A funny thing happened when Nike released the “Prelude Pack” last winter — suddenly, literally everyone was clamoring for Kobe Bryant sneakers. In an instant, sellouts — which characterize high-profile Air Jordan drops — suddenly applied to Kobe models.
There have been a few other non-Prelude Kobe drops in recent years that sold briskly, mostly holiday or All-Star editions; the Grinch VI immediately comes to mind. The first few Kobe IX Elites were snapped up quickly. But for the most part, Kobe’s footwear hasn’t generated nearly the interest — or revenue — of those bearing the name of fellow Nike scions LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Kobe’s sneakers moved $50 million at retail last year, a distant third to LeBron ($300 million) and KD ($175 million). That simply doesn’t seem appropriate for one of the unquestioned two best players of the entire post-M.J. generation.
Yet perhaps it’s fitting that Bryant’s signature models don’t reach the mainstream levels of his more conventional peers. His sneakers tend to be less accessible than those belonging to the other one-name NBA icons, and truth be told, so does the man himself.
Except for LeBron’s misbegotten post-Decision year, he’s mostly proven himself to be a pretty lovable dude. Likewise, Durant has constructed his entire image around being simultaneously an unstoppable scoring machine and the nicest guy in the universe.
Bryant has never concerned himself with such things. He has seemed not just born and bred, but chemically engineered to be an antihero basketball android, capable of stripping your manhood with an 81-point game and ripping your heart out with a game-winning fallaway. His leadership has always trended more toward the Jordan model of break to build, while his competitive spirit serves almost as homage.
His sneakers, meanwhile, serve mainly as weapons at his disposal – and ours. Like other athletes who get intimately involved with the development of their signature line, Bryant has a great deal of input into what ends up on his feet and on the shelves. Performance is his true modus operandi, and his mandate that the Kobe IV provide a lower profile than previous models — much like boots for soccer, Kobe’s second sporting love — was a true game-changer in the world of heretofore clunky hightops.
“I just wanted to have better range and flexibility within the ankle and be able to move and cut and not feel like that movement is restricted,” Bryant told Sole Collector in 2009. “I think how the soccer background came into play is understanding how much stress you put on your ankles and how hard you play the game. In soccer, you can still wear low-tops, and they put more stress on their ankles than we do, but they can still wear low-tops.
“So I think you need a confidence to be able to push the boundaries a little bit.”
The Kobe IX Elite was another shock to the establishment. After four years of KB low-tops, the IX burst into the picture with an extreme high-top design — as Bryant described it, “a high-high top” — that used Flyknit to keep it light and responsive. The calf-high sneaker, which was actually in the works long before Kobe injured his Achilles’ tendon, was inspired by champion boxer Manny Pacquiao and the footwear he uses in the ring. It was radical to be certain, but there was a method to the madness.
“Normally with high-top shoes, it gives you protection around the ankles, but it’s not moving with you. It acts more as a barrier,” Bryant told CNBC last December. “So the challenge was, ‘Can we keep the weight extremely light? And can we have the shoe move with you and be really high?’”
The fact is, when you wear a Kobe Bryant sneaker, it’s a statement in itself. As Bryant himself has said, he wants something that sets him apart from the LeBrons and KDs on the shelves, something that serves not just as an extension of his foot but of his identity. And in any of their permutations, it’s hard to dispute that his signature sneakers are unmistakably Kobe’s.
The same principle applies for us as it does for him. You can walk down any avenue in New York City and pick out some Air Jordan retros, a Roshe Run, maybe a LeBron or two. But when you see someone wearing a KB24 signature sneaker casually, it turns your head and evokes your respect. Even considering that Kobe himself is ostensibly a household name, it still constitutes marching to the beat of your own drum.
Love him or hate him, Kobe Bryant has been one of the must-see figures in the sport since he first arrived in Los Angeles a brash and wildly talented teenager.
And nearly two decades later, he probably doesn’t have that much longer to go.
Whether Bryant wants to admit it to himself or not, he’s long since entered the twilight of his career. Never one to go quietly into the night, the grizzled gunslinger hoists up 37 shots out of sheer necessity, his desire to win juxtaposed against his advancing age and the Lakers’ lackluster start. There’s more than a distinct possibility that his current two-year contract will be his last, and his legs probably don’t have many more miles left in them, so when you have the opportunity to watch him play, you should probably take advantage of it.
Similarly, it’s a rare signature athlete that continues to release sneakers after he has retired. We often don’t realize how much we want something until it’s in hindsight.
As such, whether you play in your Kobes, stunt in them or both, it might be a good idea to begin bolstering your collection right now; the blue/gold/obsidian Kobe 9 EM, releasing this weekend at Champs Sports, wouldn’t be a bad start.
Not too far in the future, Kobe is going to go the way of Penny, Sir Charles, and The Answer – as will his sneakers, most likely. And though we usually don’t know what we have until it’s gone, in this way as in so many others, the Black Mamba has set himself apart.
Follow Bryan on Twitter at @SportsAngle