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The Extra Pass: Nike Elite series meets the performance demands of Kevin Durant and LeBron James


NEW YORK — The folks at Nike Basketball have once again rolled out Elite versions of the signature shoes for LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant, just as they’ve done in advance of every postseason since 2012.

But the team faced perhaps its greatest challenge this season.

Bryant’s shoes didn’t need any modifications, considering the high-top, Kobe 9 Elite was already in its final stage the moment it was released. James and Durant, however, each had specific requests in terms of the improvements they wanted to see made to their shoes before the playoffs began.

Getting LeBron back into his more high-profile model wasn’t necessarily a priority for the Nike design team, but providing a performance improvement that James would feel comfortable with was definitely the goal that was in place.

The LeBron 11 was a huge success in terms of overall design and fan interest, but James himself caused a mild commotion when he ditched them early on in favor of one of his other models, the Zoom Soldier VII. Charles Williams, Senior Product Director for Nike Basketball, explained exactly what the issues were that James was experiencing.

“Early on, it was less about the components of the shoe, and more about fit,” Williams told “We went to a double-lasting proposition on the 11 that was a little bit different, so it was just more about forefoot fit, and making sure that when he cut, he wasn’t bumping up against anything, that he had enough volume.”

The fact that this was the first time one of LeBron’s shoes had an insert in it may have messed with the overall feel when taking his orthotic into account, which is essentially an additional layer of medical protection.

“When you’ve got an athlete that’s putting an orthotic in the shoe, it changes everything,” Williams said. “It changes the actual internal shape, it changes the actual internal volume and things of that nature. Players like KD and Kobe, they come right out of the box. But LeBron puts an orthotic in there, so that started to change things a little bit, especially because we had a drop-in. We’ve never had a drop-in (insert) before (on a LeBron signature shoe). So when you have a drop-in, something that kind of comes in and out — not unlike his orthotic — I think for him, mentally it was just a little difficult to get around.”

Along with the fit of the orthotic, James wasn’t feeling the level of lockdown in the 11s that he requires, and when he made cuts, he felt his foot sliding around in the shoe — another area which was unacceptable for the style that he plays.

All of that has been addressed with the LeBron 11 Elite, and the early results have been positive, if LeBron’s on-court decision to wear the model multiple times earlier than usual are to be believed.

“That’s why you’ve seen him wear the Elite model probably four or five times, and he’s never done that during the years that we’ve had the Elite project,” Williams said. “He typically starts April 17 when the playoffs start.”

The Nike design team went to Kevlar to increase the lockdown, which reduced the stretch in the material from 30 percent down to about two percent. LeBron laces up his shoes as tightly as possible on the bench before tip-off, to the point where he’s been known to break shoelaces. The lockdown aspect has been the most consistently important feature to him over the years, and it seems as though the team was able to address those concerns with the adjustment in the Elite materials.

A slightly lower cut to the Elite model (LeBron prefers a mid- as opposed to a high-top), along with added support on the outside that the design team refers to as a “roll bar” all helped to keep him from moving around inside the shoe, while providing the ultimate support for when he cuts. That extra support on the outside was by far the Elite version’s biggest overall enhancement.

“We knew that once we put that “roll bar” on it he was going to be able to have that confidence that when he cuts, he was on the foot bag,” Williams said. “And that way, we would be able to give him more of a free range of motion.”

A lot seemingly went into LeBron’s concerns. With Durant, it was a little less complicated.

His biggest request was to increase the cushioning on his shoe to the maximum level possible, while keeping a low-to-the-floor profile that is a perfect match for the complexities of his game.

“One of the big things for KD is really about impact protection,” Williams said. “As his game has evolved and as he’s really catapulted himself to be the best player in the world on any given night, we wanted to make sure that we were providing him with those things that he’s always asked us for. And one of them was this notion of cushioning, to make sure that the underfoot cushioning was something that night in and night out, he got consistently. And on a lot of the previous models he did what we would call a hybrid cushioning, where we had a max bag in the heel which gives you that protection when you’re coming down six, eight times your body weight. And then we would put zoom air in the forefoot, (which) literally gives you that instant response, that instantaneous gratification. So with KD, we said we’re going to go to a bag that will provide him with consistency across the board. It was ultimately what he’s been asking us for — maybe not specifically for the bag, but for that level of performance.”

