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Editor’s comment: This story was originally published on 23. August 2017 published.
More than 20 years ago, when the term sneaker was still synonymous with Michael Jordan, Adidas signed a quartet of young prodigies to launch its fledgling basketball line. The face of this movement was Kobe Bryant, who had undeniable star potential thanks to his new home in Hollywood with the Los Angeles Lakers and a new interest in marketing.
Bryant’s stay with Adidas didn’t last long, as he ended the contract in 2002 and played the entire 2002-03 season without sneaker support before switching to Nike, where he always felt he belonged.
It was just like when Harry Potter came to Hogwarts. He was at home, he told me in 2009. I am always surrounded by people who compete and are as competitive as I am or as passionate about the sport as I am. People don’t look at me like I’m different or anything because I’m ultra-competitive. I only hang out with people who are like me.
Unlike the Air Jordans that only Michael and a few Bulls teammates wore during his playing days, Kobe’s signature series quickly spread throughout the league and was worn by players from all positions on all teams – confident in their work. If the Jordan line influenced culture and style in a way the industry will likely never see again, the Bryant line also influenced innovation.
That means we did everything right, because professional athletes don’t just put shoes on their feet to put shoes on their feet, Bryant said after seeing his Kobe IV Zoom used throughout the competition. That’s how they make their living, with their feet. So they want to make sure they have something comfortable on their feet that helps them perform and is safe.
Kobe’s sneaker catalog includes more than 50 sneakers during his two-decade career, but we rank his most notable signature models from Adidas and Nike from the most loathed to the most loved.
24. Adidas Kobe Two
It is a shoe that is widely blamed for forcing Bryant to leave the brand entirely. It’s not just his innate clumsiness that earns him the dubious nickname toaster among children. The shoe worked as badly as it looked. At the end of the 2002 season, Bryant went from Kobe 2 to Kobe 2 for last season’s clutch. Then he traded in his Adidas sneakers for good.
23. Adidas KB8 III (aka EQT Responsive)
The KB8 III is often the last Adidas sneaker that die-hard Bryant fans remember. This was Bryant’s latest model with the Feet You Wear cushioning technology that Bryant developed in the 2000s. He wore it in a handful of simple Lakers colors, then switched to the more classic Forum 2000 for this season’s playoffs.
22. Nike Zoom Huarache 2K5
While Bryant and Nike worked on the debut of their signature series, he ran two seasons with the Zoom Huarache series before the Zoom Kobe 1 was created. Inspired by Nike’s Free Running series, the shoe features more sculpted flex grooves and a higher collar with belt attachment. This design is no accident, but was appreciated by baseball players who made good use of it on the field.
21. Nike Zoom Kobe III
When people first saw the shoe, they said: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know, Bryant said with a laugh.
The tall shoe has generated some interest and has been compared to Belgian waffles. Although the all-black version debuted first, Bryant soon began creating a mix of lighter and more refined looks as he put together one of his greatest individual seasons. Among cult collectors, Bryant will be remembered for what he accomplished with this shoe – his only MVP title and his return to the NBA Finals after Shaq.
20. Adidas KB8 II
Kind of Adidas
Rarely worn during the brief 1998-99 NBA lockout season, the KB8 II was the shoe that initiated a radical change in Adidas sneaker design after the turn of the millennium. Originally released in just three colorways – black, white and purple – the second KB8 has since been re-released by Adidas, with some love from current collectors.
19. Nike Kobe VII (System)
Just as his Nike series has established itself as one of the most successful products in the industry, Kobe and Nike are playing with a formula that works. The seventh sneaker introduced the Kobe system, a modular design where the wearer could switch between two insoles in the shoe, each with its own language. One was a low top, the other a floating top with velcro. The result was a more expensive shoe that didn’t necessarily advance the line, and Nike stepped back from the system idea the following season.
18. Nike Kobe AD
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
Yes, the name is undoubtedly an acronym for Kobe After Death, a bit of a clunker, certainly the first in branded sneakers after retirement. The shoe is designed with the same principles of speed, cushioning and lockdown that define every Kobe low top sneaker for him. He is well-liked on the court and accepted throughout the NBA. Nike has provided custom AD pairs to some of the top scorers, such as DeMar DeRozan in Toronto and Isaiah Thomas in Cleveland.
17. Nike Zoom Kobe II
The Kobe II, which was released just before the shoe got lighter and lower, is one of the best sneakers in the entire lineup, but it hasn’t gotten old either.
The designer, Kenzo [Ken Link], is very talented, Bryant said. We just sat down at the table, chopped it up and came up with a design that I really liked.
