How Kyrie Irving Is Nike’s Replacement for Kobe Bryant

When Nike unveiled Kyrie Irving’s first dedicated sneaker back in December of 2014, it felt like something more than your typical sneaker reveal. Rather, for the brand’s first new signature baller since Kevin Durant seven years prior, it felt like a coronation.

As the All-Star point guard hit the stage wearing a pair of his new Kyrie 1’s, he was greeted by Penny Hardaway and Charles Barkley, both high on the pantheon of Nike signature athletes. From the back of the auditorium, Cavs teammate and Swoosh scion LeBron James voiced his support. With the past and present of Nike Basketball well represented, the message was clear: Kyrie is the future.

“I’m happy that he’s a part of the signature guys and part of the whole Nike family,” James told ESPN. “We do things like no other. We don’t follow behind nobody. We lead everything and for him to be a part of it, I think it’s great.”

Anthony Davis, Elena Delle Donne, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Kyrie Irving, Paul George
Nike

As it turned out, he wasn’t just a part of the plan, but a big part: Much as LeBron followed Michael Jordan, Nike actually views Irving as their hand-picked sneaker successor to the retiring Kobe Bryant.

In a recent interview with Nice Kicks, designer Leo Chang explained that Nike Basketball has three self-explanatory categories that align with the on-court attributes of its longtime standard bearers: Explosive Power (James), Dynamic Versatility (Durant), and Electric Quickness (Bryant). Though Kobe’s line will continue after his retirement this spring, the Swoosh needed someone current to replace him, and Kyrie–though hardly an identical player–fits the bill.

“Kyrie really was a sharp point for Electric Quickness,” Chang told Nice Kicks. “He exemplified that notion of speed in multi-directions. It was awesome to have that kind of player that could be one of the muses for that silo.”

[Related: Schooled–Kyrie Before the NBA]

Kyrie Irving
Bryan Horowitz

In a way, Irving has been trending in this direction long before drawing a paycheck from Nike. If you watched him play at St. Patrick High School, you saw a wispy dervish possessing talent and panache the likes of which one rarely sees. He would commonly throw a bounce pass to himself through his defender’s legs on a fast break, and it wasn’t that he was overly showy, just supremely creative.

The Kyrie 1 was universally well received both on and off the court, but the Kyrie 2 is a step up in terms of catering to its namesake’s electric style. Irving’s repertoire, flush with explosive crossovers, sharp cuts, and spin moves, creates different demands on his sneakers than even his most talented peers might need.

The main technological advancement was to allow the sneakers to “bank” the same way a motorcycle does. The Kyrie 2’s outsole is rounded on both the medial and lateral side, with the traction pattern uniquely designed to work within those parameters.

“That was unusual to him at first, and he said, ‘Wow, this doesn’t feel like any other shoe,’” Chang said. “Once he started to do his movements, and doing his spin move, his crossover and all of the stuff that he does, he started to really enjoy it and love it.”

Nike Kyrie 2 Kyrie Irving

Much like Kobe’s sneakers tend to do, the Kyrie 2 pushes the envelope visually, with the defining feature a strap designed to simulate the stabilizing ligaments of the ankle. This has led people to compare the sneaker to the similarly strapped Zoom KD IV, a sentiment Chang disputes based on variance of function. He should know; he designed both sneakers.

One welcomed characteristic Kyrie’s line does borrow from Durant’s is its lower price point. Like Durant, Irving refreshingly insisted his sneakers start off relatively affordable, so his younger fans could grow with the line. The Kyrie 1 was merely $110 at retail; you can buy the Kyrie 2, including this weekend’s “Brotherhood” edition that serves as a nod to his short stay at Duke, for $120 at Champs Sports.

[Related: Sneaker Confessionals: Why I Collect Kyrie’s Sneakers]

But if Nike views Kobe as a more apt blueprint, Kyrie seems to agree; after all, the two have some history. Recall Team USA’s training camp in 2012, where Irving–with one NBA season under his belt, albeit one in which he had won Rookie of the Year–badgered the Black Mamba for a 1-on-1 game. It’s probably for the best for Kyrie that this matchup never materialized, though he did somewhat hold his own bantering with Kobe, no small feat.

Bryant: ”You just came out of high school, kid!”

Irving: ”I came out of college! You came out of high school!”

Perhaps that willingness to verbally joust with one of the game’s most lethal trash-talkers earned Irving his elder’s respect, but that wouldn’t have meant anything if he wasn’t also a high-end baller. (“Kyrie has some talent, so I’d actually entertain that conversation,” Bryant told the Los Angeles Times. “He can play a little bit — for a high school kid.”)

[Related: Sneaker Confessionals–Why Kobe’s Sneaker Line Is Underrated]

Kyrie Irving Nike Kyrie 2
Nike

Either way, the two forged something of a mentor-student relationship over the years, with Kyrie frequently soliciting advice from Kobe. In turn, Bryant specifically cited him during his retirement announcement as one of the players who will lead the NBA into the future. A lot has to go right for that to happen; for one, Kyrie needs to find a way to galvanize his oft-brittle body. But that remains high praise from one of the game’s true elder statesmen.

Kyrie, for his part, still pines for Kobe to answer his 1-on-1 challenge, though he harbors no actual delusions he’s on his level.

“I try to emulate (his greatness) and take things from his game and turn it into my own,” Irving recently told cleveland.com. “But he’s Kobe Bryant. There’s not going to be anybody like him.”

That doesn’t mean Irving won’t try to do everything possible to fill Kobe’s shoes.

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