With Kobe Bryant becoming the fifth and fastest player in NBA history to score 30,000 points, Dime is looking at all angles of the five-time champion’s career today. (Hey, we already called him the greatest player since 2000.) It’s equal parts celebration and examination of one of the NBA’s most polarizing and talented players in history.
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During 16 seasons Kobe Bryant‘s game has, quite naturally, evolved. He has transformed from a high-flying rookie prodigy to one-half of a championship duo, to a prima donna, to a cold-blooded Mamba predator.
For as many personas as Bryant has adopted throughout his career, he’s had a sneaker to match. Thirteen Kobe signature sneakers have been produced in total — five by adidas and eight now by Nike — along with several other branded kicks that he’s endorsed. Each shoe has pushed industry performance and design boundaries in its own way.
With the 30,000-point landmark behind him, now seems to be as good a time as any to sort through Kobe’s growing collection of kicks, and rank the Top 10 Kobe Bryant sneakers of his career. Before we begin, it should be noted that for the purposes of this countdown, we have excluded the season in which Bean was a “sneaker free agent” (2002-03). While this period yielded several remarkable shoes that might otherwise have been included herein (the Air Jordan VII Lakers PE and Air Jordan III Lakers PE are two that immediately come to mind) they were not officially endorsed by Bryant, and therefore, not considered.
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10. adidas KOBETWO (2001)
The adidas KOBETWO is probably the most divisive of any of Kobe Bryant’s signature shoes. For that reason alone it probably deserves to be on this list. At the time of its release, the sneaker was largely panned by critics and collectors alike, who thought it to be overweight (19.5 ounces in men’s size 11), unresponsive (stiffness was a common complain), and/or just plain ugly (some called them “moonboots” or “space clogs”). Even Bryant seemed to despise them, as evidenced by his conspicuous reversion back to the adidas The KOBE during the 2002 NBA playoffs, and eventual split with the adidas. Looking back, Bryant’s final sneaker with the Three Stripes wasn’t all bad, though. The design was sleek, simple, and adhered to a unique, singular vision. It also produced at least two memorable colorways: the white/sunshine pair worn by Bryant at the ’02 All-Star game, and the ultra-limited USA “Flag” edition.
9. adidas Equipment Elevation (1997)
Sneakers, in basketball especially, are intrinsically tied to moments in a player’s career. Back when Bryant was a gangly 18-year old rookie he made his first meaningful splash in the NBA at the 1997 Dunk Contest. On his feet? The adidas EQT Elevation. This shoe featured adidas’ Feet You Wear technology from the mid-to-late 90s, which, as the name suggests, molded the sneakers to the feet of the player you wore (As the print ads state, “Kobe’s Feet Work. We Copied Them”). While hardly earth-shattering tech by today’s standards, Feet You Wear was rather innovative at the time. The EQT Elevations also included a wild wrap-around outsole that rode halfway up the ankle on the lateral side, and was designed ostensibly to improve traction and soften the impact of court cuts. However, what really made the shoe iconic was seeing young “Bean” Bryant crush a between-the-legs slam, and swagger through the Gund Arena as the league’s Dunk Contest champion. It was as if he knew what was coming.
8. Nike Zoom Kobe VII System (2011)
The recently released Nike Zoom Kobe VII adhered to the theme of The Kobe System. According to the shoe’s clever ad campaign, “The Kobe System is about adaption: attacking fast and attacking strong.” The ZKVII achieved these divergent ends by allowing users to customize their ride with two separate midsole cushioning and ankle support inserts. The “Attack Fast” inner is designed for players whose game relies on speed, and features a low-profile Phylon midsole with a Zoom bag in the heel and another in the forefoot. The thinner midsole apparently improved court feel and responsiveness. On the other hand, the “Attack Strong” insert is a little softer, and is comprised of a full-length “Cushlon” midsole for times when players are required to muscle up in the post. The multitude of color options or skins — including the Leopard, Poison Dart Frog, Concord, Year of the Dragon, Big Bang and other editions — allowed players to choose how their system should look, too.
