The LeBron James 'playoff mode' may not have lasted long, but the perennial sneakers of King James are as truly memorable as his Herculean on-court efforts. The sneakers laced over his 16-year career not only represent some of Nike’s most triumphant designs over the past two decades, but they have also come to symbolise, reinforce and challenge the very core of the American identity in the 21st century.
The Chosen One
While still an 18-year-old student at St. Vincent–St. Mary High School, LeBron James was offered $10 million from Reebok.
‘I was lost for words’, LeBron later recalled. ‘I flew in from Akron, Ohio, out of Spring Hill, from the projects. I mean, our rent was like $17 a month. And now I’m looking at a $10 million cheque...’
As he said in that statement, LeBron grew up in the projects of Akron, and was permanently in transit while his mum looked for steady work. However, the $10 million dollar offer from Reebok came with stipulations: Don’t speak with adidas or Nike. With that in mind, LeBron decided to hold out, showing the kind of business acumen and foresight that continues to inform his entrepreneurial prowess today.
LeBron would later sign with Nike for $93 million over seven years, before becoming the first athlete on earth to ink a lifetime deal with the Swoosh – expected to be worth around $1 billion by the time James turns 64.
The King’s First
Nike brought in the Dream Team for LeBron’s first signature shoe. Tinker Hatfield, Eric Avar and Aaron Cooper were all tasked with using LeBron’s chrome Hummer H2 as a blueprint for the silhouette – a lux ride that James had originally received for his 18th birthday.
With Zoom Air cushioning and brand new ‘Sphere Liner’ technology, the Air Zoom Generation ushered in a new era for the Swoosh, as they knighted their most valuable asset in decades.
The Air Zoom Generation ‘First Game’ colourway is still one of LeBron’s favourite shoes. Inscribed with the date he first laced the shoes in Cleveland (November 5, 2010), LeBron took an L on court, but later told GQ that the day was full of Ws: ‘I lost that game … Not too happy about that, but I won that game, if you know what I mean’.
Steady Drip from the Tunnel
But his favourite silhouettes?
As expected, LeBron has a soft spot for legendary sneakers like the Air Jordan 1, Air Force 1, and the anatomical Air Max 95. But he also has an appreciation for under-the-radar gems like the Jay 3, and the in-your-face Nike Air Diamond Turf ‘49ers’.
First NBA Finals
Where were you when LeBron went absolutely nuclear in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals? Scoring 29 of Cleveland’s final 30 points, LeBron dragged his team over the line in 2OT against the Detroit Pistons to register one of the most legendary performances in sports history.
James laced the Nike LeBron Soldier 1 for his first ever Finals appearance, immortalising the sneaker on the back of his triumphant opening chapter.
Featuring white leather uppers, LeBron branding on the tongue, and a gold Larry O’Brien trophy hangtag, the Nike LeBron Soldier 1 reappeared as a retro last year, and continues to be one of the more beguiling silhouettes in the King James catalogue.
Televised Heartbreak: The Nike LeBron 8 ‘South Beach’
The LeBron 8 silhouette was the first sneaker release after LeBron broke Cleveland hearts on national TV with ‘The Decision’. Taking its visual palette from Miami’s South Beach, the head-turning teal colourway of the 8 foreshadowed LeBron’s successful four-year stint playing for the Heat, as the sneaker quickly picked up a resale value in the four-digits and signalled a return to form for Nike.
Infused with narrative, the Nike LeBron 8 ‘South Beach’ featured a lion on the sneaker’s tongue, representative of his quest to line his fingers with bling.
‘The stalk of the lion and the lion’s hunt really fuelled the change in between the shoes, and how that relates to LeBron changing as he goes through the season,’ designer Jason Petrie said.
Long Live the King: Nike LeBron 15 ‘Equality’
There have been many jewels in the crown of The King’s sneaker legacy, but on December 17 in 2017, LeBron installed one that will shine on long after his retirement: the Nike LeBron 15‘Equality’. Originally revealed during Kith’s ‘Long Live the King’ fashion show, the sneaker dropped in the milieu of a divisive Trump rhetoric that began to fester in the basketball sphere.
Showing up in a pair of mismatched, black and white Nike LeBron 15s, LeBron addressed the media in what became his most unambiguous attack on the White House yet:
‘Well, being, obviously we all know where we are, and we know who is at the helm here, and we’re not going to let one person dictate to us, us as Americans, how beautiful and powerful we are as a people. Equality is all about understanding our rights, understanding how powerful we are as men and women, black or white or Hispanic.’
Later donated to the Smithsonian Institution, the LeBron 15 ‘Equality’ was not only a return to form for Nike aesthetically, but also sparked a vigorous political consciousness within the NBA that would encourage other players to speak up.
So, raise a glass to one of the most philanthropic ballers and prescient sneaker curators to ever play the game of basketball: LeBron James.
Long live The King.