When I was in high school, my vice principal used the word “potential” every time my parents were called in about my behavior. He said it after I pretended the sideline of our varsity soccer field was a massive rail of cocaine and pantomimed snorting it after a big goal during our homecoming game. “He’s got so much potential,” would be followed by a very pregnant pause and that awful “but.” It was after that caveat when the the vice principal — or guidance counselor, or the head of my college’s judicial affairs, or whichever person had some (limited) authority over me at the time — would launch into my transgression and how my exploits in said situation would negatively impact me for the rest of my life. Then, they’d caution my parents and I about all the “potential” I’d be wasting if I didn’t get my act together.
This isn’t some verbose middle finger to the adults who attempted to corral my conduct when I was a kid. They were just trying to do right by me. But the word they kept emphasizing is the same one Nike used for the 10-week, “Limitless Potential” voyage I went on over the last two months. Combine that fact with how “just do it” is every impulsive teenager’s mantra, plus — if you talk to the people who know me the best — I’m not that far removed from the knucklehead who snorted a soccer sideline all those years ago, and you get a pretty clear parallel between what a lot of kids face as they’re growing up and what Nike is trying to do with their consumers — most of whom are those same kids.
It was this overlap I kept thinking about when Nike was giving me exclusive one-on-one training, group events with world-class instructors, the most responsive footwear available, and flights to Texas and Las Vegas, all in an attempt to push me to my athletic apogee. Looking back on all that I did for this piece, I can’t help but wonder: Did it work?
The Nike catchphrase I mentioned before, “Just do it,” is what my Old Man used to say to me when I’d bellyache about having to clean the bathroom for a longer amount of time than if I had just done it. Unfortunately, as I hinted at in my first piece about this Nike odyssey, I don’t always follow that simple directive. I’m not sure I unlocked the entirety of my athletic potential. It didn’t feel like I just did it — at least, like I could have.
But a lot went into providing me all that Nike had to offer in my attempt to do so.
The KD 9
Holy cow do I love this shoe. But, similar to how Charles Barkley always corrects Ernie Smith on Inside the NBA, I’m no expert. The only expertise I might have gleaned comes from a job that allows me to wear test a ton of basketball sneakers. So I can say with full confidence — at least in my limited experience, on a topic that’s more subjective than some might allow — this is the greatest basketball sneaker I’ve ever had the privilege of running up and down a hardwood while wearing.
The chance to play in them almost didn’t happen, though.
A group of us flew back down to Texas the Sunday before the NBA Draft for the official KD 9 launch in Austin. That’s a busy time with the end of the season, the first real rumors about free agency, and the mad scramble to get caught up on the possible lottery picks coming that next week. But I made sure I could attend because it’s Kevin freakin’ Durant. I wasn’t disappointed.
Austin is of course where Kevin Durant went to college, and he unveiled his new kicks at an intimate, graffiti-adorned Stubbs BBQ.
He even spoke about his impending free agency before we knew he was ready to shock the world.
It was at that point I got a chance to talk to Leo Chang, the head of Nike’s basketball footwear team and the face of the KD 9. (If you’re not into the nerdier aspects of sneaker design, we suggest you skip to the next section at this point.)
The biggest difference from previous Durant sneakers was the Flyknit in the front. The light-weight material makes for a lot more mobility — a staple of the lanky small forward’s quickening game. But the Zoom bag on the bottom is new, too, despite the fact there was a full-length zoom bag in the KD 6.
“The KD 6 Elite had that full-length bag that was super stiff,” Chang told us. “It was heavy, it was a little funky.” So Chang and his team decided to make it more “flexible.”
“At the end of the day, it didn’t work as well for KD, so when we went around this, we said, ‘Hey, we have to improve upon that bag.’ I think we made it way more flexible so that transition is just buttery.”
His emphasis on the word “buttery,” and the enigmatic smile that graced his face when he said it, foreshadowed the ensuing wear test. The key takeaway for sneaker nerds: Chang and his team “Increased the amount of zoom and decreased the amount of foam.” Whereas before playing with the zoom bag in tandem with the Flyknit made it seem like KD was “playing in mud,” as Chang told us a few weeks later by phone, the flex groove provided that transition. There’s more that goes into it, but those are the components that seemed to set it apart for us when we finally got a chance to wear it.
We’ve spoken to Chang on a few occasions before and he always avoids taking too much credit for any one shoe or design. After complimenting him on what he had created, he again mentioned the “team” at Nike who helped him in the endeavor. I wanted to let him brag on that team a little bit, so here’s who he mentioned:
Kiran acted as a guide and developer on the air bag, and Chang said she had worked on the air bag before and was really helpful when they made their adjustments. Next was Bryant, who was primarily focused on the early engineering of the bag. Leah added her expertise on the Flyknit early on as well — Chang hadn’t used Flyknit before the Hyperdunk and KD 9. Roberto, Leo called his “Knit guru guy” and Gene was their engineer.
Even that small group is buttressed by the “hundreds” of Nike employees who touched the KD 9 during its creation, Chang told us. And it’s that same team aspect that helped us in our Olympic journey, even if the end result was decidedly less spectacular than the newest Durant kick.
The biggest moment during the rest of the KD 9 trip happened when we toured Graffiti Park at Castle Hill. This was a local hangout spot for Durant and his friends during his first year away from his childhood home.
We only got 15 minutes, but they had aerosol cans with them and they let us add our own tag to the hill (keep an eye out for “Tyrel the Color of Tylenol” in dark blue). Here was my favorite:
The actual wear test wasn’t very labor intensive, and we didn’t get to spend much time with Durant, but Texas coach Shaka Smart led us in some drills where I spent most of my time just jumping up and down marveling at what the zoom bag did for my vertical. The lean Flyknit felt like I was wearing slippers, and I could write 500 more words of purple prose about the KD 9, but I’ll just say that — out of quite a few options — the KD 9 is the shoe I’ve been choosing each time I hoop since I got them.
This was too much. We got put up at the Encore, the newest Wynn hotel, and it was basically a showcase for how to have fun in Vegas without sitting at one gaming table. I didn’t gamble once, and it didn’t really matter. The first night was a steak dinner and every morning we watched Steven Adams and a female companion eat breakfast near us at Jardin. You just don’t live like this normally, and the luxuriance of the whole trip was compounded exponentially by the night we ate dinner at the Palms Casino Hardwood Suite.
We’d heard about this place after seeing a Ty Lawson Instagram post, but it’s basically a suite with a basketball court. And the people Nike hired to put on this shindig brought in executive chef Barry S. Dakake (he’s this baller and his Brooklyn accent made it even better) to cook up a five-star course in the suite that would make the most pampered prince blush from overindulgence.
They followed that up with some in-suite hoops and a surprise in the back locker room that none of us saw coming: full gear and the USA colorway of the Nike Hyperdunk 2016 Flyknit.
Vegas was lot more relaxing than I anticipated. Too relaxing. We had been training on and off for eight weeks, and the Nevada desert was all rich food, chill time by the pool, and dancing at the club. We talked and laughed with the USA Basketball team and saw them stomp Argentina in exhibition play, but the basketball focus was lost among the glitz and glam of the city.
And yes, we got to wear test the newest Hyperdunk’s before scrimmaging:
But that’s not really what stood out — though the Hyperdunk line continues to be the most consistent basketball release, a sneaker that’s always perfect for the hooper who values speed and quickness.
Still, it was the off-court spectacle that really wow’d us during our time in Vegas. After dancing until we were drenched in sweat at Hakkasan on the second night in Sin City, a private room and a Jason Derulo performance at Marquee was the crescendo’d completion of our time in Vegas. We ruined two perfectly good shirts simply by sweating on those two final nights.
The whole thing was the biggest obstacle in our journey, not that we’re mad at Nike for putting this distraction in our way. It was incredible, but it was also incredibly hard to upshift back into training mode.
Finally, at the Chelsea Piers in Manhattan, 10 chaotic weeks later, and at 6:30 a.m. in the morning, we did our final tests. I actually improved…a little. The biggest reason for this incremental improvement — again, despite a lax approach to training, and that bacchanalia that was the trip to Vegas — was the coaching on the day of the drills. The coaches Nike provided were the difference. I ran a smidgen faster, jumped a fraction of an inch higher, and threw the medicine ball slightly further. That was all them, though. They got me to training and gave me the gear and made it more fun than it should have been.
I blurred out the before and after pictures in the below graphic Nike sent us because there’s no real physical change except a tan showing that I actually got outside a bit when the NBA season ended. Plus, I’m a little bashful about this whole thing. I’m as vain as the next person, but a shirtless before and after pic is a little too much for me.
I did improve in nearly every category as you can see, and for those I didn’t improve, I at least equaled what I had scored previously.
I want to thank Armond, my trainer and an all-around cool guy who never used that obnoxious drill sergeant mentality some trainers can lapse into. And thanks again to the people at Nike. This was one of the craziest things I’ve ever been asked to participate in. I might’ve sweat more dancing in Vegas than I did during the basketball we actually played, but the experience itself showcased all the incredible work Nike puts in to give their athletes the little advantages they need to capture Olympic medals.
I don’t think I medaled, though.
My potential might not ever be reached. Or, more likely, I’ve already peaked. Regardless, after doing one of my final tests for this journey, I pretended to snort the end line.
Some things don’t change.