Many questioned the decision when Nike made a $90 million investment in LeBron James out of high school. Fast forward 15 years later and James has become one of the Swoosh's most influential and successful athletes. James is easily on Nike's Mount Rushmore, a list that includes Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson and Tiger Woods. While those names are titans in the sports marketing world, James has become one of the most versatile athletes on and off the court. His social awareness is off the charts and he goes above and beyond in ways none of the names mentioned before him ever did. We haven't seen someone of LeBron's magnitude relate to people and speak on issues at this rate since perhaps Muhammad Ali. When James talks the world listens.
This all started in 2003, a year that marked a seismic shift in the sneaker industry. With Michael Jordan retiring, Nike was in need of a new torchbearer and it just so happened the most polarizing high school athlete of our time was graduating. The sneaker hunt for James is well-documented. Adidas low-balled, Reebok basically offered him the company, and he eventually landed with the Swoosh. Since then, LeBron has been at the forefront of signature sneakers in the NBA.
He signed a lifetime deal (reportedly for $1 billion) to remain with Nike and is currently playing in his 15th signature sneaker, which has made headlines with the LeBron Watch Program. James's line has taken on a new life, leaving behind the bulky performance silhouettes to make lifestyle attempts with the Flyknit upper of the LeBron 15. Given his long history in the industry, The Crossover decided to rank each of James's sneakers.
1. Nike LeBron XIII - 2015
Notable Colorway(s): Written in the Stars
The LeBron 13 was perhaps the least visually appealing sneaker in his line. Even LeBron mentioned that his last few sneakers prior to the 15 were some of his biggest misses. While the tech was up to date at the time with a breathable mesh upper, flywire technology that provided some excellent lockdown features, I just couldn’t get over the horrid colorways and the overall aesthetic of the sneaker.
2. Nike Zoom LeBron II - 2004
Notable Colorways: Navy ‘Chamber of Fear’, Birthday, All-Star, Triple-Double
It seems like signature sneaker No. 2 has been a tough sell for the majority of Nike’s basketball athletes. The Jordan II wasn’t met with much fanfare when it first released. The Nike Kobe 2 is not regarded as one of Bryant’s best. Kevin Durant’s second signature model is not one of his most memorable attempts. Granted, following the Nike Air Zoom Generation (LeBron’s first signature sneaker) and his successful rookie season, more eyes were on James more than ever. The LeBron II was catered to his massive size and was equipped with crazy cushioning. But besides the sneakers main attraction, a large strap across the top, there wasn't much to enjoy. It is not a bad looking silhouette but definitely not one of the James’s strongest.
3. Nike Zoom LeBron VI - 2008
Notable Colorways: Chalk, Big Apple, Olympic, SVSM, Fairfax
The LeBron VI was marketed at the time to be LeBron’s most versatile signature model. A silhouette that was made to be worn off the court and with your everyday attire, it was just too much of a sharp turn from his previous looks. Looking at LeBron’s line all together, it doesn't really fit within the bunch. Nike DePaula of Nick Kicks and ESPN did awesome reporting on the origin of the LeBron VI and how the sneaker went through a redesign and had to be replaced in a matter of months.While the sneakers did provide fun colorways like the Fairfax editions, they just don’t feel like a LeBron signature sneaker to me. The shoe did inspire a great “Chalk” commercial, however.
4. Nike Zoom LeBron III - 2005
Notable Colorways: White/Gold, China, All-Star, Black/Varsity Crimson, White, Black Varsity Crimson
By his third signature sneaker, LeBron James was already regarded as one of best players in the NBA. The LeBron III was basically the II with a very slim strap system, which provided a much cleaner look and still incorporated the Zoom system.
5. Nike LeBron 14 - 2016
Notable colorways: Red Carpet, Hardwood Classics
I feel like the LeBron 14 kind of came and went. There wasn’t much hype surrounding the shoe when it was debuted by the King on Christmas Day of 2016. The sneaker was a bit overshadowed by James's release of the Soldier XI. This is not a bad sneaker at all, but will people remember the 14 in terms of impact a few years from now?
6. LeBron X - 2012
Notable colorways: Cork, Carbon, Area 72 All-Star
The LeBron X is a huge fan favorite, but in my opinion it was just too bulky for the masses. It was the first signature basketball sneaker to feature Nike+ Basketball technology that tracked and measured performance. The most memorable moment for me came when Jahlil Okafor wore the LeBron X as his go-to sneaker during Duke's championship run in 2015. Okay, maybe that is a stretch since James wore them when he won his second title against the Spurs. The Elite version and the cork edition, however, were standouts.
