Remembering Kobe Bryant: A Sneaker Retrospective
News of Kobe Bryant’s tragic passing on January 26 shocked the world. A colossal figure on the court, Kobe was only just beginning to flex his broader entrepreneurial prowess, picking up an Academy Award for his animated film ‘Dear Basketball’, mentoring future stars through his Mamba Sports Academy, and founding the Kobe and Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation. The Black Mamba’s vast sneaker catalogue was also downright lethal, the master storyteller lacing some of the most coveted sneakers of all time. Join us as we take a look back at Kobe’s remarkable sneaker journey. To further Kobe and Gianna’s legacy in youth sports, please visit MambaSportsFoundation.org.
Fresh out of high school, a 17-year-old Kobe Bryant is assigned to the Lakers care of some shady backdoor dealings in the ’96 NBA draft (shout outs to the Hornets!). The senior MVP from adidas’ 1995 ABCD camp, the Three Stripes saw Bryant’s star potential, and were quick to sign him to a six-year endorsement deal worth a staggering $48 million before the season even began. Kobe wouldn’t see a signature sneak in his rookie year, instead adopting the EQT Elevation as his kick of choice.
As the youngest player in the league, Bryant was fighting for court time in his first year, but once the ’97 Slam Dunk Contest rolled around, Kobe’s profile received a nitrous shot of superstardom, edging out Ray Allen to claim top spot with a double-pump two-handed reverse and through-the-legs slam dunk. On his feet? The EQT Elevation in regal Lakers’ purple. At that very moment, adidas knew their investment was about to pay off in a big way.
adidas KB 8
Off the back of his rookie year, Kobe launched into the 1997-98 NBA Season with his first true signature shoe: the KB 8. Part of the Feet You Wear line-up, like the EQT Elevation before it, the KB 8 was one of the lightest basketball shoes at the time – a still-respectable 12 ounces! The KB 8 is notable as being the model worn by Kobe in his very first All-Star Game, pitting the best of the West against the unstoppable might of ’98 Michael Jordan. It was an un-winnable battle of David versus Goliath, but Bryant managed to come away as the West’s leading scorer. The first instalment in one of the longest-running signature sneaker careers of all-time, the KB 8 would later be rebranded as the Crazy 8 for subsequent retro releases once Kobe jumped ship to the Swoosh.
adidas KB 8 III
Taking the bulbous midsole of the OG KB 8 to the extreme, the KB 8 III would be the last Kobe model to be part of the Feet You Wear campaign, following a fallout between adidas and the support system’s creator Frampton Ellis. The KB 8 III is notoriously remembered as the pair on Bryant’s feet when he copped a mean right hook from Knicks guard Chris Childs late in the 2000 season. Kobe responded with fire in his eyes, requiring two refs to restrain him from unleashing an onslaught of his own. The KB 8 IIIs were Kobe’s go-to kicks in the 1999-2000 NBA season, though were dropped in favour of his next signature model, The Kobe, by the time that season’s Playoffs rolled around.
adidas The Kobe
With Feet You Wear laid to rest, in 2000 adidas took a wild departure from the aesthetics of the KB 8 line for Kobe’s next signature shoe. Collaborating with none other than car manufacturer Audi, The Kobe drew inspiration from the streamlined design of the Audi TT Roadster, right down to the shoe’s front ‘grill’. Kobe was wearing a pair of these when he snagged his first championship ring, but not before Jalen Rose attempted to dethrone King Kobe by stepping under Bryant’s feet mid-jumper in Game Two of the Finals.
adidas The Kobe II
2001 marked the final year of Kobe’s six-year contract with the Three Stripes. Returning to the design of The Kobe, its successor, The Kobe II, took the automobile aesthetics to the next level, with a lower profile, stripe-less upper and a look that was more akin to a moon boot than anything that had ever hit the hardwood before – a likeness made worse by its trademark metallic grey colourway. The public response was harsh, but it wasn’t just the public opinion that adidas had to worry about, as Kobe himself didn’t even like the shoe!
His dislike for the shoe was so great that he elected to wear The Kobe from the previous season by the time the post-season arrived, snagging his third ring in the process. Needless to say, Kobe didn’t renew his contract with adidas following this certified shoe disaster, and the HUG-System-based Kobe III was quickly scrapped (but not before a few samples could slip out!). We have to give Kobe props on his Stars and Stripes colourway made only for him (as well as a still-in-high-school LeBron James), which served as a tribute to the victims of 9/11 through an obvious celebration of Americana.
Air Jordan Player Exclusives
Following his departure from adidas, Kobe took a break from endorsement deals to wash away the catastrophe that was The Kobe II, and begin a period of ‘sneaker free-agency’. No longer contracted to wear one particular brand of kicks, Kobe wore everything from Air Force 1s to Converse Weapons to the oft-forgotten AND1 Game Time during the 2002-03 season – all in Lakers colours, of course!
