NIKE HYPERDUNK | A NEW STEP IN HYPERFORMANCE?
words & images_Nick DePaula (As published in Issue 24: The 100 Greatest Kicks - September, 2008)
As the U.S. Men's Senior Basketball team recaptured an Olympic gold medal this summer for the first time in eight years, it's also the first time in eight years that Nike embarked on their latest, most talked-about and frenzied technological innovation since Nike Shox. It was in 2000 that Vince Carter leapfrogged a seven-footer in his white and navy Shox BB4s, sparking a retail rush when the BB4 conveniently released a few months later. Even before its initial worldwide launch, the Nike Hyperdunk has already been the beneficiary of Nike Basketball's most integrated marketing campaign to date, which includes ESPY cameos, limited Marty McFly-inspired releases, countless print and television ads, and even a fictitious Hyperdunk Recovery Center website and hotline for victims to receive treatment.
This time around, there's no doubt that Nike's corporate brass was hoping that Kobe Bryant and his Hyperdunk-wearing brethren could carry out the collective goal of collecting gold this summer in Beijing, helping to elevate the shoe into the upper echelon of Olympic footwear among the likes of the Air Jordan VII, Air More Uptempo and Shox BB4. As Bryant and his Team USA teammates showcased the Hyperdunk this summer, they did so in a product offering from Nike Basketball that features two technologies in their infancy, each with equally bold top billing.
The two most heralded innovations that Nike created specifically for the Olympics are Lunar Foam and Flywire technology -- one a cushioning element; the other, an upper material. Developed in conjunction with NASA engineers over the past few years (fancy huh?), Lunar Foam is a resilient, high rebound, spongy foam that is actually used in the seats of NASA's space shuttles. While Kobe Bryant might demand a light shoe that allows him to explode 40 inches off the hardwood for a crowd-silencing dunk, NASA's space shuttles must reduce weight wherever possible in order to leave earth's orbit - quite a difference. So, to create Lunar Foam, Nike mixed Ethylene-Vinyl Acetate (EVA for short) with Nitrate rubber, allowing for a foam cushioning unit that Nike says is 30 percent lighter than Phylon, which Nike has been using over the past decade. Lunar Foam's responsive properties stem from the rubber compound included in it, and the lower impact and cushioned ride along with a lighter weight are certainly a welcomed innovation, though I'd argue Zoom Air is still superior. (More on that later.)
In the Hyperdunk, Lunar Foam is implemented in much the same way that Air-Sole and Zoom Air units have been in the past-as a sculpted unit embedded in the midsole just under the ball of the foot. Flywire pertains specifically to the lightweight containment provided by the upper. No matter what sport an elite athlete is participating in, reaction time and the ability to change direction are crucially important, and basketball may arguably call for the most protection and support. After examining the history of bridge designs, Jay Meschter, Innovation Director of Nike's Innovation Kitchen, noticed advancements in bridge construction that would go on to shape the development of Flywire. After studying everything from more traditional brick structures that didn't age well, to our more modern cable suspended bridges that can support not only the weight of a bridge across vast distances like in San Francisco, but also the weight of massive daily traffic, he discovered that a shoe's structure can become more supportive when it is designed with long strands for support along the side. Meschter realized that by creating a cradle for the foot in a similarly arranged alignment along the shoe's lateral and medial sides, any given sport's unique and unpredictable movements could be better supported for quicker reaction time. The result is Flywire.
With a thin film of Polyurethane providing the structure of each Flywire panel, the thin strands that provide the support are made of a material called Vectran. Over six years ago, Meschter first aligned strands of nylon along a shoe last as he conceptualized Flywire, and after much deliberation over several materials, Vectran proved to be the most supportive material to fit the project's needs of support, light weight and flex resistance. It was actually down to Kevlar and Vectran as the strand material of choice to be used in Flywire since Nylon and several other fabric strands proved to be far too flimsy.
In Vectran's favor, when Kevlar is flexed, it can lose up to 25 percent of its strength, compared to zero percent strength loss in Vectran. In products like athletic footwear, any strength loss is crucial to athletes who depend on tenths and hundredths of seconds in competition. Another major factor in deciding upon a material for the groundbreaking upper construction was also the measured breaking strength between the two. Vectran boasts a higher breaking strength than Kevlar, requiring more force to compromise the high-performance multifilament yarn.