7. LeBron VIII - 2010
Notable colorways: South Beach, Christmas, China, Miami Nights
The LeBron VIII was built upon that same tech of the LeBron VII that featured Air Max technology. The sneaker also included a leather upper and was said to be molded after the shell of a dress shoe. As mentioned before, I'm just not a fan of the bulk. The best thing about the LeBron VIII was the fun list of colorways, like the South Beach editions.
8. LeBron XI - 2013
Notable Colorways: Miami Nights, King's Pride, Christmas
We must applaud Nike and Jason Petrie’s effort to create a futuristic sneaker, the XI really was a step away from the typical bulky fit for LeBron. It was his lightest sneaker at the time and is the lowest LeBron sneaker ever. The upper featured Nike Hyperposite technology that provided lightweight lock-down that helped for protection and containment.
9. LeBron XII - 2014
Notable Colorways: HRT of a Lion, Trillion Dollar Man, Data
Despite enduring product quality issues that delayed the release date, the LeBron 12 incorporated several cool features. The five visible, hexagonally shaped Nike Zoom Air bags in the outsole was pretty dope and provided an extra punch of explosiveness with each stride. The brand also didn't go all out with too many colorways. It kind of reminded me of classic Nike sneakers that had only three or four original colorways.
10. LeBron V - 2007
Notable colorways:Hardwood Classics, China, Yankees, Black/Red Crimson, White and Gold
The LeBron V was inspired by royalty and is without a doubt one of the cleanest looking sneakers in his collection. The LeBron IV was widely successful due to its outlandish design, but the V toned it down a bit and went with a sleek look that was fit for a King. The strap made its return to one of LeBron's most personal shoes—a milk crate pattern was on the ankle strap that symbolized the basket LeBron used to play on when he was a kid.
11. LeBron 9 - 2012
Notable colorways: South Beach, Cannon, Kentucky, Christmas
The LeBron IX gets a lot of credit for being the first sneaker he won an NBA title in. It is also worth nothing that the sneakers arrived late due to the lockout-shortened 2011–12 season. Designer Jason Petrie put visible Air Max on the heel and Zoom Air in the forefoot. It was also the first Nike shoe that included Hyperfuse material and Flywire tech.
12. Nike Air Max LeBron VII - 2009
Notable Colorways:White/Red, Red Carpet, All-Star, Yankees, Hardwood Classics
The LeBron VII went in a total different direction from previous sneakers. The silhouette was the first time Nike used its Air Max cushioning system in a basketball sneaker. Designed by Jason Petrie, the LeBron VII contained 80% more air than the previous full-length unit for comfort. The sneaker also possessed Nike’s Flywire technology, which was first introduced in the Nike Hyperdunk. The LeBron VII had great colorways and introduced us to his red carpet theme.
13. Zoom LeBron IV - 2006
Notable Colorways: Fruity Pebbles, NYC Graffiti, Hardwood Classics, China, All-Star
Nike plunged back into their archives to inspire one of LeBron's best kicks, the LeBron IV. The shoe featured foamposite, which was highly popular within '90s with the Nike Air Foamposite One. It was one of the most anticipated releases of 2006 and became the first LeBron sneaker that made a successful crossover off the court. The IV provided awesome colorways like the Fruity Pebbles and NYC graffiti. It also gave us one of the greatest commercials ever.
14. Nike Air Zoom Generation - 2003
Notable Colorways: White/Black-Red, White/Red-Blue, All-Star, Black/White-Red, Olympic
It is pretty rare for a first-year player to receive their own signature sneaker from Nike, but not every first-year player is LeBron James. The shoe's inspiration alone (Hummer H2 his mother bought him in high school) gives this a worthy spot at No. 2. The purchase brought plenty of attention to LeBron and his mother, but to follow up by signing a massive sneaker contract and developing a shoe around the purchase is a boss move. The Nike Zoom Generation was the most important sneaker in LeBron's career and started a relationship with the Swoosh that will now last a lifetime. Nike bet big on a young phenom and it paid off massively. The sneaker made its return this past January.
15. Nike LeBron 15 - 2018
Notable Colorways: LeBron Watch colorways, Long Live the King Collection, Christmas, Hollywood
I am comfortable on going on record and saying the LeBron 15 is the greatest LeBron sneaker by a mile. The LeBron Watch activation alone has been so fun this season, and has kept consumers watching every game LeBron plays. The LeBron 15's run started off by making its debut during the KITH fashion show, which led to a complete collection dubbed "Long Live the King". The LeBron Watch program has drawn inspiration from many of James's sports heroes, paying homage to Deion Sanders, Ken Griffey Jr., and Vince Carter. The sneaker itself is a beast performance-wise on the court and features a battle-knit upper that makes the sneaker durable, but it is also very light at the same time. Nike did a great job in year 15 for LeBron and it is going to be fun to see how they top this.