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For Kobe And LeBron’s Playoff Shoes, Nike Looks To Carbon Fiber, Kevlar, And Snakeskin

The limited run of the so-called elite series costs between $200 and $250, thanks to material innovations that would be too expensive in a regular production-run shoe.

LeBron gets what LeBron wants. And apparently, for the NBA playoffs and the most high-pressure part of the season, LeBron wanted his best shoe. Can you blame him? Nike obliged, with a new line of ultra high-end basketball shoes for LeBron, Kobe, and other players fitted with carbon fiber and kevlar. These high-end materials would’ve made regular production cost-prohibitive. So instead, Nike is making just a couple thousand copies of the LeBron 9 PS, Nike Kobe VII and Nike Zoom Hyperdunk. “We’ve already made the Mercedes, but we wanted to make the AMG,” says Leo Chang, one of the line’s lead designers.

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Nike began by deconstructing the regular production models, and replacing the standard materials with higher-performance, stiffer options. Each of them has a carbon-fiber plate in the sole, and a carbon-fiber counter on the heal, which provides a tougher launching point for jumps and cuts. Kevlar threads in the so-called Flywire support system–which you can see in yellow, in the pictures here–creates a tightened shoe with almost no stretch. Where regular threads might stretch 20% when pulled, the Kevlar only stretches 1% to 2%. Fun fact: Originally, when Flywire was first created in 2008, Nike wanted to use Kevlar–but were told by their vendors that U.S. military contractors were buying almost all of it, meaning there wouldn’t be enough for Nike’s production runs.

Additionally, since these shoes are meant to perform in a short period rather than last a whole season, they deepened the grooves on the sole, to allow greater movement, and cut-down radically on the fabric layers (possible since the Kevlar provided so much additional strength). Maybe the coolest detail: For the Kobe VIII, (which you see up top), Nike created a cast-urethane upper which mimics snakeskin. Run your finger against the grain, and it really feels like scales. Why? Kobe Bryant calls himself the Black Mamba, one of the most venomous snakes in the world. (Hard to know if Kobe is talking about his basketball skills or his personality.)

Kobe’s snakeskin motif, which actually feels like scales.

A skeptic would wonder whether all of this actually improves the performance of an athlete such as LeBron James, who weighs 250 pounds, as he barrels his way into the lane. But the cleverness of Nike’s material innovations has always been that even if they don’t create a measurable increase in speed or jumping, they do create a sense for the wearer of having the best, most innovative technology on one’s feet. And by flooding a simple shoe with so much material innovation, Nike is no longer making comparisons to everything else out there–they’re speaking a high-tech language that they invented themselves, kind of the way NASA did. Maybe it works after all: Any professional athlete would surely tell you that how you feel is as important as anything else, when you’re trying to perform at your peak. And all of it helps when you’re talking trash to scrubs.

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About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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