LOS ANGELES — Sometimes Nike shoe designer Eric Avar gets five minutes in a hotel room with Kobe Bryant. Sometimes he has three hours to sit down and brainstorm ideas for Kobe’s signature shoe line.
But during the design of the newly released Kobe X -- the tenth signature sneaker Avar and Bryant have collaborated on -- Avar enjoyed something entirely new: two days with Kobe on a yacht.
“We didn’t talk basketball, we didn’t talk shoes,” Avar tells SI.com. “We didn’t talk about anything. That's probably one of the most intense experiences I’ve had with Kobe.”
Deep-sea fishing on a 100-foot yacht, Avar and Kobe were acting like younger versions of themselves. “It was playful, creative,” Avar says. “(Kobe) was just one of the guys, just a really cool experience. It was a really insightful trip.”
As Avar learned more about Kobe as a person, he worked to help Kobe incorporate his current view of “transparency” into the Kobe X, complete with a transparent sole to help show off design and technology that speaks to Kobe’s current state of mind.
“What I’ve done in the latter stages of my career is become more transparent," Bryant tells SI.com during a sit-down in Hollywood’s Milk Studio near Santa Monica Boulevard. "As I’ve evolved and continue to grow, I have become more comfortable to let people in and see me as a person. It is almost like the governor disappears. There’s such a feeling of comfort and being relaxed by being yourself. I wanted to reflect that in the shoe, be able to communicate that.”
The Avar-Bryant relationship is nothing new. They’ve worked together for over a decade now, with Kobe intimately involved in every aspect of the creation of his signature kicks.
“Eric and I both know when we are on to something when the rest of the room gets really uncomfortable,” Bryant says. “We tend to speak in code, I mean it's code for those who are around. For us, it's just how we talk.”
Kobe says the two speak in terms of nature, martial arts and philosophy. “I guess we speak in concepts instead of speaking very literally about something,” Kobe says. “We speak philosophically about things.”
When Kobe wanted to go with a low-top in 2008, he says Avar believed in the idea and backed him up, even with others not so much on board.
“The great thing about Kobe is that he is so direct, he is so honest,” Avar says. “He has a strong point of view, he has a strong voice. (There is) always a very open and collaborative conversation. It is just cool.”
Kobe’s level intensity is off the charts when he's on the court and Avar says it translates to the development of his signature shoes as well, even during the creative storytelling process.
“With Kobe, we talk about his undying work ethic and sense of perfection, which is why we get along so well,” Avar says. “I try to apply that to design.”
Avar doesn’t always know where that will lead, though. Over a year ago, when the Kobe 9 design was “baked” and done from an engineering and design perspective, Kobe wasn’t finished with it. A meeting near the end of the process -- as Avar was going over final colors with Kobe -- took a twist. Bryant had just returned from Achilles surgery and had pictures with him.
“He had taken pictures of the actual surgery and sutures,” Avar says. “It was kind of like a train wreck -- it was fascinating, but gnarly.”
It was then that Kobe came up with the idea to incorporate the nine red stitch marks onto the back of the Kobe 9. It was so late in the process, it barely got added. “It was a cool signature element from a metaphorical standpoint with Kobe, representing him coming back from adversity,” Avar says.
When it came time to design the Kobe X, Bryant didn’t want to fully abandon that design element. The duo reworked the concept, adding four red stitches to the Kobe X, representing the four feet of thread needed to sew his Achilles back together.
Probably the most major decision the two made together was before the 2008 shoe, the move to a low-top. “He felt like he could perform in a low-top and didn’t want that extra bulk and material around his ankle to inhibit his range of motion,” Avar says. Years later, the Kobe line returned to an ultra-high top, but with an engineered yarn, Flyknit, so the shoe didn’t have the bulk and weight of a traditional high-top.
Being able to explore different technology comes from Avar and Bryant designing the Kobe line out of Nike’s Advance Innovation Group, not the basketball category. “Myself and the entire team are exposed to all different types of emerging technologies across all different sports,” Avar says.
That mindset puts new ideas in front of Kobe sooner, something he craves when it comes to telling his exact sneaker story. While Kobe says that his products create a “snapshot” of who he is, Avar knows his place in the larger Kobe Bryant story.
“Kobe’s ultimate legacy will be much bigger and broader than product,” Avar says. “The role I play in that or the (design) team plays in that is a small part. He has big ideas and big dreams. It is just a part of who and what he is. Even at some small level through the design of his product, we try to capture some of those thoughts, dreams and inspirations that can help contribute to what will be a much broader legacy.”
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.