Test Pilot: The Innovation Legacy of Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant is more than a paid endorser, he’s also had a hand in pushing basketball innovation.

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Kobe Bryant's on-court career has come to an end, but he's left more than a legacy of championships, All-Star appearances, and MVP trophies in his wake. He also had a major impact on basketball footwear. His influence helped change the direction not only of Nike, but the entire industry.

Both launching new technologies and introducing existing concepts to basketball, Bryant led one of the most significant lines in sneaker history with the Swoosh. In honor of Mamba Day, these are the most important innovations he helped introduce.

Anatomically Correct

Seen in: Nike Zoom Kobe 2

Nike’s Free technology, an approach to sneaker design that sought to adapt to the natural motion of the foot was introduced in 2005. While it didn’t invent the concept of minimalist shoes, the “Run Barefoot” campaign proved highly influential, impacting the entire running industry for years to come. Elements of Nike Free design are found in practically every category today, including basketball.

That may have never happened if it wasn’t for Kobe Bryant. Ken Link, the designer of the first Nike Basketball shoe to feature Free (the Zoom Kobe 2), told Sole Collector in 2007 that the company likes to think of Bryant “in a test pilot type of manner, and how we can really begin to push the envelope with him.”

“We just sat around the table and chopped it up, and came up with a design that I really liked,” Bryant said in that same story, about bringing Free to basketball.

According to Link, there was a very logical reason to implement the design into Bryant’s signature line. “Kobe has an incredible first step,” he reasoned. “We asked, ‘How do we get that separation [from defenders] for him?’ We felt that Free could give him great court feel, and give him that quick first step that really let him feel the court and move with it.”

Of course, the Free concept had to be tweaked for basketball to ensure it had the durability needed for the court. “We did a significant amount of testing, and we shot high-speed film and analyzed the Free pods,” said Mike Steen, the shoe’s developer. “One of the interesting things we did on the initial design direction for the pods was that we based it on where Nike Running had been. We looked at where they place their sipes, and we ended up deciding this might not be applicable for us. Our performance criteria are different. Our athlete requirements are different.” Thus, the outsole segmentation of the Kobe 2 looks very different from that of a Nike Running Free, but there’s no mistaking the influence.

These days, natural motion considerations are built into practically every design, whether it’s the segmentation of Posite on a shoe’s upper, or the relief points on an outsole, but it was never as literal in basketball as when Link and Bryant brought it to the Zoom Kobe 2.

Through the Wire

Seen in: Nike Hyperdunk

Flywire and Lunar foam are completely different technologies. One is support-based and the other focused on cushioning. But, thanks to their joint introduction for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, you can’t speak about one without mentioning the other. And you can’t speak on either without including Kobe Bryant.

Bryant was the face of the original Hyperdunk, the first basketball sneaker to feature both technologies. He most famously wore them in the viral ad where he jumped over a speeding Aston Martin. The stunt may not have been entirely authentic (jumping over the car was computer generated), but it did help illustrate the unifying goal of the two technologies: weight reduction without compromising strength.

The twofold approach addressed different areas where weight could be cut—both in the shoe’s tooling and in the upper. Foam has been used for decades in footwear, but Nike’s Lunar foam was a proprietary compound that cut 30 percent off the weight of traditional Phylon, and better distributed the force of impact. Flywire, on the other hand, was a complete change of direction in footwear design.

“That’s the whole premise behind this, and this fundamentally changes the thinking of how you’re going to build shoes because you’re not going to do it in overlays,” explained Jay Meschter, Nike innovation director back in 2008. The idea came to Meschter after studying the famed gold cleats worn by Michael Johnson in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. They were notable not just for their bright color, but also for their single-layer construction. He began constructing a pin model to look for ways to cradle the foot using a series of carefully placed tensile strands that could provide support while minimizing layers. “That is where the magic is—in just that perfect alignment of fiber, because it is so purposeful. You know exactly where it is going,” Meschter said.

The formula appeared in both the Hyperdunk and Bryant’s next signature shoe, the Zoom Kobe 4 and still has a heavy influence on the direction of Nike.

“We want to minimize reaction time in the shoe, so that when you change directions, the foot is not sliding within the shoe and it actually reacts quicker with the change of direction and changes of pace,” Bryant explained. “The thing that’s the most impressive to me is how light and strong they are.”

Low Man’s Land

Seen in: Zoom Kobe 4

Low-top basketball sneakers were nothing new when the Zoom Kobe 4 was launched in 2009. Players like Mike Bibby and Derrick Anderson became known for their low-top Air Jordan PEs back in the early 2000s. The Kobe 4 wasn’t even the first low-top signature sneaker. Gilbert Arenas’ adidas Gil Zero predated the Nike Kobe 4 by three years. Yet there’s no argument when it comes to which player’s influence sparked the widespread trend of players at all levels to hoop in low-cut shoes.

The idea for bringing a low-cut silhouette to his signature line came from Kobe himself, who had quickly developed a strong relationship with designer Eric Avar when he took over the reins of his signature line with the Nike Zoom Kobe 3.