The players, obviously, have little to do with the execution. They simply know what they want, and it’s up to the design team to figure out how to make that happen.

“KD wanted that cushioning, but he also wanted to feel very low to the ground based on the game that he plays,” Williams said. “So we made the bag lower by removing a lot of the foam that we would typically have in between the bag and the shoe.”

The Elite series has traditionally featured mostly black and white models, but this year’s class has all kinds of colors added to the project. There are three sets of colorways currently in the works, with the Gold series being the one that most resembles the past projects, but just barely.

Still, the team is driven by the performance aspect of the shoes above all else, and that’s the message that they ultimately want to get across.

“As much as we want to be provocative, we just want consumers to know that there’s a performance benefit rooted in that,” Williams said. “If I could just have consumers not view these as aesthetic propositions, if they could truly understand the competitive advantage that we’re looking to give them every time we create one of these shoes, that would be my dream.”

“This is about making sure that the best players in the world go into battle for the most esteemed goal that they’re trying to reach,” Williams said. “We give them products that really measure up to that.”

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Cavaliers moving ball, LeBron James dunking in season opener

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 25:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on in the first quarter against the New York Knicks at Quicken Loans Arena on October 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The Cavaliers were not in mid-season form on opening night — they started the game 3-of-12 from the floor and were 4-of-21 from three in the first half.

But they were showing flashes.

Like the LeBron James dunk above. Or this stretch of ball movement below.

The Cavaliers led the Knicks 48-45 at the half.

Watch LeBron James’ speech after getting his ring in Cleveland

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“At this point, if you’re not from here, live here, play here, dedicate yourself to Cleveland, then it makes no sense for you to live at this point — Cleveland against the world!”

And with that, the Q went nuts.

LeBron James and the Cavaliers got their rings and raised a banner in Cleveland — the first title banner in that city in 52 seasons (although the Indians are trying to have their say on the matter across the street). It was emotional for everyone in the building, and particularly the hometown boy LeBron.

Check out the full ring ceremony.

Best foot forward: 76ers’ Embiid set for long-awaited debut

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) shoots against Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, of Spain, during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
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PHILADELPHIA (AP) With a dunk contest, half court shots and “Juju on that Beat ” dancing contest finished, Joel Embiid turned back toward Philadelphia 76ers fans at an open practice.

Instead of scurrying off to the locker room, Embiid stuck around for selfies with fans sitting on all sides of the court, stretching mobiles high over his 7-foot-2 frame to squeeze as many fans as he could into each snapshot .

Embiid even entertained in 1-on-1 games – against little kids.

Embiid has the joyous personality of a kid himself. Social media posts include him crushing on Rihanna or teasing an Australian-born teammate that he’ll get deported if Donald Trump is elected president of the United States. The 76ers posted a Vine last season of Embiid throwing down a between-the-legs dunk at warmups that blew up NBA-centric Twitter feeds and offered fans a fleeting look at the potential ahead.

“Philadelphia’s going to love him,” coach Brett Brown said.

The city has waited 29 months to love the 22-year-old Embiid for his impact on the court.

The Sixers have stripped the bubble wrap off Embiid and the No. 3 overall pick of the 2014 draft is set to make his debut Wednesday night against Oklahoma City after two foot surgeries, countless days of rehab, gallons of Shirley Temples and inherited expectations that he is the savior for a woebegone franchise that has made a farce of competitive basketball.

Embiid, who grew up playing soccer and volleyball and didn’t play basketball until 2011, is no longer the raw project out of Kansas. He’s grown 3 inches and beefed up to about 275 pounds to better handle the daily grind of battling the NBA’s biggest big men.

“Where I was three years ago, I’m not even close to what I am right now,” Embiid said. “My game has gotten so much better. The past three years, if you watch the game tape, I’m not the same guy.”

