Long before social media and NBA players were getting recognized for their on-court sneakers, Kobe Bryant‘s sneaker free agent run in the early 2000s was one to remember. Bryant, who began his career with adidas, spent the 2002-03 season with no sneaker contract and wore a myriad of brands from Nike to Reebok to Converse and even AND1 before Nike signed him to a four-year, $40 million dollar just a month after the brand signed an 18-year-old kid by the name of LeBron James to that famous seven-year, $90 million contract.
Bryant was seen in different player exclusives of the Huarache 2K4 and 2K5 during his first two years and wouldn’t receive his first signature shoe till ’05. He and legendary designer Eric Avar, who played a key role in bringing Bryant’s ideas to life, brought a new meaning to performance models and exceeded expectations with innovation.
January 22, 2006. On a Sunday night at STAPLES Center, Kobe Bryant erupted for 81 points against the Toronto Raptors, making it the second-most-points-in-a-game performance in NBA history behind Wilt Chamberlain. This was also the night Bryant, who Nike signed in 2004, donned his first signature shoe, the Kobe 1, with the Swoosh after being a sneaker free agent.
The Kobe 2 remained a high-top, but it was the first Kobe Bryant signature sneaker to feature straps – one in the forefoot and one in the mid-foot area. There were also three variations of the three (Sheath, Strength and Lite). Bean wore these en route to the “Redeem Team’s” Gold medal run in the ’08 Olympics in Beijing.
The most glaring distinction in Kobe’s signature sneaker was the spider-web-like design on the upper portion of the sneaker. Bryant wore different colors– from white, black to Lakers-colored PEs – throughout the 2007-08 season where he received his first and only MVP award. Bryant wore these as he attempted to get his fourth championship, but failed against the Big 3 in Boston.
When it comes to innovation, Bryant was known to have direct input and was as meticulous with designing his footwear as he was honing his craft on the court. At a time when fully functional basketball shoes were “only” high-tops, Bryant and Avar, drew inspiration from soccer players’ cleats to birth Bryant’s fourth shoe as strictly a low-top. The sneaker went right over the ankle and featured Flywire. The 4 was the first model Bryant won an NBA Championship in after defeating the Orlando Magic in 2009. It started a trend in not only future Kobe and Nike’s basketball models but set the bar for future basketball sneakers.
If the Kobe 4 was known as a low-top, then the following iteration was a super-low-top as it went lighter and lower. The 5 evolved and pushed boundaries where no other basketball sneaker has gone. Bryant won back-to-back titles as he got revenge against the Celtics in Game 7 to win his fifth title with the Lakers.
Shape-wise, the Kobe 6 followed suit from the 4 and 5 but featured a certain technology that paid homage to Bryant’s famous nickname. The “Black Mamba,” Bryant’s alter ego, was displayed in the 6. The shoe featured Kurim, a specific type of mold, that allowed Nike designers to inject it with polyurethane in the upper areas of the shoes that created a snakeskin-like texture. One of the most sought-after models was the “Grinch” colorway Bryant wore on Christmas Day in 2010 against the Heat.
The 7 was originally a low, but Nike and Bryant gave consumers options with replaceable inserts with sleeved uppers to provide ankle support. The inserts were equipped with cushion foam and Zoom Air. The 7 also came in an Elite version, making it the first in a Kobe signature shoe. The distinctions from the regular and Elite versions were most notable in the heel. The regular model featured a clear piece of Thermal Plastic Urethane (TPU) whereas the Elite version featured a real piece of carbon fiber. The 7s campaign also featured the famous “Kobe System” commercials with Kanye West and Serena Williams.
To describe the 8s aesthetic, it’s best to see the transition of the Kobe 4 and 5. Bryant’s eighth signature sneaker was similar to the aforementioned – in terms of evolution. The 8 was lighter, lower and sleeker compared to its predecessor. It also featured a different upper, going from Kurim to Engineered Mesh, a first for a Nike basketball sneaker. Like the 4, the 8 was known for pushing the boundaries when it came to a performance sneaker. The only downfall about the 8: Kobe tore his Achilles while wearing it against the Golden State Warriors in April of 2013.
While rehabilitating from his injury, many speculated it was due to Bryant’s reputation for playing in low-top sneakers, so sneakerheads and basketball aficionados were eager to see what the Kobe 9 would look like. As the 4 pushed the basketball sneaker industry with it being a fully functional sneaker for being low to the ground, the 9 once again made the impossible possible. Bryant attended a Manny Pacquiao workout and was intrigued at the way Pacquiao was able to move inside the ring with a high-top sneaker. And thus the inspiration for Kobe 9 was born. Avar created a boot-like sneaker, equipped with Flyknit, another first for a first in a basketball shoe, that was seen as a high-top but functioned as a low-top. Three different versions of the Kobe 9 were created – an Elite version, a non-Elite version and a low-top model that substituted Engineered Mesh for Flyknit. One of the cool distinctions about the sneaker was the nine red stitches featured on the back of the sneakers.
The 10 was the second Bryant model to get the boxing boot-type treatment and carried over various design aspects of the 9. Nike continued to use Flyknit and Engineered Mesh in the uppers and featured full-length Zoom Air in the heel and the red stitches on the back of the sneakers. In the low-top version, the upper mesh pattern mimicked sharkskin.
April 13, 2016. Bryant’s final game as a Laker and signature sneaker of his 20-year career was strictly a low-top. The sneaker was made with a stronger Flyknit yarn to provide to be lighter and flexible than it’s been in the past. One of the most memorable moments of the Kobe 11 was Bryant’s 60-point performance against the Utah Jazz in his final game at STAPLES Center. The sendoff was, as expected, in Kobe fashion (shooting 50 times – kidding, Kobe fans) as he hung them up for good. Mamba Out.
The Kobe A.D., Bryant’s first post-retirement sneaker, remained true to its low and sleek roots, as Nike and Bryant discontinued the numbered line. The A.D., which is short for anno Domini, celebrated Bryant in the afterlife. His sneaker legacy lived on as many NBA players like DeMar DeRozan, who officially served as the new face of the Kobe line, wore the A.D.’s in Raptors-colored PEs.
Kobe A.D. NXT
The next iteration of the A.D. line looked more than on off-court shoe than a performance model. It featured a Flyknit shroud and a no-tie toggle lockdown lacing system that were as functional as traditional laces.
Kobe A.D. NXT 360
During a road game in Cleveland, DeMar DeRozan debuted the Kobe A.D. NXT 360, the newest silhouette in the Kobe Bryant line. The 360 comes from a Flyknit upper that wraps around the foot with a 360-degree construction that provides stability and serves as a second skin. The sneaker also features Nike’s React technology as Bryant and Nike continue to implement next-level innovation for its performance sneakers.