There was plenty of cushioning with Zoom Air, as well as solid support with a locking strap and plastic heel frame. The shoes also featured narrative elements, with a laser-cut graphic diamond pattern on the shoe, a subtle reference to his daughter Natalia Diamante.
16. Adidas EQT Boost
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Dressed in black and white for Bryant’s first appearance in the NBA playoffs, Elevation is rightly best known for his lighthearted attacks in the 1997 slam dunk contest. With his warm-up top still on, Bryant wore an all-purple outfit to the annual All-Star weekend, showing something of the arrogance and talent that made his early years in the league. Bryant won the trophy in his only contest and elevated the original Adidas design for the rest of the spring.
15. Nike Kobe 9 (low)
Lowe’s 9 is often overlooked on the field, as Kobe essentially wore a high-cut Elite 9 the few times he was on the field during his injury-plagued 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. This is the model Bryant wore when he passed his idol Michael Jordan as the third top scorer in NBA history and is adored by collectors for its Flyknit material and sculpted carbon fiber sides.
14. Adidas Top Ten 2010
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images.
In the late 1970s, Adidas introduced the original Top 10 sneakers to the feet of 10 league players. The shoe was launched to celebrate the best of the era, with first-hand accounts from players who wore it, including Rick Barry, Adrian Dantley and Bob Lanier.
Bryant was rightfully included in a select group of young players in 1996 who were allowed to wear the brand’s latest Top Ten sneakers, which showcase the best of the new generation. At the start of his first NBA season, Bryant wore a white-silver-black jersey for home games and a black-silver-white jersey for away games.
13. Nike Zoom Kobe
With the Zoom 1, I wanted more resiliency, Bryant said. It was a season where I had knee injuries and things like that. So we sacrificed some weight for better cushioning in this shoe.
The shoe proudly wore the Kobe logo on the tongue. The thug symbol, inspired by the sword, is taken from Bryant’s favorite action movie, Kill Bill. Over the course of his 80-game season, Bryant showed that offensive mindset, averaging 35.4 points, the most impressive of which was his legendary barrage of 81 points against Toronto in January 2006.
12. Nike Kobe X Elite (Big)
For the second season in a row, Kobe abandoned the silhouette worn by players throughout the league in favor of ultra-high sneakers often compared to boxing shoes. With an all-Flyknit upper, the shoe was more flexible and adaptable than the Kobe 9 before it and is still being worn by players two seasons later.
11. Nike Kobe 11
Although the design is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, the 11 is the last sneaker Bryant wore in his 20-year career. In his latest campaign, he wore a mix of knit, muted and bold styles, none more memorable than Mamba Day’s simple black and gold look. After scoring 60 points in his final home game, players from across the league also wore commemorative bikes in Bryant’s honor, leaving an indelible memory for collectors.
10. Nike Kobe 8
Kobe’s eighth basketball was simplified in every way. The top net is designed for flexibility and reduced weight, as well as a thin one-piece tongue. The design wasn’t as revolutionary as the Kobes 4-6 before it, but the shoe remains a favorite on the court. A few seasons later, players like DeMar DeRozan still make it to the eight from time to time.
9. Nike Kobe X (low)
With a completely clean bottom and a wedge that provides two-way support, the 10. Kobe Bryant’s model: his constant insistence on smooth sneakers designed for an attacking mindset. Nike released several limited-edition versions of the Flyknit, while the basic mesh version had a simple, no-frills design that instantly made it one of Kobe’s most worn NBA sneakers. Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo couldn’t get away with it for more than two seasons.
8. Nike Zoom Kobe VI
With Kobe fully committed to his self-proclaimed Black Mamba, it was only natural that the alter ego of the deadly snake would make shoe history. At the time, the design of the shoes was the subject of several internal debates at Nike, which were eventually won by designers Eric Avar and Kobe. The sneaker’s upper is made from snakeskin and it’s one of Kobe’s most popular styles over the years, thanks to the unmistakable Mamba pattern.
7. Adidas Kobe
In collaboration with Audi, which is located an hour south of Adidas’ headquarters in Germany, the brand unveiled the Kobe, an updated Bryant sneaker with an Audi TT-inspired silhouette and matching grille. The heel even had pseudo brake lights and a spoiler that looked refined and polished.
Bryant’s marketing campaign included monochrome shoes and tracksuits, as well as modern furniture and motorcycles. The shoe also features Bryant’s signature logo, called Frobe Fans, a side-view silhouette that incorporates his sculptural afro hairstyle from that era.