Embiid had a fantastic freshman season with the Jayhawks, averaging 11.2 points and 8.1 rebounds. He blocked 72 shots to earn Big 12 defensive player of the year honors.

He might have been the No. 1 overall pick in `14 – a spot that went to Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins – had he had not suffered from a balky back and needed surgery for a stress fracture in his right foot shortly before the draft. Embiid, who knew only his native Cameroon before college, failed to really adjust to life without daily organized basketball. His weight ballooned, and he was booted from a road trip because of a petulant attitude. Part of his weight gain was blamed on a junk food diet washed down with that mix of ginger ale and a splash of grenadine garnished with a maraschino cherry commonly known as a Shirley Temple .

His personal life was rocked in October 2014 when his 13-year-old brother Arthur died in a car crash in Africa.

“It’s been really hard,” Embiid said.

Embiid was expected to anchor the rebuild in 2015 for a Sixers organization that had scorched their roster and abandoned a competitive season in hopes of gobbling lottery picks. But a second surgery of the navicular bone on the right foot in August 2015 cost him his sophomore season.

Embiid was devastated but handled his time off with greater seriousness in his workouts and a mission to return as a dominant center. The 76ers even shipped Embiid to a sports science facility and sports medicine hospital in Qatar to rehab.

“When I left college, I felt I wasn’t ready for NBA life,” Embiid said. “But since I’ve been in the league, the support I’ve had around me from (former president) Sam Hinkie, the coaching staff, they’ve just been on me. That’s what I usually need. When somebody’s on me, I can usually do better.”

The Sixers played it safe this year and held Embiid out of summer league. Brown, in his fourth season, entered training camp with a cautious plan to limit Embiid’s minutes and games when the schedule is packed.

Embiid, well, he left his training wheels in the dust.

He averaged 11.6 points over all seven preseason games. Embiid played 20 minutes a game as the preseason ended and Brown said he would consider playing his starting center more often. Brown would ideally lessen Embiid’s load early and help him avoid the same fate of other centers who had careers curtailed by foot injuries, like Yao Ming and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

In the preseason, Embiid flashed some wow moments that had his teammates hooting and hollering on the bench. But Embiid sometimes tried too hard to be the showstopper and was a turnover machine.

“At times, he just reminds me of a yearling, trying to find his balance,” Brown said. “He wants to score. He wants to dominate. How about the passion he plays with? You can’t coach that. And he has `it.”‘

So who plays with him? The Sixers have had more key players out with injuries under Brown than they have had competing for playing time.

Ben Simmons, the No. 1 overall pick this year, is sidelined indefinitely with a broken bone in his right foot. Nerlens Noel, the No. 6 pick in the `13 draft, is out at least a month after surgery on his left knee. Starting point guard Jerryd Bayless is sidelined with a ligament injury in his left wrist. Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia’s leading scorer and rebounder, is restricted as he recovers from surgery on his left knee.

The Sixers went 10-72 last season and have won 27 games in Embiid’s two seasons on the bench.

“Having to sit on the bench and watch us lose almost every night has been hard,” Embiid said.

Embiid took note of the hype that happened across the street during one of his visits to the Philadelphia Eagles sideline. Carson Wentz went from unknown rookie to whipping fans into a “Wentzamania” frenzy with his quick start.

“I think it’s our turn,” Embiid said.

WWE’s The Undertaker is at Cavaliers ring/banner celebration

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 23: The Undertaker recovers during his fight against Brock Lesner at the WWE SummerSlam 2015 at Barclays Center of Brooklyn on August 23, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by JP Yim/Getty Images)

Remember during the NBA Finals LeBron James and a number of the Cavaliers players were wearing WWE star shirts? LeBron in particular wore an Undertaker shirt before Game 5, then had on The Ultimate Warrior shirt after Game 7.

Well, guess who is going to be at the ring and banner ceremony Tuesday night in Cleveland?

The Undertaker is there is full regalia — Cavs fans are going to love this.

Who was most excited to meet The Undertaker? The Birdman, of course.

(Hat tip