The age-old sports adage is true: Father Time is undefeated.
After a storied 20 years in the NBA, five-time NBA champion, 18-time NBA All-Star, Olympic gold medalist, and future Basketball Hall-of-Famer Kobe Bryant is saying goodbye to pro basketball. The leading vote getter in this year’s NBA All-Star Game announced his pending retirement earlier in the season through a personal sonnet to the game of basketball, which read something similar to how someone would say goodbye to a high school sweetheart before leaving for college—bittersweet.
“My heart can take the pounding/My mind can handle the grind/But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye,” Bryant wrote in November of last year.
However, his work as a muse for Nike designers has no expiration date. Bryant’s sneaker deal extends beyond his playing days, and working on sneakers for Bryant is more than just rubber, leather, and glue.
“He always comes with a deep, insightful, and almost philosophical point of view,” said Nike’s Eric Avar, who’s helmed the design of Bryant’s signature line since 2008. “Whether it’s an inspiration on the metaphor side, or also on the performance side.”
Over the last decade, Bryant helped put together a catalog of more than 10 signature sneakers. He’s in elite company, considering that he joined Nike in the middle of his career, and that only Michael Jordan and LeBron James have had more silhouettes bearing their name.
While most players at this stage of their NBA career would be reminiscing about the contributions they’ve made to sneaker culture, Bryant is looking forward. His signature sneaker line will continue despite his absence from the basketball court. Bryant and team are currently working on the Kobe 12 and Bryant says he already knows what the next three silhouettes in the Kobe line are going to look like.
While the physicality of playing professional basketball for 20 years has taken a toll on Bryant’s body, it’s made his sneaker design acumen more refined. There’s only one thing that matters to him when it comes to sneakers, and it’s not retroing one of his models every other year or dropping a new hyped colorway every month. It’s pushing basketball sneaker design into uncharted waters.
“I don’t focus on how fashion changes,” Kobe said. “I only focus on creating innovative product.”
Taking risks has been inherent to every one of Bryant’s sneaker designs. He’s been a catalyst. Whether it was moving to a low-cut shoe when no one in the industry was asking for one, or making a basketball sneaker that looks like a boxing boot, Bryant has completely shifted how Nike and the industry approach basketball sneakers.
(This feature appears in special edition Sole Collector issue 48)
How’s it feel to unveil your last signature sneaker before retiring?
It feels great, man. I’m very proud of the history that we’ve created while I’ve been playing. It’s a great feeling. I’ve put in a lot of work.
Over the 11 years you’ve worked with Nike, is there a sneaker in particular that you’re proud of?
It’s hard to say. Each, for that moment in time, was extremely innovative, so it’s hard to pinpoint one in particular. I think the one that was the most courageous leap was going to the low with the 4. That was the bravest thing. I remember having to go speak to buyers and having to explain to them why I’m going low, from an innovation standpoint, from an athlete performance standpoint, and the things we put into the shoe, like heel lock, that actually make the shoe safer than a high top. That was one of the more courageous leaps. It was one of those things where if it succeeds, it’s going to be industry changing, and if it fails, we’re going to be up shit creek.
Where do you see the Kobe line going after you retire?
We’ll remain extremely consistent with what we’ve been doing, which is creating innovative products that help athletes be the best versions of themselves. That’s not going to change. I don’t focus on how fashion changes. I only focus on creating innovative product. Hopefully the consumer knows by now that if you’re buying a Kobe product, you’re buying something that’s been thought through. We pay attention to detail all the way through. You’re buying something that’s going to help you perform better. That’s not going to stop.
So you’re saying there’s going to be a Nike Kobe 12, 13 and so forth?
Absolutely. We’ll continue to evolve. We’re going to continue to push and the line will keep growing.
How do you see yourself working with Nike after you retire? Are you going to be in the Innovation Kitchen? Will you be working with other athletes?
The same way I do now. We’re on top of this thing from the beginning all the way through to the end. After 11 years, we’ve become so close to each other and we’ve established a relationship in how we communicate. We have a great flow and that’s not going to stop.
I heard that you actually go on vacation with your sneaker designer, Eric Avar. Is that true?
Yes. We actually went out and did a little shark diving.
What do you guys talk about?
