Any sneaker designer will tell you that Kobe Bryant was a different athlete to work with. He drew inspiration from unique events in his life. One of my favorite stories is from the launch of the Nike Kobe X. Each colorway of Bryant’s 10th signature shoe with Nike revealed something new about him and his drive. But it was the blue lead colorway, “5 AM Flight”, that Kobe was most excited about, because it centered around his 40-foot, early morning leap from a diving platform in 2013, as he recovered from Achilles surgery. The jump proved to be symbolic for Kobe and his return to the basketball court. It was about overcoming the odds to face fear head-on.
This is how Bryant attacked every sneaker project, every design and of course, the basketball court. Longtime Nike basketball designer and Kobe collaborator, Eric Avar told Sports Illustrated in 2015, “Kobe’s ultimate legacy will be much bigger and broader than product. 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.”
Bryant was one of nine who died in a helicopter crash on Sunday, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna. His impact and influence has been felt everywhere, from the NBA, the Grammys, the NFL during Super Bowl week, soccer and the world of sneakers, where he became one of Nike’s most marketable stars.
Kobe entered the NBA as a prodigy but brands at the time were not shelling out millions of dollars to athletes—certainly not to a 17-year-old. That is where Sonny Vaccaro enters the story. Vaccaro, who is behind some of the biggest sneaker deals in the industry—Michael Jordan just to name one—left Nike for Adidas in the early ’90s and was tasked with finding the next great one. The mission was to find the person that could mimic what Jordan did for Nike for Adidas. He told the brand to invest millions in Bryant and to make him the face of the company. Bryant donned three signature sneakers with Adidas, the KB8 (known widely as The Crazy8), KB8 2 and the KB8 3 before leaving the brand for a highly publicized sneaker free agency.
NBA players constantly discuss how much fun it was to watch Kobe wear different sneakers during this time. P.J. Tucker of the Houston Rockets and the NBA’s sneaker king, told Sports Illustrated in November in the middle of his own sneaker free agency, “When Kobe left Adidas for Nike, he came with the A.I. Reebok Questions in a Lakers’ colorway and even the Jordan III’s. That was crazy.”
Bryant signed a lucrative deal with Nike in 2003 after negotiating with the brand and Reebok. The deal came a month after Nike signed LeBron James to a $90 million contract but Bryant’s ascension into one of Nike’s main signature guys was put on hold after his 2003 sexual assault charge, which was later dropped and settled out of court.
Alongside Avar, Bryant redefined signature sneakers by experimenting with different themes and elements. Growing up in Italy, he was inspired by soccer cleats and wanted to bring that sleekness and low-cut profile to basketball shoes. We started to see this method with the Kobe IV and the Kobe V, which are still favorites for NBA players. Tucker credits the Kobe IV as his favorite basketball sneaker to play in because it has the “combination of everything”. He took risks and did things in unconventional ways, such as jumping over a speeding Aston Martin to promote the Nike Hyperdunk 2008.
It's not a surprise that many young NBA stars idolized Kobe. He was the MJ of this generation.
DeMar DeRozan, who idolized Kobe growing up in Los Angeles, told Sports Illustrated in 2017 that his love for Kobe’s goes back to his high school days. “I think I was the first person to have the Nike ID Kobe’s and I had them in my high school colors. I had a whole bunch of them, and I made it a thing then to wear a different Kobe every game. Even then I used to wear a shoe and then throw them in the crowd. I wore them in college, too. Now that I’m in the league, I want to wear a different Kobe, I want to show off my colorway, my selection of Kobe’s.”
Bryant and Kyrie Irving found a common link with their love for Bruce Lee and his wisdom. They both honored Lee on sneakers—first Kobe with the Kobe V with a yellow and black color scheme that paid homage to Lee’s outfit in Game of Death and added four red slash marks on the side to resemble Lee’s chest in Enter the Dragon. Irving paid homage to his mentor with a special edition of the Kyrie 3 dubbed “Mamba Mentality” that had the same features of the Kobe V in 2017.
Bryant’s sneakers resonated with sneakerheads around the world. He was the king of sneaker tours. He usually took trips to Asia and Europe to promote his brand but also teach the game. In China, he was viewed as a God and had his own temple called House of Mamba. His sneakers can be found on some of the biggest stars in the game today. Many sneaker brands along with Nike paid tribute to him within hours after his death—Adidas, Under Armour and Puma all published social media posts honoring him.
Kobe may be gone but his legacy will continue to live on forever.