What is most clutch is also Vectran's ability to not only allow for weight reduction in Nike's products, but also the fact that the liquid polymer-based material is naturally very thermally stable. In an extreme climate like that of Beijing, which was being forecasted to host a sweltering summer nearing triple-digit temperatures with 70 percent humidity, it's also very important that Vectran can perform in any environment. While it seems like lots of tech talk and the material to the naked eye may appear to be just a thin layer along the shoe with nicely placed weaves, there's in fact quite a bit of technology and research that goes into constructing something as performance-fused as Flywire.
Deep in the Kitchen of the Mia Hamm Building, innovation never stops, and famed Hoops designer Eric Avar was hand-picked to design this latest, and perhaps greatest offering from Nike Basketball. Inspired by the classic Tinker Hatfield created Air Mag from the 1989 movie Back To The Future II, Avar began working on the Hyperdunk over two years ago. He set out to create a shoe that carried over similar ideas from the Huarache 2K series that he designed, and he also hoped to implement Flywire Technology in what would be the lightest, most supportive shoe designed for the Alpha Player.
In this case, Nike was able to tap into the perfect subject - Kobe Bryant. "He is a very demanding athlete when it comes to his product," explains Mark Parker, Nike's CEO and President. Whether he's fading away for another jumper or splitting a double-team and heading straight to the rim, there's nobody quite as skilled and efficient on-court as Bryant, and there is also no one who places quite the amount of lateral forces and strain on his footwear. The goal for Kobe is simple. "[That] I don't lose seconds," he says. "For me, it's all about reaction time."
And so, Avar began designing the shoe while simultaneously working on the Zoom Kobe III, both with the aid of regular input from Bryant himself. "I want a shoe that's light, helps my reaction time, and is comfortable," Bryant definitively says. "It just better not be ugly." It's been no mystery that Kobe has long heralded the Zoom Huarache 2K4 as his favorite game shoe, and in the Hyperdunk you'll notice a similar silhouette, down to the assuring collar height and pronounced lateral outrigger. His needs have varied annually, from the more robust Zoom Kobe I that he wore after a summer filled with two-a-day strength workouts during which he gained 20 pounds of muscle, to his current need for a lighter shoe after weighing in at just 200 pounds, his lightest weight since 1998. "The Kobe I was a little heavier than the 2K4," says Bryant comparatively. "That was done intentionally because I did a lot of running the summer before, and I wanted more cushioning that season at the expense, maybe, of some weight. It changes every year based on my needs."
Where the Hyperdunk luckily excels is in its light weight and unparalleled amounts of lateral support, allowing for the re-sculpted Bryant to be more swift and nimble in a half-court set. It weighs in at just 13.0 ounces in a size nine, over a full ounce lighter than the Zoom Kobe III, which was already the lightest yet of the Zoom Kobe line. In my size 13, the Zoom Kobe III weighed 18.5 ounces, while the Hyperdunk weighs 15.6 ounces - obviously a noticeable difference on-court. Bryant, doing his best Gallagher impression, even joked that when he first saw the Hyperdunk in person, he naturally tossed it up into the air, uncertain if it would ever come back down. (Yes - the corniness of that joke was hilarious to the crowd of 300 media members.)
While lighter usually can mean flimsy - dare I remind those of you who played in the Hyperflight - in this case, the Hyperdunk arguably offers more support and stability than ever before, thanks to Flywire technology. "Lightweight containment is something that people want to have," says Yuron White, Nike Basketball Product Director. "You're going to see [Flywire] continue in our stuff, and they are looking to use it in all the other categories."
The Hyperdunk is full of its own thoughtful design cues from the legendary Avar. The boldly molded midfoot and heel counters offer stability and lock the foot down, and the shoe's upper is purposefully designed with an abundance of Nike's revolutionary Flywire technology. With precisely placed strands of Vectran aligned over the thin and breathable Polyurethane paneling, Flywire allows for the shoe to weigh in dangerously low, yet also offers enough support for even a brute's frame. Carlos Boozer and several other bigs wore it throughout the Olympics. Another immediately noticeable difference in the Hyperdunk is its insistence on going strapless, unlike the Zoom Kobe II, Huarache 2K4 and 2K5 before it.