6. Nike Kobe 9 Elite (High)
While Kobe was barely recovering from a catastrophic injury to a torn Achilles tendon in 2013, he had to pull out one of the most disruptive sneakers of his entire tenure at Nike. Number 9 was not only mid-top, it was very high – and had been completely replaced by five low-top models.
Nike created the ruthlessness with which Kobe approached the recovery period, employing players from across the league to shoot a basketball while sitting. The 9 is the first Nike basketball shoe to introduce the brand’s Flyknit material. He is best known for the nine stitches along his heel, which represent each strand of Bryant’s Achilles tendon surgery.
5. Nike Hyperdunk
Bryant launched the Hyperdunk a few months before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which presented a huge global opportunity for Nike to launch two of its latest innovations: Flywheel and moonshine.
Bryant said I was convinced by the technology. I’m a real techie, and there aren’t many people who would cross that line or jump into a new shoe like that.
The Hyperdunk, with its bold, direct look and synthetic construction, defined the next decade of basketball shoes, with Bryant leading the way. In Nike’s first viral video, Bryant jumped atop a garage in a speeding Aston Martin, helping the Hyperdunk become one of Nike’s most popular sneakers.
4. Adidas KB8
Kind of Adidas
In only his second season in the league, Kobe already had his own brand of shoes. The updated Feet You Wear now features his initials and back number crossed, and the bold black and white debut quickly became one of Adidas’ most coveted basketball designs.
The photos of Bryant on KB8 during his battle with Michael Jordan in his final season with the Bulls, both at the Forum in Los Angeles and during the 1998 All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden, have become iconic. Adidas is bringing back the shoe named Crazy 8, both in its original form and in a modernized knit version.
3. Nike Zoom Huarache 2K4
After signing with Nike in 2003, Bryant embarked on a research journey with current CEO Mark Parker and longtime Nike designers Tinker Hatfield and Eric Avar. As the group got to know each other, their conversations became a source of inspiration for Bryant.
In my first meeting with 2K4, Bryant said that once I started talking about the great white [shark] and the design and the thinness [of the shoe] and how I wanted to incorporate it into the shoe … he understood immediately.
For Avar, the Huarache 2K4 was a chance to reclaim Nike’s modern design after the gimmicks and visible cushioning systems of the early 2000s.
Bryant quickly became the leader of innovation at Nike, wearing 2K4 during his first season with the brand, including the 2004 All-Star Game in Los Angeles and the 2004 NBA Finals.
2. Nike Zoom Kobe V
Building on the huge success of the Zoom Kobe IV, Nike has only lightly reworked and modernized the fifth model. The biggest difference is the fully synthetic Skinwire upper and the height of the under collar.
Bryant stated that it is really about functionality and doing something that makes sense. It’s not just about having a shoe that goes down, it’s about having something functional. We found that we could lose an ounce and significantly reduce weight by going lower without sacrificing functionality or comfort of the shoe.
As in Week IV, Kobe once again reached the NBA Finals, won back-to-back championships and earned his fifth ring in the Kobe V lineup.
1. Nike Zoom Kobe IV
Looking for a way to get involved, influence design and collaborate with designers, Bryant and Nike put their foot down with their fourth signature model.
I just wanted more range and flexibility in my ankle and to be able to move and cut without feeling like the movement was limited, Bryant said.
Players like Steve Nash and Gilbert Arenas wore sneakers, but none of them had the impact and influence of Kobe. Soon after the shoe debuted, everyone from point guards to players like Trevor Ariza and Lamar Odom wore it.
You know how meticulous I am and how detailed my game is, and I’m not going to throw something at my feet just to throw something at my feet, Bryant said of the influence of the drip edge throughout the league.
From the beginning, Avara has strived to meet the demand for low-top sneakers by offering sneakers that are widely considered to be the best basketball shoes of all time.
We kind of developed a theme for my shoes, Bryant said. We always want to push the boundaries of simplicity and speed.
The classic shoe lines also contain some subtle hints at Bryant’s approach to pushing those boundaries. The bottom of the shoe is inspired by the 2007 Spider-Man 3 comic book. One particular scene left its mark on Kobe: the alien symbiote Venom took possession of the character and eventually attached itself to his skin.
As is tradition, Kobe went to his shoe designers soon after and asked for shoes that would fit him like a second skin. IV, with a smooth bottom and low top, also had a vicious graphic along the bottom that embodied Bryant’s vision for his signature shoe.
Nick DePaula is creative director of Nice Kicks and former editor-in-chief of Sole Collector magazine.
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