Kevin Durant sits in the hottest spot of an airplane-hangar-sized room—under the lights on a faux basketball court—and looks like the coolest one there. Everyone else is sweating, sucking down as many sample-sized bottles of water they can get their hands on, and Durant is, like, literally chilling, resplendent in the just-introduced home Team USA uniform, complete with matching brand-new Nike KD9s. He’s healthy, his Oklahoma City Thunder are playing well: What’s there to sweat?
It’s the second day of Nike’s 2016 innovation intros, and while the focus is on national team uniforms, we’re here to ask Durant—and designer Leo Chang—about the KD9, which won’t hit the market until late June, and the radical KD8 Elite, which Durant has just started wearing on court.
What’s the 8 Elite been like to play in? It’s definitely a radical-looking shoe.
Yeah, I mean, that’s what we tried to go for, man. I think when you try to tip the scale on being innovative, things might come off a little different and a little unusual. And that’s the feel that we wanted to go with. It’s definitely played well for me, I feel great in it. They’re different, obviously, but they’re cool.
Does it feel different for you even suiting up in them? Because normally it would be the tight and then the sock and then the shoe.
Yeah, I have a lot of time that I have to get ready for the games, like right before I walk out on the floor I gotta realize I need a couple more minutes extra to put my shoes on, ‘cause it takes a little while to get into the sock. But nah, it’s great, I think it’s a head-turner when you see ‘em, and everyone’s been asking me about ‘em. So hopefully we see some more guys wearing ‘em.
What did Russell Westbrook say when he first saw them?
He was actually shocked, he was trying to analyze the shoe and figure out how it works, but that’s the reaction we’re going for, man. It definitely plays well, that’s the most important thing, that it plays well, but the look is new and different for us.
Does this feel fast for you, going from the 8 to the Elite and now to the 9 already?
Yeah, this is the first time we’ve done this, I think this is the first time Nike has moved this quickly on unveiling a shoe. So I’m grateful that I’m a part of it. I sat down and talked to Kobe one day and I asked him, I said, what made him design—the one that looked like a boxing shoe, the 9, I asked him, “What were you thinking?” And he just said, “It’s all about innovation, finding new innovation.” And I want to be a part of that. So with the Zoom bag and then the Flyknit on a basketball shoe, along with the new bag. I felt like I wanted to step into that space as well, I wanted to be the guy that started off new innovation.
They were talking about with the Flyknit that you were into that since the Flyknit running shoe. So it’s been a while for you.
I’ve been a huge fan of Flyknit since it was on the running shoe, and I wondered if anybody would ever take it to a basketball shoe and how it would work. When Kobe dropped it I was a little jealous, because I wanted to be the first, but now that I’m a part of it, man, it’s just amazing.
What’s the biggest difference feel-wise between the 9 and the 8?
I think for this one, I’ve got a [Zoom] bag on the 8 as well, the Flyknit gives me a little bit more flexibility and allows me to be a little more versatile. I think my game has changed so much where I can play point guard, I can go down there and bang with centers, I need a shoe that’s going to be able to withstand all that pounding and all that movement.
Are you guys working on the 9 Elite already?
I asked about that today. We’ll see what direction we go in, but I’m sure it’s gonna be something crazy.
It’s entirely possible that no one outside of Durant’s immediate family knows him better than Nike Basketball Design Director Leo Chang. They joined the Nike Basketball at the same time, and Chang has been the lead designer on every one of Durant’s signature shoes going back to 2007. Coaches and teammates (well, outside of Nick Collison) have come and gone, but Chang has always been there. And while the design of this shoe seems to be rooted more in technical developments than details of Durant’s personal life, Chang and KD’s relationship is still what drives it all.
Was there a closer gap in designing the KD8 and KD9 than there has been between other models?
A little bit. With the new Zoom bag, that actually was a partnership with our innovation team. We worked closely on that to develop it. That took like three years to do, because we were developing new processes how to do it, like, we got it to taper from thick to thin from heel to forefoot. The tensile fibers in the bag is what makes that Zoom bag feel so bouncy and springy, so we were able to find a way to manufacture it where we have 16 millimeters in the heel and then transitions to 10. This was the first time we’ve been able to actually vary the thickness of that fabric on the inside, which sounds simple, but with robots and different things in the manufacturing process it’s actually pretty complicated.
Was there feedback from him with the 8 that made you want to go in this direction?
When we started this process I was like, what’s your perfect shoe, how do we make this better? And he was like, man, the perfect shoe right now for me was still that sensation when I first put on the 8. That was the summer before he injured himself, and he was at Nike campus, we were at the Bo Jackson gym, and he put ‘em on and he was doing windmill dunks, he had insane hops, and he’s like, “Oh my God, I’ve never felt like this before.” That was the sensation that we had to beat. Last summer we actually had him try on an early prototype of this, the KD9, so that he could get a feel for it and be a part of the process early, and he put it on and loved it, went through a pretty hard workout that day so we kind of knew there it was right for him.
Obviously another big thing was the decoupling the toe, what was behind that?
When you look at the past Visible Zoom products—the LeBron 10, KD6 Elite, and then the KD8—there’s so many good things about each one of those, but there’s also some things that could have been better, right? So when you look at the KD6 Elite and the LeBron 10, that bag was amazing in a way that felt so bouncy but it was stiff, it was heavy, it felt clunky, so those things we felt we could make better. How do you capture that bouncy sensation but then improve upon flexibility, improve upon transition and weight. So we took the best of a lot of these and came to this solution.
What was the challenge of doing a Flyknit upper for someone who wears a size 18?
Yeah, that’s definitely a tough one, because Kobe obviously started it with his shoe, and for that quicker player it’s just very slightly, slightly easier to do. With a guy like KD, who’s larger and really versatile on the court in the way he moves, it becomes a little harder. And that’s why the transition from Flyweave, which naturally had a lateral kind of structure to it, that material that gave stability, that was a nice stepping stone to where we are now. So getting the yarns in here to work properly, you can see here on this sample [black/multi] the colored yarns underneath run from medial to lateral, that really starts to create some structure for stability in there, too.
Is this considerably different from the Flyknit in a Kobe?
There’s some similar principles in it? On the last Kobe, the 11, they talked about the TPU yarns on the inside that did some very similar things. We’re learning from all that.
What other colors can we look for? You did so many launch colors for the KD8.
So I think you’ll see a good variety as well on the 9. You’ll see the USA colorway he wore, there’s gonna be a pre-heat colorway. All that stuff I think we’ll save for a little bit later when there’s a KD9 launch, which is June 20. So we’ll reveal more then.