7. Nike Zoom Kobe I (2006)
After rocking the Nike Air Zoom Huarache 2K4 and 2K5 for the 2003-04 and 2004-05 seasons, respectively, the folks in Beaverton finally gave Bryant his own signature kicks in 2006. Designed by Ken Link, the Nike Zoom Kobe I was an intentionally robust sneaker, incorporating a leather outer, TPU heel wrap, high collar and giant forefoot “outrigger,” that, together, ensured the support and stability a slasher like Kobe needed to withstand the intensity of an NBA game. The oversized Nike swooshes on the lateral and medial sides contributed to a conservative appeal reminiscent of the Air Force One and/or Dunk. Also prominent for the first time was Bryant’s Sheath logo, found on the shoe’s tongue. Wearing his first official Nike boots, Bean averaged a career-high 35.4 points per game during the 2005-06 season. This, of course, was highlighted by his 81-point single game performance against the Toronto Raptors on January 22, 2006.
6. adidas The KOBE (2000)
adidas’ The KOBE offers a curious design story. Unlike most sneakers, which are engineered in-house, The KOBE was the product of a collaboration between adidas and German auto company, Audi, that drew direct inspiration from Audi’s TT Roadster sports car. Its silhouette, clean lines, and matte-like construction are perhaps the most obvious design cues, but smaller details like the outersole arc and bullet-nosed toe (complete with grill) reveal how closely designer Eierik Nielsen kept to the Audi source material. For his part, Bryant busted these out in the second round of the 2000 NBA Playoffs (he wore the Concord Supreme in the round previous) before any information regarding the shoes had been made available to the public. The sudden unveiling only added to the intrigue surrounding Kobe’s new kicks, and surely contributed to their commercial success. (It couldn’t have hurt that the Lakers won the NBA championship that year, either.) As mentioned above, Bean also returned to the sneaker late in the 2002 season after allegedly being unhappy with the performance of his second signature in the series. adidas has since repackaged The KOBE as the Crazy 1, which dropped in 2007.
5. Nike Zoom Kobe VI (2010)
At 10.2 ounces, the Zoom Kobe VI is the lightest basketball sneaker ever produced by Nike (although the forthcoming Kobe VIII will soon supplant it). Designed by Eric Avar, who has been involved with the Kobe line since the ZKIII, the VI was essentially a minimalist version of its previous two iterations (one of which we’ll get into a little bit later). It featured a low-cut collar, built-in Flywire technology, and an ultra-thin Phylon-injected midsole with a Zoom Air unit in the heel. The real innovation was a breathable “dual-density sockliner” that provided a more secure and personalized fit for the user and allowed the designers to strip away even more unnecessary material. Aesthetically, Bryant’s “Black Mamba” moniker informed the scaly, snake-like upper and “Venomenon” imprint on the front outsole. The Kobe VI is what we’ve come to expect from the Zoom Kobe line: a high-performance beast modeled after the Mamba himself. Job well done, Nike.
4. Nike Huarache 2K4 (2004)
Following Bryant’s departure from adidas in 2002 and one season as a “sneaker free agent,” he signed an endorsement deal with Nike in 2003. Legal troubles that arose days after the ink had dried unfortunately derailed immediate plans for a signature Kobe Nike shoe, so instead he promoted a modern reimagining of the classic Nike Air Flight Huarache, called the Nike Air Zoom Huarache 2K4. Given the shoe’s Huarache origins, it retained the definitive collar cut-out of the original sneaker, but that’s really where the similarities stop. One obvious visual distinction is that the 2K4 was noticeably more refined than its predecessor: the upper was constructed from synthetic leather (or nubuck depending on the version) with only a toe cap and external TPU heel counter. An ankle strap was also integrated across the tongue to provide some additional ankle support. Of course, the cushioning was upgraded to a Zoom Air unit in order to conform to the technological specifications required by modern NBA athletes. Altogether, the style and comfort of the Zoom Huarache 2K4 made it a popular choice for ballers at almost every level; in fact, Kobe even considered the 2K4 his favorite Nike sneaker for a time. On our list, it lands at No. 4.