“[Kobe] said ‘I want the lowest, lightest weight basketball shoe.’ And I asked him, ‘You want like a three-fourths height?’ ‘Low-top,’ he says. ‘Soccer, Mercurial-type low?’ He just looks at me and says, ‘Yes!’”

Not coincidentlly, growing up amidst the soccer culture of Italy played a role in Bryant’s understanding of how a low-top could work for him on the court. He says it “came from a functional point of view and just thinking about the game and how I feel when I play. I just wanted to have better range and flexibility within the ankle and be able to move and cut and not feel like that movement is restricted. I think how the soccer background came into play is understanding how much stress you put on your ankles and how hard you play the game. In soccer, you can still wear low-tops, and they put more stress on their ankles than we do.”

The inclusion of Flywire added strength to the design, along with carefully sculpted heel padding for additional lockdown. An external heel counter added even more stability and provided Kobe the tools to influence the entire game of basketball to consider low-tops as an option.

Avar summed it up by saying: “When you’re working directly with the athlete, especially someone like Kobe, it gives you all the justification you need and the confidence you need to make a statement like this.... Not just by wearing it, but because of all the thinking and all the reasoning behind it.”

Choose Your Weapon

Seen in: Nike Kobe 7 System

The concept of modularity—the ability to switch in and out different performance attributes in the same shoe, has been attempted many times over the years. Jordan Brand introduced interchangeable cushioning platforms, with the Air Jordan XXI, Air Jordan 2011, and the Air Jordan 2012. However, Kobe Bryant and Nike took the concept to new heights, offering not only cushioning options, but the choice of ankle support, too.

“Each time we meet, it’s a different challenge of how you want to move performance,” Avar explained. And for his seventh signature shoe, the particular challenge Bryant presented was that he was looking for versatility.

“I wanted to have something that was a little softer—something that kind of protects you and kind of aids the recovery process,” Bryant said. “And then, when it’s time, you go to something that’s a little thinner and lower.”

The best way to accomplish these contrasting needs was through interchangeable parts. “We started with the low-cuts and that was the beginning,” Bryant began. “Now here we are with the ‘System.’ We don’t make shoes anymore, we make Systems [Laughs], which is cool. You want people to have the option. You want to give them a choice of what they’re working with.”

The System was comprised of an outer shell that housed an outsole, carbon fiber shank, a skin-like upper with no lining or tongue, and laces. From there, drop-in midsoles attached to a tongue with either a high or low-cut collar could be swapped in and out.

Like all of the innovations that go into Bryant’s line, it all has a purpose, he explained. “If you’re going to be on your feet, you need to have something that’s going to actually help enhance your game. It’s not something you just put on your foot to run around. I want things that are very detail oriented and meticulously placed in the shoe, that I feel give me an advantage.”

Threading the Needle

Seen in: Nike Kobe 9 Elite, Nike Kobe 10, Nike Kobe 11, Nike Kobe A.D. NXT 360

Much like Free, Nike originally introduced Flyknit through running. From its initial introduction, there was never any doubt that it would be the future of every sneaker Nike made. So it came as no surprise when Bryant debuted the technology in basketball with the Kobe 9 Elite. As for the technology itself, Nike CEO Mark Parker spoke of it in grand terms. “In many respects, it’s game-changing in terms of performance,” Parker said. “In terms of design, it’s like you’ve got a high precision instrument to work with.”

Rather than cutting down existing materials and connecting them together to build up a new shape, Flyknit material is created from the ground up. “It used to be largely cut-and-sew construction for many centuries, which is more of a collage, where pieces come together,” Parker went on to explain. “Today, we’re working at a fiber level and at a pixel level. It’s kind of like high-definition TV, and we’re able to get more precise, not only on parts of the upper, but down to the millimeters.”

“It’s a great example of not being just about performance. We’re enhancing performance while we’re also making a major sustainability improvement at the same time.”

Just because the technology’s expansion to categories outside of running was inevitable, doesn’t mean it was easy. It had to be re-engineered specifically for Kobe and basketball use. Avar explained that, similar to the way you can use different colored fibers, you can also use fibers with different physical properties.

“We used some non-stretch fibers in the forefoot onthe lateral side to secure the athlete against lateral forces. We used more traditional fibers that we use in the running shoes in the midfoot. Then, we used really dynamic fibers up through the collar area, to give you that dynamic fit that allows for more range of motion. It was a combination of the fibers and the types of stitches.”

As always with Kobe, it comes down to functionality. “We always try and do something that’s going to help my performance on the basketball court. We always start with that discussion. ‘What is going to help me be a better basketball player?’ When it came time to put Flyknit into a basketball shoe, it was a hell of a challenge to say the least. But that’s who we are. It’s been a long journey, in terms of putting it all together and making it work, but it’s been a fun one.”

Despite his retirement, that journey hasn't ended yet. Bryant's latest signature model, the Kobe A.D. NXT 360, has introduced an evolution of Flyknit technology to the basketball category that promises to improve upon the original. When the concept was announced in 2017, Bryant pondered the possibilities. "How can we create something that is so minimal, I mean like feather light, but gives you great strength and stability? With the 360, we managed to pull it off."

This article first ran in 2016 and has been edited to reflect current events.