There was once a time when the signature basketball shoe was the absolute pinnacle of the sneaker world. High-dollar runners and cross-trainers—once they were invented—occupied rarefied air as well, but basketball shoes had something extra. The unveiling of a new Air Jordan, or, later on, a new Iverson or or Kobe or LeBron, was a happening. Sometimes they still are. But more often than not, now the release of a new signature basketball shoe is met with indifference.
There are a lot of reasons for this. Retro has swooped in and captured a large part of the buying public—it’s easier to buy a classic that everyone already knows is cool rather than take a risk on something new—and runners and running-esque shoes have taken nearly everything else. Comfort has become more important to would-be sneaker consumers than it has been in years. And the sneaker market, nimble in some ways, has proven glacially slow in others. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. In that sense, the entire signature basketball sneaker process is insane. Adidas overtaking Jordan as the second-largest sneaker brand in the U.S. should serve as something of a wake-up call.
But it has been turning. Even as Flyknit and PrimeKnit and everything-else-knit turned once-scorned runners into must-cop silhouettes, it’s started to percolate through signature basketball lines as well. Kobe was first, of course, with Durant, Harden, and even Jordan following. On the lower end of the price arc, guys like Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, and, of course, Steph Curry made their marks. But what of LeBron James?
Save for a select few models—the Air Zoom Generation, the LeBron VII, much of the recent Soldier line—LeBron’s signature line has mostly proven that the best way to support your favorite player is buying his or her jersey. Sneakers designed to survive the punishment a 6’8”, 275-pound guy like LeBron dishes out on a nightly basis aren’t easily scaled down for smaller ballers, let alone slimmed down to fit current trends. They’ve sold well enough, but it’s hard to remember when the last LeBron shoe really impacted the culture. Maybe the VII? This next one might too.
The LeBron 15, which drops on October 28, represents a marked shift in the LeBron line, much as the VII did. It finally introduces a knit upper, something that seems like a requirement for any successful non-retro signature shoe these days (thanks, Kanye). This was no easy feat for Nike designers, who are still tasked with creating a shoe that first and foremost needs to serve the needs of a guy who’s built like a tank and moves like a drone. Presumably it took until now for knit technology to catch up, and it would be nice if Nike Basketball allowed designer Jason Petrie to tell us all about it.
Until then what we have is the shoe itself, and the shoe itself is a lot. More than anything it looks like the most recent Durant’s big brother, with heavier knit and a more robust segmented Visible Zoom Air sole. And versions worn by Maverick Carter and LeBron himself have shown that there’s a lot to come, including intricately embroidered pairs and ones with zippers that open along the entire tongue. There’s an across-the-board level of creativity and playfulness and straight-up wearability in the LeBron 15 that we haven’t really seen since, I don’t know, maybe the Chamber of Fear 2s? The "Friday the 13th" 13s were clever, but didn’t really resonate since the LeBron 13 in general didn’t. The “What The” LeBrons have been interesting, but have become rote and lazy to the point where they’re not even made up from existing LeBron models anymore. The best LeBrons haven’t even been made available to the general consumer—think Chamber of Fear or the Heroes Pack or even some of the SVSM makeups. The best shoes of his whole line have been for insiders only.
Hopefully the LeBron 15 reverses this trend. The formula seems simple enough, but it’s amazing how many brands can’t follow it—make wearable shoes in cool colorways with compelling stories available to your biggest fans. Nike’s done it with Kobe fairly consistently, and with the LeBron 15 finally seem poised to be able to do it for LeBron, Right in time too, as adidas’s James Harden line gains traction and Steph Curry’s Under Armours seem ready to take the next big step with the primarily knit Curry 4.
As off-court shoes become more popular, there’s a whole different dynamic at work. A shoe won’t necessarily sell just because of who it’s made for. Style matters. Comfort matters. And yes, prestige still matters, but more often from the bottom up instead of the top down. A company can’t—with few exceptions—make a shoe cool just by producing it in limited numbers or for a certain price point. The LeBron 15 seems like the first LeBron shoe that’s been designed with all of this in mind, plus it still has the prestige of LeBron James behind it, a four-time MVP and all-time great still at the top of his game. Whether that translates into record-breaking sales or not only time will tell. Ditto on whether this will be the last gasp of signature shoes or the spark of a resurgence. But from the looks of it, it’s a very cool shoe releasing at just the right time. That should be enough.