Back in the day, Michael Jordan went entire seasons — 82 games, plus the playoffs — wearing only a few different colorways of his signature sneakers, and yet that was considered revolutionary. That’s merely a week for LeBron James in 2014.
The man with the top-selling signature sneaker line in the NBA — by a WIDE margin at $300 million last year — will probably never catch the admiration the culture has for Michael Jordan’s Air Jordan line, but he has already passed him in one regard. The dude never goes a game, sometimes even a half of play, without inspiring social coverage for what he has on his feet. Nike outfits him in more player exclusives than Instagram knows what to do with, and that’s on top of the different models ‘Bron wears each season, as well as the countless colorways released every year to the public. That trend will continue this year whenever the best player in the world’s latest sneaker drops at Champs Sports in the “NSRL” colorway. (Currently shelved because of a cosmetic issue.)
The first seven colorways of the LeBron 12 were recently unveiled, inspired by everything from a lion to a lab, and that was only for the rest of the calendar year. You’ll see that number triple, or quadruple, by the time the LeBron 13 comes around. And while the LeBron 12 is helping to push the boundaries of both what a sneaker can mean for a player, as well as what it can do, with the hexagonal Zoom Air bags on the outsole, it still has direct connections dating all the way back to 2003 and the Nike Air Zoom Generation. That was LeBron’s first signature sneaker, rocking the road-based, original colorway in his very first game against the Sacramento Kings. Designers Tinker Hatfield, Eric Avar, and Aaron Cooper wanted to create a shoe that personified power and explosion. They looked at LeBron as a soldier, a new age machine where regular tech wasn’t going to be enough. So they took inspiration from LeBron’s Hummer H2 from high school, and incorporated their Sphere Liner for the first time, as well as full-length Zoom Air, equipping James with everything he needed.
The first time LeBron tried them on, he only needed to jump up and down three or four times before declaring them the most comfortable shoes he’d ever worn. It was the fitting capper to a journey that had started months before when Cooper told ‘Bron, “We will design you the most comfortable basketball shoe you have ever worn.”
That initial season also saw the development of many first for James and Nike. He unveiled wild and unique special edition colorways for both Christmas — a lasered upper — and All-Star Weekend — the iconic Wheat edition.
For both parties, that first sneaker was all about meeting expectations. With a $90 million sneaker contract in tow and No. 1 draft pick status while playing in the same hometown that had been touting him as the next big thing for years, LeBron couldn’t afford to fail. It’s why the sneaker featured a relatively tame design, with a Nike Swoosh on the upper that was eerily reminiscent of classic 1990s shoes. It’s also why LeBron’s first sneaker commercial harkened back to the “Frozen Moment” ad that aired for the Air Jordan XII.
If the original was about testing the waters, the Nike Zoom LeBron II was about spreading its wings. The designers took the soldier inspiration and freaked it, creating a shoe that not only looked like a boot but played like one too. With an upper constructed from leather and tough ballistic mesh, as well as a removable strap and a secure lockdown fit, the shoe was a big man’s dream, capable of surviving both the hardwood and the street. Add in the epic Chamber of Fear commercial campaign, which veered as far away from “Pressure” as possible by featuring a Wu-Tang inspired conglomeration of hip-hop, old school kung-fu movies, and Jim Kelly from Enter the Dragon, and you had a player secure in his brand.
That outlook continued on through the following years. New sneaker tech was incorporated in each release, like the eyelets in the III, Hyperposite in the IV, and a mid-foot strap in the V, and we also saw the launch of the Nike Zoom Soldier and 20.5.5 sub-series. But it wasn’t until a young designer named Jason Petrie came along in 2009 that everything changed.
By that point, most had boxed in LeBron’s signature shoes as great performance shoes that were still too heavy and cumbersome to fully connect with consumers. Petrie’s first sneaker was the VII, however, and that shoe not only opted for a visible Max Air unit rather than LeBron’s historical use of Zoom Air, it also incorporated Flywire cables. It was noticeably lighter and excelled enough that the team introduced LeBron’s first mid-season release with the creation of the LeBron VII P.S. for the playoffs.
The popularity of LeBron’s signature sneakers really took off once he made the move to Miami in 2010 and Nike released the South Beach VIII. Easily one of the most hyped sneakers ever made, they set the mark for all of LeBron’s shoes that came after.
Since that point, Nike has made sure to continuously push the boundaries with James’ shoes. For the LeBron 9 and 9 P.S. Elite, which was the first shoe he won a championship in, they combined Hyperfuse and Flywire for the most advanced basketball sneaker ever, then one-upped themselves the following year with Nike+ tech (technically already used on that year’s Hyperdunk) and by debuting full-length, visible Zoom Air. The LeBron X also featured visible Flywire cables. As the technology improved, the prices increased, and while Nike caught flack for initially charging what felt like a mortgage for some of the models — the 9 P.S. Elite retailed at $250 and the X was originally rumored at $315 — it didn’t stop sneakerheads from camping out for some of the most iconic models like the Championship Packs, the South Beach editions, and the Cork X.
In 2014, Nike is more focused than ever on telling a story, and every colorway of the LeBron 12 will be inspired by something specific in his life. For LeBron, he’s starting a new chapter in his career by coming home to Cleveland, where he will team with All-Stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving in hopes of finally bringing the city a championship. While this might be the final move he makes on the basketball court — why would he ever leave all that talent? — his sneakers still have a long life ahead of them. The demand for retros is higher now than it has ever been, especially with James taking to Instagram to tease us, and as Michael Jordan’s playing career further fades into black it’ll be LeBron James who becomes this generation’s sneaker icon.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanesweeney