The Story Behind Kobe Bryant's First Nike Signature Sneaker

Kobe Bryant's first Nike signature shoe laid the groundwork for what grew into one of Nike's most important and innovative lines.
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The following is excerpted from the forthcoming book COMPLEX PRESENTS: SNEAKER OF THE YEAR, THE BEST SINCE ’85 By COMPLEX published by Abrams Image, on-sale October 20. Text/Photo Copyright © 2020 Complex Media, Inc. Used by permission of Abrams Image, an imprint of Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York. All rights reserved.

The basketball footwear category owes more to Kobe Bryant than any other athlete not named Michael Jordan. Bryant was considered an exacting player whose attention to detail went unmatched, and that focus carried over to the shoes he wore on the court. The five-time NBA champion worked with Nike Basketball on a signature series defined by a performance-first approach. The first entry, the Zoom Kobe 1, laid the groundwork for what grew into one of the Swoosh’s most important and innovative lines. From the outset, Bryant worked closely with designers—setting the ultimate standard for athlete-designer rapport—to communicate his needs when it came to his sneakers.

Kobe’s tenure at Nike began in the summer of 2003. In the NBA seasons that followed, he sported what would become unofficial signature models: the Air Zoom Huarache 2K4 and 2K5. Designed by Eric Avar, the two models were Bryant’s starting point with Nike after he paid a reported $8 million to break free from his previous contract with Adidas. The Huaraches were unofficial in the sense that, while the shoes were made to Bryant’s specifications, they weren’t promoted as true signature models. At the time, Bryant’s 2003 Colorado sexual assault case cast a dark shadow over his public image. Fans turned against him, and most of his sponsors dropped him as it unfolded; Nike remained one of the only companies that didn’t cut ties with him.

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Once his legal issues were resolved, in March 2005, the time arrived for Bryant and Nike to craft the Zoom Kobe 1. But with Avar on leave, Nike Basketball design director Ken Link stepped in to help bring Bryant’s first official shoe to life. It didn’t stray far from the blueprint laid by the Huaraches, since both models were known to perform. The Huarache carryovers to the Zoom Kobe 1 included the pronounced outrigger for lateral stability, the high ankle collar, and Free movement, used for the soles. The model adopted Zoom Air in its forefoot and heel for the cushioning system and a large carbon-fiber plate that extended the length of the shoe for support.

Removing a section of the collar in the heel represented a noticeable shift from the ankle strap featured on the Huarache 2K4 and 2K5. The change allowed the foot to bend and flex naturally, and the emphasis on range of motion emerged as a staple of later entries in the series. According to Link, Bryant asked to do away with the strap. “He said he didn’t want one,” the designer told Sole Collector in 2013. “We wanted to focus on the collar, and you’ll start to see it in other shoes [later in his line], because a lot of times, he was already thinking about, ‘Could I get to a low?’ Getting to a low is not necessarily the easiest thing to do, but he felt like his game and where he was headed was getting to that low thought process.”

The Black Mamba’s increased workload in the wake of Shaquille O’Neal’s departure from the Lakers in 2004 necessitated all of the shoe’s tweaks and changes. After missing the 2005 playoffs, the franchise entered rebuild mode, and the roster lacked the firepower of previous seasons. Bryant knew he would be carrying the bulk of the load on both ends of the court, with opposing teams keyed in on him. But he prepared for the challenge by training relentlessly during the off-season. He also put in time with designers to articulate his performance needs for his footwear. “I think the best thing about Kobe is when he looks at a shoe, he wants to see himself and his game in his shoe,” Link told Sole Collector. “I think that’s one of the things about Kobe, is that he gives so much information that it truly drives the process.” Bryant entered the 2005–06 campaign with a newfound warrior mentality, and his new shoes would soon be part of his arsenal.

Bryant wouldn’t begin wearing the Zoom Kobe 1 until the Lakers’ Christmas Day game, donning a black and maize colorway for the nationally televised matchup against the Miami Heat. The Lakers lost, but it didn’t matter. Sneaker enthusiasts tuned into the game just to get a glimpse of the Mamba’s new Nike model.

In the aftermath of a disappointing season, Bryant willed the Lakers to win by scorching opponents nightly. He notched twenty-seven 40-point games, and even crossed the 50-point barrier six times. But the most memorable scoring output of them all came on January 22, 2006, against the Toronto Raptors.

