Q&a With Nike Basketball Design Director Leo Chang
Started from the bottom now he's here, Leo Chang slipped his foot in the Nike door as an intern and hustled hard, climbing the ranks to become Basketball Design Director. Very impressive, Mr Chang... we give you a Jamaican Bobsled team slow clap. He's the design spearhead behind Nike's most important basketball tech innovation of the last decade, Hyperfuse, as well as the creative leader of those often eccentric and always entertaining KD 'storytelling' sneakers. Basil Burley chiseled at his formidable brain when Chang was in Barcelona for the Nike World Basketball Festival, learning a lot about Chang's design process, and getting his thoughts on Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the lack of rebellion in current basketball.
So how’s Barcelona and the Nike WBF?
Barcelona is great. I landed yesterday but I have a few days and it’s my first time here. I’m really excited. I’ve had a lot of people tell me to go see Gaudi's work. I did a quick round this morning and I knew I had to come back and take it all in properly. It’s been a while since I last came to Europe but I love it because design is so integral to the culture here. People have a higher level of appreciation for it in Europe than in America. I think that’s really special.
So where are you from in the States?
I grew up just outside Philadelphia, went to school in Rhode Island.
How did Philly influence your move into basketball?
Growing up I was a huge Iverson fan, but when he left I couldn’t really follow the Sixers anymore. They were terrible after that, but that was definitely the start of my love for basketball.
Iverson was such a rebel, do you feel like that’s missing from the game right now?
It’s hard to be a rebel nowadays, you know. The media has the ability to instantly kill somebody for doing something outside the norm. There is definitely the lack of a rebel right now, I think athletes are being more open and honest right now. You’ve seen athletes become who they really are. Maybe there’s just a lot of good people out there, there probably aren't that many jerks out there or people that are rebellious just to be rebellious. [Laughs]
You started in running. Have you bought your past into basketball?
When I first started in basketball, I had worked on the Free, I was one of the few designers that worked on the Lunar Trainer. So I was thinking, 'Man, you’re just going to bring all these cool things to basketball.' But basketball is a different beast, running is literally just straight forward. These basketballers, on the other hand, destroy shoes like I’ve never seen before. So I had to forget the past. It was good I had the experience but I needed to start with a blank slate and learn about these guys and what they do, beyond just watching TV and loving the sport.
So what makes you push for lighter shoes, especially with this Hyperdunk 2014?
The nature of what I stand for and believe in is creating lighter product, and I always pushed that. I enjoy the idea of lighter shoes that make you feel better.
You worked on the KDs. How important is it that KD is remaining at Nike?
He’s very important. Obviously he’s important enough that we put whatever that number was on the table. Special players come really infrequently, there’s only one Kobe and there’s only one KD. I’m really happy that we did the right thing, because he’s going to be a legend if he is not a legend already. It’s important even for his legacy to continue on with us and important for us to maintain that high level of excellence with him too.
There are rumours that Kyrie Irving is getting his own signature shoe, what would you take into account when working on that?
I can’t comment on any specifics at the moment but we worked with him on the HyperRevs and Hyperdunks. Kyrie is incredible and so different. What I love about his game when watching him play is how much movement he has, it’s not necessarily vertical, it’s the footwork he does – it’s incredible. There’s this video we keep playing in the office all the time and we never get sick of it. It’s him playing against the USAB team in practice and he’s literally dancing through these guys, spinning around in every direction, crossing over Kobe, LeBron – trust me, everyone! That footwork is incredible and that’s something that I would consider in his product, how I could complement that mobility and control.
Lastly, what inspires you when working on a project?
Every project has its own inspiration. It can be something that KD says that sparks an idea, or something that Kyrie says that makes me formulate an idea. It’s not necessarily a story, it could be a functional insight and the previous shoe. So like with the Hyperdunk, I was thinking how do we make this better? Now that we have tested the crap out of it, were there any problems? Taking all the feedback in and filtering out all the great insights is the starting point. I see myself as a problem solver, and not just in function, because it could be style, performance and story. I always think how can I put those together and bring something great to life.