To its credit, the lacing setup is linked by a hidden ghilley eyelet that helps marry the midfoot to the ankle, as compared to the Huarache 2K5, where the eyelets worked almost independently and at times created a sense of instability. Another sharp design touch from Avar is the eight dimples that can be found on the toe, midfoot and heel counter - an ode to the Beijing Opening Ceremonies held this summer on 08/08/08. Even the naming of the shoe appears straightforward, referencing the game's single most exciting play. "The lighter the shoe, the higher you can get up. We thought the name played perfectly to that," explains Archie McEachern, Nike Basketball Category Footwear Leader.
Above: The Hyperdunk's original outsole (pictured at left) included solidly blocked channels, while the production version (pictured at right) features recessed grooves and a herringbone pivot point in the forefoot for improved traction.
While the lightweight support story in the Hyperdunk is perhaps seemingly the shoe's highlight, the cushioning embedded in the tooling is also a first in basketball, though a bit for the sake of marketing. At the heel is a standard eight millimeter, large volume Zoom Air unit, which offers an obscene level of responsiveness and impact protection. The forefoot debuts Nike's new Lunar Foam cushioning, which can also be credited for helping with the shoe's weight reduction. Lunar Foam is 30 percent lighter than Phylon, but provides a bounce-back cushioning feel almost comparable to Zoom Air. "I think it's more spongy and soft," says McEachern, when comparing the two.
The outsole is comprised of a solid rubber traction pattern that underwent quite a few changes through the development process. What began as a solidly blocked outsole configuration was soon altered to include forefoot grooves for greater traction on the final production version, as well as a herringbone inset at the pivot point. There is also a radiused, decoupled heel for smooth transition upon impact. At the midfoot resides one of Nike's most welcomed commodities: a nicely sculpted chunk of Carbon Fiber for added support. But, enough about what the shoe boasts...
So - Does It Perform?
After an initial run at the Bo Jackson Fitness Center's courts on the Nike Campus with other members of the media last April, I had to endure a three-week wait to get my pair back. Right away, I had one goal in mind, and that was to beat the hell out of them. Never before have I seen such a widespread marketing campaign and so much faith behind a shoe that, in my opinion, has little casual appeal, and so I knew that this shoe deserved more than my standard 10 wearings before I could come to a verdict. By the end of my testing, I'd worn the Hyperdunk nearly 30 times, on both indoor hardwood as well as on the asphalt outdoors, in both the synthetic leather based White Olympic colorway as well as the nubuck-based Black/Anthracite general release colorway.
Throughout the duration of the test, I was most comfortable lacing them up tightly one short of the top eyelet, and immediately while moving around for the first time, I could feel the shoe's benefits come to life. Along the upper, the first perceptible difference between the Hyperdunk and the three shoes in the Zoom Kobe line before it is the height. This shoe is certainly more of an extension of the Huarache 2K series than the Kobe line, taking on a sleekly defined collar and molded heel counter for maximum lockdown. For three years, the name Huarache consisted of strapped team shoes drafted off of the 2K4, aimed for every position in mind. This year, with the advent of the Hyperdunk and the Huarache 08, you can expect to see the lineage of the 2K series in the Hyperdunk line, and the minimal and lightweight sandal-inspired aesthetic live on through the Huarache name.
In this first installment of the Hyperdunk, Nike is off to a great start, using their two-year advance product timeline to create a worthy premiere. At its strongest points, the Hyperdunk blows past the competition, but when it strikes its low points, there's definite room for improvement. In utilizing Flywire along the upper, Nike has found an excellent material that they can brand as their own and build off of well into the next decade. It's what makes Nike ... Nike. While adidas has taken on the adage of "Another year, another Pro Model" up until this year with the intriguing new Team Signature offerings and other performance brands have all but halted their innovation initiatives, I'll commend Nike for at least trying new things and looking beyond their current product for solutions in footwear, especially when they're already on top with little push from the competition outside of The Three Stripes.