On that night, despite the Raptors’ best efforts to slow his assault, the Black Mamba poured in bucket after bucket. Bryant ended the game with 81 points, including 55 in the second half. The Lakers needed every one of those points to pull out the come-from-behind victory of 122–104. The performance placed him in the history books, second only to Wilt Chamberlain, who put up a 100-point game in 1962. The night of his own feat, Bryant laced up a player-exclusive pair of the Zoom Kobe 1 dressed in predominantly white, with black and varsity purple accents. The makeup never received a wide release, much to the dismay of enthusiasts and collectors, but Nike did celebrate Bryant’s performance through later releases with commemorative nods to the 81-point outpouring. The PEs Bryant wore stand as a collector’s item, the memories of that night at the Staples Center attached to them.

Bryant went on a tear the whole month of January 2006, averaging 43.4 points per game. At the time, it once again put him behind Chamberlain for the highest-scoring month. Over the course of the season, Bryant scored over 2,800 total points, a number eclipsed only by Chamberlain and Michael Jordan, cementing his status as a member of the league’s upper echelon. Seasons of that caliber don’t require a heavy marketing push or embellished stories to sell sneakers; Bryant created enough moments on a nightly basis for fans to connect their own memories to any of the many ZK1 colorways he wore.

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Nike continued to revisit the original Zoom Kobe 1 over the years, most notably with a black based “81 Points” pair for 2013’s “Prelude Pack” and another sail-colored version for the “Fade to Black” collection in 2016. But the most significant return of the model arrived in 2018, when the Zoom Kobe 1 received new life as the first remake in Nike Basketball’s Protro series. Bryant shunned the idea of rolling out retros of his old shoes. “Kobe was like, ‘I want to take the best of ten years, give or take, later. The best of materials or technologies or processes that we have, knowing what we know now—how could we make some of the earlier Kobes better?’ ” said Avar, Nike’s vice president and creative director of innovation.

Bryant wanted any footwear bearing his name to symbolize performance above anything else and stayed involved in the process to make sure of it. “Hopefully the consumer knows by now that if you’re buying a Kobe product, you’re buying something that’s been thought through,” he emphasized in a 2016 interview with Sole Collector as his playing days were winding down. “We pay attention to detail all the way through. You’re buying something that’s going to help you perform better.”

To achieve those goals, Nike shaved off foam and did away with any excess materials, lightening the sneaker. Designers added full-length Zoom Air and trimmed the carbon fiber shank for a better feel. The final product bore a leaner, meaner physique better fit for modern athletes—but the fact that so few alterations were necessary testifies to the original version’s greatness.

Link would remain involved with the Zoom Kobe line throughout the early years before handing the reins back to Avar. It’s part of the reason why the first two entries in the series carry a decidedly different look and approach than later ones. Link’s works could be characterized as overbuilt, while Avar, under Bryant’s direction, took a more minimalist path in creating the Lakers star’s shoes. Avar started removing layers, weight, and height, pushing for the greatest range of movement possible as Bryant’s playing style evolved.

The ZK1 highlights the relationship between athlete and designer, born from Bryant’s tenure with Nike, and how the two forces push each other toward higher-performing footwear. The player’s sneakers redefined how signature models come to life and pushed the boundaries of design and innovation. Bryant knew his needs and was able to communicate them in ways other players could not.

“Kobe, he’s so far along the spectrum of what he expects out of a shoe and what he wants to put into it, and so he’s been there every step of the way,” Link told Sole Collector. “He really is ahead of his time, the way that he thinks about his game, the way he thinks about training for his game, the way he thinks about how his game interacts with the rest of his world and the world around it—he really gets that on a level that most people don’t get.”

Bryant understood that his shoes played a pivotal role in his quest to win championships and cement himself as one of the game’s greats, and the Zoom Kobe 1 laid the foundation for what became one of Nike’s most groundbreaking series to date, opening the door for the industry-shifting Zoom Kobe 4, the wildly popular Zoom Kobe 6, and the still-evolving Protro series.

“The shoes are part of the journey,” Bryant told Sole Collector in 2016. “They go hand in hand with the ring. I can’t get no ring without the sneakers that I’m wearing. They really helped me get there.”