"When you're talking about shoes, I start thinking about the collaboration from a performance angle," says Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers. "You know, I'm cutting, changing directions, jumping. Performance is priority No. 1." But he also draws from another playbook. "I get design inspiration from a myriad of things," he says. "People, animals, weather." For his first shoe with Nike, the 2K4, Bryant's concept was the great white shark. "I was attracted to it for its simplicity and sleek aggressiveness."
Nike CEO Mark Parker was receptive. "Aesthetics matter greatly to an athlete," he says. "It's a huge psychological component." But as he and designers Tinker Hatfield and Eric Avar worked with Bryant, they also saw an opportunity to change basketball forever. Traditionally, basketball shoes were heavy, to protect the thundering giants from g-forces and ankle injuries. "They used to be on a big cup sole, rubber, kind of heavy, foam inside, and a leather upper," Bryant explains. "Kind of a lightweight hiking boot with a flat bottom." Bryant wanted his shoe to be as light as possible without sacrificing cushioning or strength. "I wanted to break out of the sea of sameness," he says.
With biomechanical insights from the Nike Sports Research Lab, the team developed a hybrid between a running and a basketball shoe. Later models use Flywire construction. "With Kobe, we proved that you don't have to have something big and bulky to be supportive," Parker says.
"The shoe is becoming one with the foot," says Bryant, who meets with the designers three to four times a year. Parker is coy about what comes next. "We talked about being able to change his shoe from game to game," he says. "But also to be able to change the shoe within a game." When will we see this shape-shifting beast? Parker smiles and shrugs. "Soon."
A version of this article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.