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.”