After countless wearings, when the shoes are tied tightly, I can safely say that Flywire does keep you slightly locked in more than a rand of leather would, but it's the difference in weight that makes me comfortable in calling Flywire an innovation. When wearing the shoe, I purposefully shot less 3-pointers than normal, hoping to attack the basket and place enough strain laterally on the shoe on each drive to get a good gauge on the claims of Flywire, and sure enough, there's a noticeable difference.
Your foot simply doesn't budge from side-to-side, and I've never felt a shoe where the support was so firm, and yet there was absolutely zero inner discomfort. While the Air Jordan XX3 locks your foot in wonderfully, there admittedly are some inner chafing issues due to its harsh at-times midfoot chassis. With the Hyperdunk, you're afforded great support, gleefully soft inner comfort, and most of all, insanely light weight. I wasn't lying earlier, as my size 13 in the Zoom Kobe III, which everyone argued is the lightest shoe of the season, indeed clocked in at 18.5 ounces. In the White/Midnight Navy/Varsity Red Kobe Olympic colorway, the Hyperdunk was 15.6 ounces. That's a ridiculous difference for a basketball shoe, especially when you consider the other shoes I'm playing in now for reviews are all in the 18.5-19.5 ounce range, with the Zoom Soldier II most heavily clunking in at 21.6 ounces. Where the Hyperflight, which weighs 16.0 ounces in a size 13, offered the lightest possible weight at the time of its 2001 debut, its lack of support was disastrous, offering perhaps the worst lateral fit I've ever experienced.
Because Flywire is such a thin paneling and can offer the same, if not greater support than traditionally used materials, I'm excited to see Nike take the material even further and specifically aim to sculpt the upper more closely to the contours of your foot, just as the XX3 did. Flywire obviously makes up most of the story along the upper, but the purposeful design and noted inspiration from the Air Mag of two decades ago allow it to be a great performer. The two most noticeable design cues on the shoe, aside from Flywire, are the molded heel and midfoot wedges that are drafted off of the Mag. While a piece of TPU has been sculpted around the heel in past 2K series shoes, the foam used on the Hyperdunk offers comparable support and lockdown, but at a lighter weight.
You'll begin to notice that every single panel and componentry involved in making the Hyperdunk is the lightest of its genre. The tongue is insanely thin, reducing weight at the slight expense of some lace pressure if you, like me, tie the laces overly tight. There're also very few layers that make up the shoe, as the tongue extends into an inner sleeve, while the Flywire and toe overlays comprise the rest of the build. The ankle collar is equally thin, ditching previously used materials like Sphere Liner, memory foam and dual-density padding for the sake of keeping the lowest possible weight the focus. For the most part, each component of the upper serves its purpose of being light without detracting from the overall performance of the shoe.
I can't say the same for Nike's Lunar Foam cushioning, however, touted as a responsive and light cushioning system of the future. While Lunar Foam indeed helps reduce the overall weight of the shoe, it's hard to confirm Nike's claim of a 30 percent difference compared to Phylon, which can be a bit of a misleading statistic. The notion of a 30 percent difference assumes that the shoe you are playing in relies only on Phylon for its cushioning properties, which would never be the case in a $100-plus product like the Hyperdunk. If you're going from a $65 Phylon-based option, to a shoe that incorporates Lunar Foam, you'll certainly notice a difference in both responsiveness and weight, but if you're a cushioning elitist like myself, you'll also most likely be adamant about playing in Nike's unparalleled Zoom Air. Zoom Air is already lighter and exponentially more responsive than Phylon, so the comparison to be made is truly between Zoom Air and Lunar Foam.
I'd still stick with trusty Zoom Air if given the option. The heel Zoom Air unit in the Hyperdunk is almost to the point of arrogance, as during play you can notice how far apart in cushioning the two units are. There's perceptibly something there with Lunar Foam, so I won't go calling the technology an absolute gimmick in a basketball application yet (and I definitely rock a pair of LunaRacers for weeks at a time), but after the fourth wearing, you'll have already bottomed out the forefoot cushioning in the Hyperdunk, resulting in a firm and stiff feel under the ball of your foot. By the tenth wearing, all feeling of cushion is gone, and while the court feel is certainly a positive in the Hyperdunk, the forefoot cushioning has all but vanished. Lunar Foam excels in being light, but it's at the expense of comfort and longevity, which most ballers would obviously prefer. While it's understandable that Nike is offering Lunar Foam as it was anchored by the task of creating a shoe that was part of huge marketing campaign and also mathematically clocked in at the lightest weight yet, it's at the expense of the overall performance of the shoe, which strikes the need for change.