Of all the shoes worn during this transition period, there are none more fondly remembered and fiendishly coveted than Kobe’s retro Air Jordan PEs. For his last game against Jordan at the Staples Center, Bryant donned a pair of white, purple and yellow Air Jordan 8s in tribute. The Air Jordan 3 and Air Jordan 7 also received the Lakers treatment, but were (sadly) never publicly available. In celebration of All-Star Weekend 2016, JB unveiled an all-white set and all-black set of Air Jordans from the AJ1 to the AJ30, with the 3s and 8s both hit with the OG Lakers pops. The black set was auctioned off for charity for a mind-blowing $240k and the white set given to Kobe himself.
Air Jordan 3 'True Blue'
Speaking of the Air Jordan 3, one of Kobe’s most memorable wears in his free-agent season wasn’t a PE at all. For the 2003 All-Star Game, facing-off against the GOAT, Kobe laced up in a pair of off-the-shelf ‘True Blue’ Air Jordan 3s – a fitting tribute to honour the great man himself.
Out of all the non-Nike-branded shoes Kobe wore during his free-agency, one pair stands out above the rest. On January 7, 2003, the Lakers faced off against the Sonics (RIP!). Laced up in a pair of purple-toed Reebok Questions, Kobe caught fire, pocketing nine consecutive three-pointers. By the end of the game, Kobe would finish up 12 for 18, setting the NBA record for most threes in a single game – a record that even the Golden Child, Steph Curry, is yet to top. Packer Shoes paid homage to this momentous feat with the ‘For Player Use Only’ pack in 2013, which would finally give fans a chance to cop this record-setting pair.
Kobe’s love for the ‘Bok was strong, so much so that he toyed with the idea of signing with the brand. A prototype was presented to Kobe and a pitch created, nicknaming Bryant as ‘The Assassin’. Ultimately, Kobe chose to sign with Nike – and the rest is history – but his decision was not one based on Reebok’s designs. Instead, it purely came down to business, and Kobe had more confidence in Nike’s marketing and infrastructure.
Nike Zoom Kobe 1
After officially signing with Nike in 2003, Kobe ran into some ‘legal complications’. Once the dust had settled, Kobe was back in 2005 with a new nickname, the Black Mamba, and his first signature shoe with the Swoosh: the Zoom Kobe 1. The ZK1 would see Kobe through one of the most successful seasons of his entire career. The Lakers didn’t take out the championship that year, knocked out by the Suns in the Playoffs, but Kobe excelled, making it into the record books twice that season.
Kobe landed his first scoring title that season, with an average of 35.4 points per game, making him the fourth player in NBA history to break the 35-point milestone. The most memorable game of the season – and the one that may have helped to boost that average just a little – came on January 22, 2006, when the Lakers faced off against the Raptors at home. With white and purple ZK1s on his feet, Kobe absolutely dominated the game, racking up an insane 81 points on his lonesome, a record that stands in NBA history as second only to Wilt Chamberlain’s legendary 100-point game.
Nike Zoom Kobe 2
The Zoom Kobe 2 stands as an important shoe in Kobe history, but not for its role in any one particular game. The Zoom Kobe 2 marked the first sneaker where Kobe got truly involved in the design process, alongside designer Eric Avar. Kobe’s pursuit for a lighter, faster, and more versatile sneaker would see the Kobe line undergo massive change and innovation as the years progressed, producing some of the most game-changing designs to ever hit the market.
Nike Zoom Kobe 3
Another one of the more polarising design’s from Eric Avar, the Zoom Kobe 3 opted for a glove-like fit that almost felt like a second-skin. Despite not entirely taking off, the Kobe 3 pre-empted some of the more successful, technologically-sound silhouettes from Nike’s Kobe series.
Despite not being an official Kobe-branded shoe, the Hyperdunk will remain as one of the most significant in his footwear career. Worn by Kobe in his first Olympic games – which, naturally, saw Team USA scoop gold – the Hyperdunk proved itself as a powerhouse of performance, but it was the commercials and special releases that will forever be remembered. From the Back to the Future–themed McFly Hyperdunks that had Kobe rocking up to Undefeated in a DeLorean, to the bright orange ‘Snake Pool’ colourway named after Kobe’s stunt with the Jackass crew that saw him dunk over a pool filled with feisty serpents, the Hyperdunk was backed by some of the memorable releases of 2008.
However, there is no Hyperdunk moment more well-known in Kobe’s career than his infamous jump over an Aston Martin. Sure, it may have just been a bit of visual trickery, but we were all willing to believe Kobe had the skill to pull the stunt off for real. Nike commemorated the occasion with a one-off collaboration with Aston Martin that would treat both the Hyperdunk and Zoom Kobe 4 to some better-refined Euro automotive styling.
