On a cold February night five years ago, New York City got a dose of vintage Kobe Bryant–in more ways than one.
An hour after Bryant scored a crisp 33 points in the Lakers’ win over the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, he took part in a Nike Q&A for the release of the Rice HS edition of the Zoom Kobe VI. And in a room filled with youth groups and high school teams, he didn’t exactly hold back, particularly when asked about how he had adjusted to the departure of Shaquille O’Neal.
“I worked at it. I mean, I focused on it. And I understood if I was going to win championships, this is what I needed to learn,” Bryant said. “And quite honestly, the challenge was thrust upon me: ‘When Shaq leaves, you can’t win.’”
He paused for a split second.
“And I said, ‘Well, sh**. Yes I can.’”
Despite their collective youth–or rather, because of it–the crowd exploded in cheers at Kobe’s liberal use of profanity. The moment summed up his persona nicely: Bryant has been unflinching in his refusal to filter himself, which has carved him a niche as a perpetual antihero.
From a marketing standpoint, selectively wearing the black hat holds obvious advantages. And yet, if his standing in the sneaker world is an indication, Bryant’s oft-steely countenance and checkered past might give him a ceiling that most of his cuddlier peers don’t encounter.
According to Forbes, Bryant’s signature Nikes sold $105 million last year. That seems solid, until you consider how far he lags behind Swoosh-mates LeBron James ($340 million) and the younger Kevin Durant ($195 million). And for all of his Jordan-esque achievements and accolades, Bryant isn’t in the same galaxy as the former Bulls superstar, whose eponymous brand generated a whopping $2.6 billion in 2014, more than a decade after his retirement.
Of course, none of this is to say Bryant isn’t popular. You’d think everyone who would want his jersey would have it by now, but it ranked third in the NBA last year. And as a longtime standard-bearer for Nike Basketball, his sneakers are prominently featured on shelves everywhere, while he maintains his throne in China as the most revered American athlete.
All that said, it still feels like there’s been money left on the table. As a 17-time All-Star, five-time NBA champion, and two-time scoring champion, this isn’t a player who typically takes a backseat to anyone, but he has done that with his footwear.
And yet, Bryant has a healthy amount of devotees, present company included. (I have five pairs of the Kobe VI.) And that makes perfect sense: When you take a moment to fully appreciate his sneaker timeline, Bryant has as rich and diverse a history as any player except for Jordan.
For starters, LeBron was hardly the first big-time player to sign a sneaker deal straight out of high school. About a month before the 1996 NBA Draft, Bryant made headlines by inking a contract with adidas that, like James’ $100 million pact, was perceived as a significant risk. And yet, adidas consultant Sonny Vaccaro–ever polarizing, ever a visionary–was convinced Kobe was the future of the sport, going as far as to spread rumors about his signability to help steer him to preferred destination Los Angeles.
“Nike and all the pretenders did not want to mess with a high school guy,” Vaccaro said in the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Sole Man. “There weren’t million dollar contracts being given out in the ’90s, and there certainly weren’t ones given out to a high school kid.”
In that sense, Bryant blazed a trail for James and many others, though his initial foray as a signature athlete had its ups and downs. After collaborating on a couple of popular adidas sneakers–the Crazy 8 and the KOBE are retroed frequently–the bizarre, clunky KOBETWO was a notable misstep. Even Kobe abdicated his second Audi-inspired sneaker during the 2002 NBA Finals, and then proceeded to end his six-year relationship with the company.
Thus began the greatest sneaker free agency in history, rivaled only by LeBron’s whirlwind senior year of high school. Bryant took nearly every brand for a test drive in 2002-03, donning Air Jordan PEs, Nike Huaraches, and Air Force 1s, Reebok Questions, Converse Weapons–and even the AND1 Desire. (Oddly enough, he passed on the Dada Supreme Spinners.) He eventually signed with presumed favorite Nike, but not before he made his sneaker choice a nightly attraction.
Bryant’s Nike signature line didn’t hit the ground running but by the time they released his first sneaker in 2006, LeBron was already on his fourth. In the meantime, Bryant became the nominal face of two classics, the Zoom Huarache 2K4 and 2K5, proving he didn’t need his name emblazoned on a shoe to boost its appeal. (Four years later, he’d stage a sequel, taking a break from the Kobe line to wear the HyperDunk in the 2008 Olympics and to “jump over a Ferrari.”)
When Bryant did finally strap on his first signature shoe, it was blessed with an Air Jordan-esque memorable moment right off the bat: The Zoom Kobe 1 resided on his feet during his historic 81-point game against the Raptors. Over time, his line became less notable for specific on-court heroics than a willingness to take chances that other sneakers might not deign to attempt.
“Obviously, Kobe is an incredibly intense, very competitive, very detail oriented individual and player,” Nike designer Eric Avar told Sole Collector. “The way he plays the game is the way he wants to be involved in the design and innovation process. What he expects of himself, he expects of us. It’s definitely intense. I’m a competitive person also, so we just feed off of one another, and I love that. He pushes us, and he’s constantly pushing the design and innovation.”
The Flywire-enhanced Zoom Kobe IV was the line’s first groundbreaker, eschewing traditional ankle support for a lower profile inspired by Bryant’s love for soccer. That modus operandi was kept intact, tweaked, and improved through the next three models. (Of particular note was the VI, with its faux snakeskin upper and Robert Rodriguez-helmed mini-movie.)
The Kobe 9 again saw the line stray from convention with a Flyknit super-hightop build and colorways inspired by Bryant’s artistic muses. The sneaker was eminently polarizing, but then so is the player who inspired it. The Kobe X has offered both low and high models, the former of which is featured on the striking “Hot Lava” edition, available at Champs Sports next weekend.
When Nike released the Prelude Pack a couple years ago, the resulting clamor for Kobe’s retros was yet another reminder of his rich sneaker history. Not to mention, old dogs do learn new tricks: That $105 million in 2014 sales was literally double what he had tallied the year before.
Ultimately, if his sneakers never quite reached the height of popularity his on-court pedigree would dictate, the diversity and unique quality of his resume puts him in a class all his own, and has made him something of a cult hero for collectors. With a maverick like Bryant, who could ask for anything more?
“We are all creating in our own form or fashion,” Bryant told Complex about the ZK9. “In basketball, certainly, is something where you are creating a live work of art. Sometimes you may create something that’s a masterpiece, sometimes you may create something that is absolutely atrocious.
“But you can’t take it back. That is the ultimate art.”