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.
As Ken Link and Kobe Bryant paired up once again to work on his second signature sneaker, the Zoom Kobe II, they looked to innovate on many new fronts and take Bryant's footwear to new levels of court feel and construction. Kobe had lost some weight and bulk from the previous year, and now he was looking to take advantage of his explosive first step and slashing style of play.
Rather than build directly from the Zoom Kobe I and its more sturdy construction, Link looked to Bryant's favorite weapon of choice for his more stealth frame: the Huarache 2K4. "If you take the 2K4, a great shoe, how can you make it more flexible, less layers, lighter, lower to the ground and provide better cushioning?" questioned Link. "Could you really change one of the best playing shoes we've done? And could you take it to the next level for Kobe?"
Surely those were the type of questions Link was hired to solve, so he set out to find the solutions for Kobe's current set of needs. In order to make a shoe that sat lower to the ground and offered greater flexibility, Link and his crew of developers at Nike decided to incorporate the methodologies of both Nike Free and Nike Considered, which at first appeared to be a daunting task.
Almost immediately, it was decided that this new approach to the shoe would fundamentally change the way it would be constructed, and for the first time in basketball, a shoe was made with reduced waste, and without toxic chemicals or bonds, as the Zoom Kobe II was instead fully stitched throughout. The upper was comprised of a series of panels that worked to provide flexibility and targeted support, albeit in a single-layer construction.
"The single-layer Considered upper was a way to get to a lighter, better system," says Link. Rather than develop the shoe with a traditional midsole in mind, the shoe's outsole featured a sidewall that crept up along the perimeter of the shoe, serving as a footbucket to provide the athlete with lateral support and protection. The shoe was also crafted differently in that the heel and forefoot Zoom Air cushioning units were embedded within the insole, which helped in ridding the shoe of its traditional midsole and allowed for it to sit just millimeters off of the ground. The outsole was then created with Nike's Free principles in mind, as it incorporated a series of linear and lateral flex grooves for amazing flexibility never before seen in hoops footwear.
The Zoom Kobe II became a new way to make a shoe. Unlike previous shoes that included the upper, the midsole and then the outsole, the Kobe II's upper was stitched directly to the shoe's footbucket, so it was the insole within providing all of the shoe's cushioning. The result was a shoe that was lighter, lower and offered greater control of Bryant's movements when planting and changing directions.
"Kobe has an incredible first step, and we asked, 'How do we get that separation [from his defenders] for him?'" Link recalls. "We feel that Free could give him great court-feel, and it's going to give him that quick first step, and really let him feel the court and move with it." Once again, it was the insights from Kobe Bryant through a series of discussions and meetings that helped Link and Nike Basketball create the Zoom Kobe II.
Link feels that Kobe is able to provide those bits of inspiration simply because he thinks the game through differently than any other athlete, for basketball is truly his relentless passion. "Vincent Van Gogh was asked, 'Do you love what you do?' He said, 'No, I obsess it.' I think most people understand that people that are great at what they do, they don't really love what they do, they obsess it. That obsession is what we see in Kobe," Link says. "I don't really know of any athlete on the court that lives and breathes basketball like Kobe. He's so intelligent, he's so into it, and at the same time he just really loves it."
As the Zoom Kobe line would progress beyond the II, Bryant's sneakers would always come back to the notion of daring to try new things, which can include new cushioning setups, new methods of construction and even new heights. "We want to think of Kobe in a test pilot type of manner, and how can we really begin to push the envelope with him and do some different things," explains Link. "Instead of incrementally getting there, really taking a big leap as far as function goes. The Kobe II is not a complete departure for a Nike shoe, it's more about how we got there and the functionality of it, and that when you put it on, it does have a different feel than most basketball shoes that we've done."
As Link would hand back the reigns of the Zoom Kobe line to designer Eric Avar after the II, it would also signal a noteworthy change in Kobe's line, as Avar sought to remove Bryant's series from the normal business sector and work on his signature line from the Innovation Kitchen. Now, the shoes were given more than the normal 14-month window that products from the basketball category are provided for their design and development process.
"I think the way that Eric works now is really important for a guy like Kobe and how important he is as a kind of test pilot for Nike," Link says. "It's important to get out, to get ahead of stuff and try new stuff. The vibe is really amazing, and it's all because of that time to really work with the athlete, fine-tune the idea and push the envelope for performance. But, Eric recognizes that, 'Hey, if I get out of this system, I can really help this guy out. I can really develop a bond and a true insight that will help the category beyond even what it thinks it can be and show it where it could be.'" As we'd find out in the coming years, Link couldn't have been more right.