Nike Zoom Kobe 4
Often regarded as the best shoe in Kobe’s entire sneaker history, the Zoom Kobe 4 won praise for both its looks and performance. It will be forever regarded as a turning point for the Kobe line, and saw it adopt a more diverse range of colourways outside the usual spectrum. Light and lower than any basketball shoe before it, a huge departure from the high-top Zoom Kobe 3, the ZK4 redefined the essential components of basketball footwear. The ZK4 also helped Kobe on his way to the Lakers’ fourth title, and the team’s first championship ring since Shaq emptied his locker. Kobe scored 61 points against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden rocking a pair of yellow-laced blacked-out ZK4s on February 2, 2009.
Nike Zoom Kobe 5
The Zoom Kobe 5 managed to drop even more weight than its predecessor, as well as ramp up the eccentric range of colourways. The ZK5 proved to be Kobe’s last championship-winning shoe, narrowly claiming victory over the Celtics 4–3. In the last game of the Finals, Kobe donned a gold-trimmed pair of pure white ZK5s for that extra bit of winner’s luck.
Nike Zoom Kobe 6
Another one of the icons in the Kobe cannon, the Nike Zoom Kobe 6 was designed by Eric Avar, and featured a polyurethane ‘island’ upper, designed to mimic snakeskin. One of its more iconic colourways was the Kobe 6 ‘Grinch’. Landing on Christmas Day in 2010, the ‘Grinch’ design recalls scaly Green Mamba skin, with ominous black eyes and lethal red accents.
Nike Zoom Kobe 7
For the 2012 London Olympic Games, Kobe would wear the Zoom Kobe 7 in patriotic red, white and blue. Team USA followed up from their 2008 dominance, securing Kobe his second, and last, Olympic gold medal.
Nike Zoom Kobe 8
The Zoom Kobe 8 holds its place in Kobe footwear history out of infamy. On April 12, 2013, the Lakers faced off against the Warriors in an absolute nail-biter. With just 3:08 left on the clock, and the Lakers down 109–107, Kobe took the ball and drove against Harrison Barnes at the top of the key. Suddenly, Kobe collapsed, clutching his left ankle in agony. The unstoppable had been stopped – his Achilles tendon was torn and the Black Mamba sidelined for months of recovery. The Lakers went on to secure the win that night, 118–116, and make it into the Playoffs but, with Kobe out of action, they were stopped by the Spurs with four consecutive losses.
Nike Zoom Kobe 9 Elite
After recovering from his Achilles injury, Kobe returned to the league in a shoe unlike anything he had rocked on-court before. The Zoom Kobe 9 emerged as a super-high cut silhouette to compensate for his 2013 injury – a drastic change from Kobe’s usual low profile sneaks. The ZK9 also became the first basketball sneaker to incorporate lightweight Flyknit into its design.
Nike Zoom Kobe 10 Elite
Again linking up with Eric Avar to design the latest signature model, the Nike Zoom Kobe 10 featured a reimagined, full-length Lunarlon midsole and Zoom Air heel. It was also the silhouette that Black Mamba laced when he announced his retirement.
Nike Zoom Kobe 11
Kobe Bryant dropped a lazy 60 points in his final NBA game, the stone-cold killer providing one of the most memorable swan songs of all time. In typical fashion, Kobe dashed the Playoff hopes of the Utah Jazz while wearing the Nike Zoom Kobe 11 ‘Fade to Black’.
Nike Kobe A.D.
The first of Kobe’s sneakers to land post-retirement, the Nike Kobe A.D. was built with a lightweight, breathable mesh and synthetic bootie design. Symbolic of Kobe’s transition from the court to business entrepreneur, the Nike Kobe A.D.’s futuristic design flexed lifestyle appeal not exclusive to the hardwood. DeMar DeRozan, Devin Booker and Isaiah Thomas were all named as Mamba ambassadors after Kobe’s on-court retirement.
Nike Kobe A.D. NXT
One of the more polarising designs from the Kobe cannon, the Nike A.D. NXT incorporates a one-pull lacing system and four-way mesh uppers. Continuing Kobe’s unrelenting legacy of perfection, the Nike A.D. NXT was a stellar design marred by arguably uninspired colourways. Nike Kobe A.D. NXT would receive an update not long after the first generation was released, pulling aesthetic cues from the good-looking Air Jordan 33, and incorporated the brand new FastFit technology – altogether providing a drip worthy of the venomous Mamba himself. Offering a more precise fit, the Kobe A.D. NXT 360 model incorporated 360-degree Flyknit uppers, with a combination of Lunar and React foam giving the user full-length support.
After we initially thought Nike had pulled the release of all Kobe sneakers following his passing, it later came to light that the product had indeed all sold out – a testament to just how beloved his shoe designs have become across the globe. And a parade of tributes hit the NBA hardwood this week, Kobe’s legendary catalogue laced with handwritten, heartfelt messages on midsoles across the league. Kobe Bryant’s vast sneaker archive will no doubt prove to be one of the most tangible, meaningful ways to remember the omnipresent Black Mamba. Let's lace ‘em a little tighter this week.