In the echelons of sneaker culture, Kobe Bryant will probably always fall below names like Michael Jordan and LeBron James. That’s because Kobe Bryant the sneaker salesman is very similar to Kobe Bryant the ballplayer: He’s constantly evolving, changing, fine-tuning, searching for something new, something better. Whereas Jordan’s signature shoes laid a blueprint for a generation to follow and then LeBron has stayed true to the roots that made him the most hyped high school basketball player since Lew Alcindor, Bryant arrived as a charismatic, baby-faced assassin bent on dominating everything from buckets to hip-hop. He eventually grew into something completely different: a maniacal basketball talent obsessed with things like technique, footwork, and training. Most iconic players generally just have a career. They arrive. They dominate. They leave with a legacy. But Bryant? He was different, and it’s something he doesn’t get enough credit for. He survived and flourished through what felt like two or three different careers. Split his playing days into phases and you’ll be able to see the differences.
Joining adidas fresh out of high school, we saw Bryant’s shoe line quickly morph from one that screamed 1990s on-court sneaker style — in classic shoes like the adidas KB8 and KB2 — toward a product that screamed sophistication. The KOBE and The KOBE 2, released during Bryant’s second and third championship runs with the Lakers in 2001 and 2002, respectively, were so far ahead of their time that we still probably haven’t caught up to them yet. They were accompanied by commercials that showed Bryant talking trash in Italian or backed by architecture and marveling over life lessons. For someone who had only recently turned 21, it was both odd and refreshing. As for the shoes themselves? Bryant’s adidas signatures turned into classics on their own, especially the shoe that later became the Crazy 8. But there was no overriding identity traced throughout the silhouettes, no way to link them all. They lived on their own, prisoners of a moment. Still, it was pure Mamba, constantly changing and morphing into something new.
While the adidas relationship was eventually cut short, Bryant showcased that he did have a specific hold on basketball fans, a magnetism that only grew as he became the NBA’s best player. This commercial alone made young fans like myself want his sneakers, if only to ask whether these dunks were actually real. (For those of you wondering, there are only two dunks in this video that are fake. I’ll let you figure it out.)
Eventually, Bryant moved on to Nike where, again, his sneakers struggled to find common ground. Although his first signature with the Swoosh is still one of his best ever — considering it was the sneaker he was wearing when he dropped 81 points on the Toronto Raptors — he was also a headliner for the Air Zoom Huarache 2K4 and subsequent Kobe editions struggled to connect with a burgeoning sneaker culture. It wasn’t until the Nike Zoom Kobe IV hit — not coincidentally the shoe Bryant was wearing when he won his first championship without Shaq — that the sneaker game truly took notice.
Designed to resemble a soccer boot, the shoe was a low-cut, lightweight silhouette inspired by soccer, three key ingredients that came to dominate the future for Bryant and Nike. At the time, their thinking was revolutionary. How low could you go? How light? Over the past 10 years, Bryant has repeatedly carried the torch for innovation among basketball performance sneakers, embracing the challenge of making a better shoe each and every year by pushing the boundaries of what everyone once thought possible.
The V dipped even further into its soccer inspiration, releasing in an unprecedented 33 colorways, many of which directly related to Bryant’s upbringing in soccer-crazed Italy. By this point, it was obvious Bryant’s widespread appeal didn’t just come from big dunks, All-Star Game MVPs, and championships. Just as many people admired him for his work ethic, the way he continuously worked to stay in peak condition, and the way he defied Father Time’s odds. His sneaker became a symbol of that, and with the Zoom Kobe VI, Nike and designer Eric Avar successfully combined aspects of Bryant’s signature shoe with his on-court “Black Mamba” persona. The results were incredible, including an undeniable snakeskin upper that shook up the sneaker industry.
Since that point, Bryant and Avar have built off that success and created a line known for consistently pushing the boundaries of low-cut basketball shoes while appealing to Bryant’s innate killer instinct, taking inspiration from everything from snakes to sharks to cheetahs. His latest sneaker, the Nike Kobe 9, once again redefined both his legacy and the sneaker culture as a whole. It was the first time since 2007 that the team had gone with a high-cut shoe and it also became the first basketball sneaker to embrace Nike’s Flyknit technology, giving the sneaker a superior lightweight strength.
“I draw inspiration from where I am as a player, as a person, and where my career is at this moment,” Kobe said during the launch of the Kobe 9. “I’m trying to do something that the majority of people think is impossible to do. I let my emotions out when I step on the basketball floor, it’s always been my escape, and these shoes will touch a nerve on the court in the same way I do.”
As we close in on the release of the Kobe 10 — right now, it seems February is likely — it’s interesting to look back and view Bryant’s sneaker legacy as something that constantly evolved and changed, constantly pushed the boundaries of what was culturally acceptable.
We always talk about how a player’s shoes should reflect their personality. That’s never been more distinct than with Kobe Bryant.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanesweeney