Kobe 9 Elite launch event recap, and discussing the science behind the high-top choice

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NEW YORK — Nike Basketball launched the latest signature shoe for Kobe Bryant on Saturday, and the Masterpiece colorway of the Kobe 9 Elite sold out in minutes, despite the $225 price tag.

The demand is understandable.

The shoe’s eye-catching design is like nothing we’ve seen for basketball, integrating the company’s Flyknit technology that was previously used for running shoes along with a high-top cut that’s the highest on the market.

At a recent launch event in Manhattan, Bryant appeared and spoke a little bit about the technology, and five colorways were on display that will all be releasing in the coming months. I got a chance to speak with Kelly Hibler, Nike’s VP of Global Basketball Footwear, about some of the elements that went into the design process.

“Kobe said when we started, we needed to make sure it would stand up to the rigors of the game,” Hibler said. “He is no compromise for what he wants to do on the court, and it took a lot of work to figure out how to make it just right for him, and if it wasn’t for him we never would have gotten here. And that’s why it feels the way it does, because we needed to be able to provide that support for any basketball player.”

The high cut of the shoe is a unique look, and a change from the way basketball shoes have been progressively getting lower over time. The choice had nothing to do with Bryant’s Achilles injury, as these have been in the works for well over 18 months. Instead, there was some science behind the decision.

“The beautiful thing about being able to work with Kobe is having the dialogue about what he needs,” Hibler said. “When we started with Flyknit, we talked about how we could build the feel of a low-top, like he had been playing in in the 8, and provide additional support. We’ve never been able to give him that tight kind of fit around the ankle, that proprioceptive feel with another construction. So what the innovation of Flyknit allowed us to do was deliver both, but the question was how we got there. The innovation allowed us to get there, and then we played with science basically to figure out what the right height was to know exactly how high up to go.”

Proprioception is pretty in-depth stuff, but essentially it’s receptors in the tendons and muscles that send signals to the brain. So, when an ankle, for instance, feels supported, it sends a feeling of comfort to the mind which can put an athlete at ease.

“The notion has always been historically that if you don’t have a high-top, you don’t have enough support,” Hibler said. “The true science proves that the support comes [a bit lower], so he didn’t need a high-top to get the support he wanted. There’s also science that says with pressure around your ankle, that feeling, that’s what the proprioception is. It sends signals to your brain that makes small moves in your ankle that gives you that added stability.”

After the launch event, 24 of us (likely not a coincidence) were transported to a high-end private school, where we would get to demo the shoes for ourselves. As always, Nike spares no expense for these types of experiences, and when we arrived there were lockers full of basketball gear for us to change into, a brand new Nike FuelBand SE for us to track just how hard we played, and of course a pair of the Kobe 9s.

Before the physical part began, we were treated to a Q+A session with Bryant’s (and Michael Jordan’s) personal trainer, Tim Grover, who then put us though a workout consisting of conditioning and basketball drills that left me sore for the next five days. Finally, we were given some time to play in the shoes, which felt as light as the Kobe 8s, but with that little bit of added support. The high-top feel was distracting initially, but it’s so light that after about 15 minutes you forget it’s even there. And the cushioning is the same used in the 8s, so it provided a nice comfortable ride for the entire session.

The design cycle for footwear is such that Nike is already working on the Kobe 10s, which obviously are a year away from releasing. Hibler wouldn’t get into specifics, of course, but said that the way the Kobe 9 turned out made the team aware of the wealth of possibilities that exist.

“We built a basketball shoe that we couldn’t have envisioned when we started,” he said. “And it’s opened doors for us to do all kinds of other things. I can tell you this: You’ll be surprised.”


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Celtics’ Gordon Hayward says he’s open to returning this season

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BOSTON (AP) — Celtics guard Gordon Hayward says he is open to playing this season, but says it will depend on how fast he is able to heal and show progress as he works his way back from a broken left ankle.

Hayward was at TD Garden on Friday for Boston’s matchup with the Utah Jazz, the team he left this past summer in free agency after seven seasons to sign a four-year, $128 million contract with the Celtics. He was injured in Boston’s season opener at Cleveland.

Wednesday marked a milestone in Hayward’s recovery process, when he was able to shed the walking boot he’s been using since his surgery in October. He will continue to wear a protective brace during the rehab process.

He said he doesn’t know how long he will have to wear the brace. But he said he is now allowed to do some shooting and begin working more on mobility.

 

Russell Westbrook triple-double keys OKC in 3OT thriller vs 76ers

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Russell Westbrook had 27 points, 17 rebounds and 15 assists, and Oklahoma City and the Philadelphia 76ers went basket-for-basket in a three-overtime thriller before the Thunder pulled out a 119-117 victory on Friday night.

Andre Roberson scored the winner with 10 seconds left for the Thunder. But one of the early contenders for NBA game of the year belonged to Joel Embiid and Westbrook as they drove, blocked and rebounded their way toward one big play after another.

Embiid scored 34 points in 48 minutes with an achy back and rallied the Sixers from a 17-point hole.

Embiid, Philly’s franchise center and social media star, grabbed his lower back when he took a hard foul on a drive to the basket in the fourth quarter. Embiid grimaced during timeouts on the bench and trudged into position a few times.

Embiid sucked it up and carried the Sixers in the fourth and the first overtime. His feed to a charging Ben Simmons on the baseline for a two-handed dunk tied the score at 94-all with 53 seconds left in the quarter. The Sixers closed the fourth on an 11-0 run.

Embiid scored the first bucket of OT and the Sixers led for the first time in the game. The Sixers’ five-point lead with 1:20 left in overtime was wiped out on Paul George‘s 3-pointer and a Westbrook bucket that made it 102-all. The Sixers blew their final possession on an ill-conceived 3 for Dario Saric.

Round 2 was just as fun.

Westbrook and Robert Covington exchanged 3s and George tied it at 109 on a driving layup. Westbrook and Embiid swapped buckets that kept it even and the Sixers had one more chance to win it with 1.2 seconds to go in the second OT.

Embiid and Westbrook combined to score eight straight points in the third overtime, and Embiid even waved goodbye as the crowd went wild when Steve Adams fouled out of the game.

But Embiid seemed gassed at the end and there’s no telling how the heavy workload may affect his availability the rest of the week.

The Sixers were featured on ESPN on Friday as part of Philadelphia All Access, and Sixers’ related content was aired throughout the day on all platforms.

“I’m not a fan,” coach Brett Brown said. “I like living behind closed doors.”

But Brown understood the exposure would help build the brand and serve as a recruiting pitch of sorts to any free agents intrigued about becoming part of The Process. The Sixers put on a show in the fourth until Embiid gave them a scare.

Embiid’s health woes have dogged him since his college career at Kansas and every slip, ache or bump throws Sixers fans into a panic. Embiid has been banged-up lately but he calmly went to the line and made both free throws. He fell again when he tripped over Adams, who earned a foul, and sank two more free throws to make it 78-72.

 

After Thunder win, Russell Westbrook trolls Joel Embiid, waves goodbye, tells him to “go home”

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Joel Embiid was making friends all over the court on Friday night.

First, he got into a jawing match with Carmelo Anthony. Also during the first overtime, Embiid blocked Russell Westbrook‘s driving attempt at a game winner.

After the Thunder won in triple overtime, Westbrook trolled Embiid by waving goodbye to the Sixers’ center, who was yelling back at him.

When asked about it, Westbrook said Embiid was talking a lot so he told the Sixers center to go home.

That can have some serious connotations — Embiid was born in Cameroon. Westbrook may have meant “go to the locker room” or “go to where you live,” but considering Embiid is an immigrant it comes off very poorly for Westbrook.

Embiid threw a little fire back at Westbrook.

The league office is going to be looking into this one.

DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t expect Pelicans to trade him at the deadline

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The New Orleans Pelicans have a decision to make as they approach the trade deadline: Do they think they can re-sign DeMarcus Cousins next summer to stay in the Big Easy with Anthony Davis?

If the answer is no, then they have to consider trading Cousins at the deadline to at least get something back. There is a lot of context, however, that makes this seeming binary trade/keep decision far more complicated.

Cousins himself doesn’t think he is going anywhere, as he told Marc Spears of ESPN’s The Undefeated.

While the Pelicans have a lot to consider with the unrestricted free agent, Cousins says he is confident that he will still be playing for New Orleans after the Feb. 8 trade deadline.

“I am confident in my team,” Cousins said. “I am starting to understand this business a lot more than I did before. You can kind of tell when things are about to come about. We’re a very competitive team. A talented team. I don’t think that will be the case at all….

“A.D. hits me with little jabs about free agency all the time, but he also understands,” Cousins said. “It was Jrue in that situation last [offseason], and we understood his situation. Of course, they throw their little jabs. They throw their little jokes. But they are serious at the same time. They are respectful about it at the same time.

The Pelicans are 15-14 and the seven seed in the West entering Friday night’s games, and if New Orleans has a shot at the playoffs come the deadline there is no way he gets moved. Ownership and management want a playoff appearance. They have greenlit adding one of the game’s top centers (Cousins) to go next to Davis, and last summer they paid big to keep Jrue Holiday at the point in New Orleans. If the Pelicans don’t make the playoffs (and possibly even if they do squeak in and get swept out in an ugly fashion), everyone in the organization expects a housecleaning. They have been on edge all season. With jobs on the line, they are not trading Cousins and getting worse short term even if you could argue it was the right basketball move long term.

Will Cousins re-sign with the Pelicans next summer? That will be about the money — what the Pelicans offer, and what other teams will offer in what is expected to be a tight free agent market, especially for centers.  DeAndre Jordan will be on the market as well, not to mention second-tier guys who will be more affordable for teams such as Brook Lopez. In that market, Cousins may want to stay where he likes his teammates and seems happy.

But first he has to get past the trade deadline.