words // Nick DePaula
photography // Steve Mullholand
Context: To help celebrate Kobe Bryant's 35th birthday this week, we'll be taking a look at a handful of the earliest Nike sneakers he's worn, with a new shoe each day.
After spending two seasons wearing both the Huarache 2K4 and 2K5 in several player exclusive colorways, the time came for Kobe Bryant to receive his very own signature shoe, and immediately there were several key components that had to be incorporated into his first sneaker. With designer Eric Avar away on medical leave, Nike Basketball Design Director Ken Link stepped in and crafted the Zoom Kobe I, which proved to be full of things he learned from his previous shoes and also full of personal touches and core attributes specific to Kobe's needs.
"I think the best thing about Kobe is when he looks at a shoe, he wants to see himself and his game in his shoe," says Link. "I think that's one of the things about Kobe, is that he gives so much information that it truly drives the process." The shoe began as a modern approach to offering lateral support and stability in a cushioned ride, and right away, there was a move away from the strap that had become so recognizable on both the 2K4 and 2K5 before it.
"He said he didn't want one," reveals Link. "We wanted to focus on the collar, and you'll start to see it in other shoes [later in his line], because a lot of times he was already thinking about, 'Could I get to a low?' Getting to a low is not necessarily the easiest thing to do, but he felt like his game and where he was headed was getting to that low thought process."
It would be another three shoes before Bryant truly got into that low-cut height, but the Zoom Kobe I serves as a great opening to his signature series and included several performance merits. The heel and forefoot Zoom Air was carried over from the 2K series for outstanding cushioning, and at Kobe's request, the shoe was more padded and cushioned at the expense of some weight. He was willing to sacrifice a few ounces in the shoe because he was just coming off of a summer of grueling two-a-day workouts and weighed in higher than he had any other season before at a chiseled 225 pounds.
While the shoe may have clocked in at a slightly higher weight than his other shoes, it still included attributes of protection and support that his line has become known for, with the pronounced lateral outrigger providing the shoe with a stable base. Along the heel, a molded TPU wrap served as a chassis for the foot, helping Bryant as he quickly changed directions during games. "The back heel wrap was based more around [the thought] that you lock the heel in, and you're cool," says Link. "That has everything to do with the control of the foot."
For Bryant, the shoe was everything he needed at the time, offering a great multi-directional traction pattern, reliable support and the cushioned ride he demanded. The various colorways offered up were also extremely personal and specific to Bryant, like the Retro Nights version in the colors of the MPLS Lakers that paid tribute to retired former Lakers greats, as well as the Black/Varsity Maize colorway that was inspired by the movie Kill Bill and Kobe's ability to be an assassin with the ball.
It's also a shoe that holds a special place in the hearts of both Kobe and Link, as he was wearing the White / Black / Varsity Purple version on January 22, 2006, when he exploded for 81 points against the Toronto Raptors. It was one of those moments in Link's life where he could recall exactly where he was and what he was doing. "I was in Taiwan watching the game, and it was like, 'He's out of control.' I'm thinking, 'He could go for 100,'" Link says. "I remember it being big - it was in the paper there the next day. I remember just thinking like, 'Wow, when he wants to, no one can stop him.'"
While some people thought afterwards that the Raptors simply didn't bother to show up and gave Kobe free reign on scoring, Link remembers quite a different scene taking place as Bryant earned every last basket. "If you go back to those highlights, there were a lot of cats in his face, leaping, surprised as they can't try and stop the shot. It was not old lady defense," he jokes. Once the season concluded, Kobe had a full summer of workouts ahead of him and he began to reduce his weight and frame, getting to a more nimble playing style, but once again, he had the foresight to call out his specific needs in the Zoom Kobe I, that would most benefit his game at that time.
"Kobe, he's so far along the spectrum of what he expects out of a shoe and what he wants to put into it, and so he's been there every step of the way," says Link. It made things easy on Link, who had an articulate and decisive subject to work with and a set list of needs to infuse into Bryant's first sneaker. "He really is ahead of his time, the way that he thinks about his game, the way he thinks about training for his game, the way he thinks about how his game interacts with the rest of his world and the world around it - he really gets that on a level that most people don't get."