Another reason the Hyperdunk remains the lightest shoe we've seen in years is the no-frills outsole design that incorporates a low-to-the-ground, solid rubber grooved pattern with a herringbone pivot point inset. The decoupled, radiused heel allows for perfect heel-to-toe transition during play, and the Carbon Fiber spring plate at the midfoot provides a propelling sensation that everyone will appreciate, from guards, on up to the game's agile big men of today. If you're on a clean hardwood surface, the traction is perfect from the jump: both squeaky and efficient. It's on a dusty court where you'll notice a drop off in traction compared to other shoes with more deep channels, and you'll be forced to swipe often to keep the outsole as clean as possible. The traction pattern isn't average by any means, and it should offer up enough maneuverability to withstand the speed and directional shifts of even the most hurried guards.
To the shoe's credit, and of course a definite Avar touch, the Hyperdunk features a perfectly sculpted lateral outrigger. I specifically recall one half-court set where I became convinced of the Hyperdunk's on-court stability merits. I caught the ball in my familiar right wing spot, and as I drove left past my defender towards the free throw line, I planted my left foot, dribbled left to right behind my back and finished with a right-handed layup. When planting, jab-stepping, or even while defensive sliding (I'd assume - I can't promise I attempted this basketball maneuver), the Hyperdunk's balance resulting from Flywire and the generous outrigger keeps your foot locked in over the footbed and allows for a great amount of control as you make your next step and take flight. Beforehand, I ranked the Zoom Kobe II as my favorite in terms of its awesomely low-to-the-ground feel and ability to change directions, but the Hyperdunk has surpassed that shoe, with an even more supportive upper thanks to Flywire, a more assuring outsole by way of the outrigger, as well as a more generous lining package compared to the harshly sculpted Kobe II.
Overall, the Hyperdunk is an excellent start to the Flywire era, promising lightweight containment and support at a relatively generous price of $110. Ten, maybe even five years ago, this shoe would have certainly retailed for $125, but our recession-crippled economy calls for even the biggest of global corporations to adjust to their consumer's spending habits, which have been to buy remarkably less footwear than in the recent past. I definitely was impressed right out of the box with the overall comfort, fit, feel and support of the shoe. The weight is perceptibly light, traction sticky and reliable, and the cushioning added up to provide a solid combination of responsiveness and low-to-the-ground court feel for the active player, which on a good day I'd like to consider myself. Is Lunar Foam the most awesomely innovative cushioning system the industry has been waiting on after letdowns with React Juice, Tubular Air, Shox, A3 (A Cubed) and 2A? Not remotely.
This shoe is far from a HyperGimmick, but it seems as though there's just something so superior about a low volume air bag full of tightly packed fibers ready and eager to respond against each other in an instant upon impact. Zoom Air, for now, will remain the industry benchmark, but luckily for Nike Basketball, it's readily at their disposal. In the future, a Hyperdunk-like silhouette with ample Flywire, heel and forefoot Zoom Air, and more Herringbone coverage along the outsole would appear to be an untouchable performance masterpiece. Perhaps then, brands across the basketball landscape will step up and re-emerge on the innovation front for the first time in over a decade. Adidas is making some definite strides with the new TS Creator and Commander and the return of Formotion in the heel, but for now, the Hyperdunk is still the choice basketball shoe for next season. It makes for a great team buy for high schools and AAU teams alike, allowing for great control of your movements, sufficient cushioning, and of course, the lightest weight yet in a product of its kind. With Bryant and the "Redeem Team" recapturing the gold this summer in Beijing, it may also just be time to place the Hyperdunk alongside the greats of Olympics past.
Who's Wearing Them? Kobe Bryant (USA), Pau Gasol (Spain), Andrei Kirilenko (Russia), Linas Kleiza (Lithuania), Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), Yi Jianlian (China), Andrew Bogut (Australia), Manu Ginobili (Argentina)