You’d be surprised how little time we spend talking on sneakers. We talk about nature. We talk about the sense of self. We talk about humanity and culture. We talk about all of these things—inspirations. And then it all inevitably comes back to the product. We believe there’s a spirituality that exists in the world that connects to the product. It may sound very geeky or whatever, but that’s just how we are.
Can you give me an example of how one of these random conversations translated into product?
The culture we live in today is this culture of connectivity. It’s a culture of transparency. And the challenge that we have as a culture is how do you get people to communicate with each other in a very respectable way where we empathize with the journey of others. Right?
This is turning into the deepest discussion about sneakers I’ve ever had.
This is what we do, man. This is what we do. [Laughs.] It was from that conversation, we said, "What if we take some of our technology—Free, Zoom, Flyknit, Lunar—and how do we have them communicate with each other in a very amiable and respectable way where they all empathize with the other?" Because normally, these technologies behave in isolation. But we said, "Let’s have them work together." In our culture of connectivity, it’s our dream that this culture all works together in unison, so let’s have the technology that represents that. That’s just an example of how we geek out.
Back to this year, NBA All-Star Weekend is around the corner. As you know, it’s a big event in terms of sneakers. Would you like to debut something special on the court one last time?
We’ll do something special for All-Star, I’m sure, in terms of color and story. That’s just like having the cake and switching out the icing. The hardest part is creating the cake.
But you’d want to wear the sneakers with new icing yourself right?
If the fans want to see me at the All-Star Game one more time, they’ll speak and I’ll be there. If not, that’s fine too. I’ve played in plenty of them and I’d be just as thrilled to support the next generation of players performing in the All-Star Game. [Editor’s note: Bryant led the NBA in votes for the 2016 NBA All-Star Game]
Last time you were in Toronto, DeMar DeRozan gave you a pair of custom sneakers as a send-off. What did you do with them?
I have a room that I’m building out that, for lack of a better term, is a nostalgia room where everything from my career goes and some of the trinkets and memories that I’ve saved up along the years will go.
There was this cross trainer shoe we made that was pretty freaking sick, but people never saw.
What kind of sneaker gems are in that room?
I have every one of the sneakers that have been created through my partnership with Nike as well as some of the ones that haven’t been released here in the States. Aside from the hardware that I’ve gained throughout my career, there’s a lot of game-worn shoes that I’ve saved. The 81-point game shoes and jersey. Things like that.
Your sneakers are in the same room as your championship rings?
Oh absolutely. The shoes are part of the journey. The shoes I wore in those championship games during those championship series, I keep all of those. They go hand in hand with the ring. I can’t get no ring without the sneakers that I’m wearing. They really helped me get there.
Are there any one-offs in there? Like a sample that only you have and no one’s ever seen?
There are a couple products that never released here in the States. There was this cross trainer shoe we made that was pretty freaking sick, but people never saw. Those are really special to me.
You mentioned the next generation of athletes. Do you spend a lot of time mentoring the new signature guys like Kyrie?
I’ve spoken to him about it. I’ve spoken to other athletes about the same thing or have tried to help and share information as much as possible. The most important thing is that you have to be true to who you are. Who are you and what do you represent? What do you stand for and what do you hold dear? That then gets translated into the product, but you first must need to know yourself.
What was that for you?
Innovation was first and foremost for me. That was the most important thing. The game and everything else was secondary. That’s who I was. For Kyrie and all those other athletes, they must find their voice as well.
LeBron James set the bar high by being the first lifetime Nike athlete. What are your thoughts on that?
I think that’s super. It’s great. It really sets a new precedent. If you’re a kid growing up and you’re watching athletes, that’s a great example for you to have. LeBron is somebody who can create a business that extends well beyond his playing days and his playing career. For kids to have that example is wonderful.
One last question. 2-on-2 basketball game. On one side it’s you and Eric Avar. On the other side it’s Michael Jordan and Tinker Hatfield. Who’s taking that game and what’s on your feet?
We’re winning that because we’re younger than them. [Laughs.]
Well that was easy.
[Laughs.] And just for the hell of it, Eric and I will wear Jordans and they’ll wear Kobes.
Let’s set that up.
Dude, that would be classic.