,” he says. “The shoe is the set it off.”

courtesy Adidas

For stories, it all starts with his young family. Already Lowry writes the names of his boys—Kam and Karter—on his shoes, so maybe Adidas can do that for him. “Put it somewhere where I can see it and look at it,” he says. “It is my story, it is for my heart.”

The stories don’t stop. Lowry puts a focus on the ups and downs of life, bouncing back from adversity. He speaks about how the phrase “be great” means a lot to him, helps him get up for those early morning workouts. Then come the questions from the designers. Is there a place or area code that has special meaning? “215.” A specific location? “Connie Mack Park” in Philadelphia. Folk hero? “Rocky. Me being from Philly, you could do Rocky. I’m a sports fanatic, so (also) the Eagles green.” Then the creative juices keep flowing. Lowry discusses using the zodiac signs for his boys—a lion and a crab—somehow.

Then come materials. “I like texture,” he says. “A little bit of shine, but not bright.” He reiterates his love of blue, how he likes clear soles and thinks using his personal logo as a small-scale stamp could play well as a graphic.

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The takeaways are plenty for the designers. Once Lowry opened up, they saw his personal preferences and the stories that make him tick as a player, as a person. Now it will be their job to weave that into a mix of colorways, some to wear in team colors on the court and some for those special NBA days where players can stray far from the NBA’s color rules.

Lowry’s excited for the next step, when he sees the options drawn up, all designed and crafted specifically for him—while there Adidas took scans of his feet to customize the fit of his size 13 sneakers. For a player wearing a new shoe every three games or so, giving out his old ones to kids, the idea of having his own PE stash has him thinking he’ll break out a new pair every game. As Adidas designers start creating, we’ll see his PEs roll out after this season. When you spot the Kyle Lowry PE on his feet and at retail, know that Lowry’s level of engagement has directed every design detail. Especially the shoelaces.

Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, sneakers and design for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb

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