3. adidas KB8 (1998)
Bryant was awarded his first signature sneaker by adidas at just 19 years old. Betting on Bryant was a bullish move by adidas given his age and relative inexperience as a pro, but even then, his star power was undeniable. During the 1997-98 regular season, Bryant averaged 15.4 PPG alongside Shaquille O’Neal, Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones, and fans voted him into the 1998 All-Star Game as the youngest starter in NBA history. The KB8 personified Kobe’s exciting, and almost reckless style of the play as a sophomore. It really is unlike another shoe ever produced. Most striking is the fact that it is designed almost entirely along diagonal lines. For example, the obligatory three stripes converge on an angle from the base of the shoe, cutting through a split zig-zag rubber outsole before reaching the tongue. From a technical perspective, it incorporated the same Feet You Wear technology found in the EQT Elevation, while also introducing a “Torsion” plate for midfoot support. The KB8 remains the most beloved sneaker from Bryant’s tenure at adidas, and unsurprisingly, has been reissued on several occasions.
2. Nike Hyperdunk (2008)
Although the Nike Hyperdunk was technically billed as a team shoe, its chief endorser was Kobe Bryant. Indeed, Bryant not only sported these on the court at the 2008 Olympic Games, but also when he famously “jumped” over an Aston Martin that spring. The Hyperdunk combines a number of innovative design elements, many of which have already been profiled above, including the Huarache 2K4’s silhouette and ankle cut-out, quarter-panel swoosh (hence its Dunk namesake), Zoom Air bag in the heel, external TPU heel counter, and most notably, Flywire technology. Flywire refers to strands of the “Velcran” material that cage the upper on both the lateral and medial sides. The technology accomplishes three things: first, it is lightweight; second, it is incredibly durable under physical stress; and third, it provides exceptional foot security in the boot. As a testament to the construction of this sneaker, it has remained my hooping rotation since its initial release. Moreover, the upper is conducive to a diverse palette, which has yielded a few irresistible colorways such as the “Aston Martin Pack” and the special edition Marty McFly joints. The cumulative result was an iconic performance basketball sneaker that has endured through both its Hyperdunk and Zoom Kobe successors to this day.
1. Nike Zoom Kobe IV (2008)
The Nike Zoom Kobe IV represented a radical change in the design of Bryant’s signature line. In the summer of 2008, designer Eric Avar was challenged by the Black Mamba to create the lowest and lightest shoe possible for his next signature model. “I remember the meeting we had when we decided to do a low-cut shoe. That was an interesting day,” laughed Bryant in a promotional video with Avar. “You guys gave me the kind of look like I was sitting there with three heads or something.” Indeed, his request might have seemed odd given temporal industry trends toward mid-top sneakers, but Bean’s logic was sound: a lower, lighter sneaker, similar to those worn by professional soccer players, would potentially enhance his speed, agility, and quickness on the court. But what of ankle support? Surely a basketball player needs material surrounding the ankle to prevent injury.
After much research, however, Avar and the Nike Basketball team concluded that a low-top posed no additional risk of injury compared to mid or high-cut sneakers. This allowed Avar, et al. to significantly lower the cut of the shoe. Nike also incorporated several other familiar elements to improve Bryant’s game: Flywire technology from the Hyperdunk was built into what remained of the upper for lightweight stability; a forefoot outrigger and external TPU counter were added to the outer to ensure a lockdown support system (this is what really impacts the ankle); lastly, Lunar Foam and Zoom Air were embedded into the midsole for responsive cushioning.
The design worked. Bryant won his fourth championship, and first NBA Finals MVP while wearing the sneaker. It also established a low cut formula for future Zoom Kobe sneakers and the industry in general. Like Bryant, the Nike Zoom Kobe IV changed the game.
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