The video looks quaint now, like a poorly done parody of America’s Funniest Home Videos. At the time, though, many wondered if it was real. In the clip, grainy, deliberately amateurish-looking footage shows a cocksure Kobe Bryant in black warmups with a white Nike Swoosh on the chest. He’s flanked by worried Los Angeles Lakers teammate Ronnie Turiaf, who repeatedly voices his apprehension at what the Lakers megastar is about to attempt. Kobe holds a sneaker up to the camera before telling viewers, “Do not try what I’m about to do right now.” Then, facing it head-on like a matador to an oncoming bull, he appears to jump over a speeding Aston Martin DB9 Volante droptop:
After chest-bumping Turiaf, an amped Kobe yells into the camera, “That’s how you do it. Hyperdunks!”
They would became the foundation of Nike Basketball. But at the time––April, 2008––Hyperdunks were still a mystery, similar to whether Kobe actually jumped the Aston Martin. Nike couldn’t have known their unique run-up to the release would reimagine a basketball sneaker for a new era of the company, while at the same time redefining how a shoe and an athlete could be showcased. It's been 10 years since this happened, and it's still fresh in everyone's memory.
The Aston Martin is what many remember the most. It was three years before Blake Griffin cleared a stationary Kia in the Slam Dunk contest, and it came less than three years after YouTube went live. Brand awareness of the blossoming online video marketplace was in its adolescence. The bravado and Gonzo style only helped its popularity. And the timing is part of why the minute-long spot is widely regarded as Nike’s first viral video. That and Kobe skying over the James Bond car in the most progressive basketball sneakers on the planet.
The video blew up and speculation over the veracity of the stunt led the Los Angeles Times to remind readers that Bryant’s teammate, Vlad Radmonovic, had been fined half a million dollars after he surreptitiously separated his shoulder snowboarding the year before. Kobe didn’t actually jump over a speeding sports car, or any car; the Lakers would never allow it. But the global interest proved its effectiveness. The clip was a smash, as was a followup where Bryant joined the popular Jackass crew to jump over a pool of snakes (he wasn’t yet the “Black Mamba,” but it became part of that persona).
The jump over the Aston Martin didn’t happen in a vacuum, though. No, the product itself was even more groundbreaking, as was the player who showed them off to the world.
The Nike Hyperdunk was a pivot point for Nike Basketball and a game changer in performance footwear. The vertical cables on a suspension bridge, which could be both load-bearing and allow for a wide range of movement, was the inspiration for Nike designer Jay Meschter. He used super-secure synthetic nylon fibers to bring the same effect to a lightweight sprinter’s sneaker. It was deemed Nike Flywire.
Lead Hyperdunk designer Eric Avar wanted to bring Flywire to a basketball court. It would allow him to “reduce everything else” and cut the unnecessary bulk of traditional leather panels that added weight and reduced speed and mobility. “You are trying to cut through to the simplicity and purity of the problem you are trying to solve,” Avar said before the release of the Kobe X.
The problem with Flywire? Sprinting isn’t basketball, there’s a lot of lateral movement. But testing revealed its durability. Like the bridge it’s modelled after, Nike Flywire could handle the carnage from all the cutting that happens on a basketball court. But Flywire wasn’t the only innovation to make its first introduction in the Hyperdunk.
A NASA-tested material ended up the perfect mix of foam and air, providing a cushion––like running on a pillow––and all-important spring. It was called Lunarlon and along with Flywire, it debuted on the Hyperdunk (and the Lunaracer for marathoners).
Nike’s Hyperdunk campaign with Bryant came in the early spring, but the sneakers wouldn’t be released until that summer. It afforded the perfect promotion opportunity with a world-wide audience.
In 2008, USA Basketball was still clawing back from its nadir four years prior. The 2004 Olympic squad was the first comprised of professionals that failed to capture the gold––settling on the bronze, with a Manu Ginobili-led Argentinian team taking gold. Team USA finished third again in the 2006 FIBA World Championships.
In the summer of 2008, Kobe Bryant was nearing his professional apex in skills, experience, and motivation. An NBA Finals loss to the Celtics that June gave him an added edge for the Olympics.
Consequently, the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China would be USA Basketball’s first chance to show the world their mettle after their stunning loss in the previous games. Before 2004, Team USA was always grossly favored, but now everyone saw their vulnerability, and the soaring popularity of basketball around the world––largely a consequence of 1992’s Dream Team––had turned a number of European and South American countries into legitimate threats to again upset the USA. Because it was no longer a foregone conclusion the Americans would run away with, even more tuned in to watch as the “Redeem Team” go for gold. Team USA cruised through qualifying and the medal rounds, and it looked like gold might again be a foregone conclusion. But then came Spain in the gold medal game.
With eight minutes left and the U.S. barely holding on to a two-point lead, Kobe took over while rocking a pair of Nike Zoom Hyperdunk Olympic PEs. He scored or assisted on 10 straight points, and with 3:10 left and the USA up five, he pump-faked his way to a four-point play, sealing the gold in front of a gargantuan global audience.
The technological breakthroughs, the singular marketing campaign, and Kobe’s gold medal performance all added up. The Nike Hyperdunk became ubiquitous on NBA courts and playgrounds around the world. Its technology was the forefather for today’s future lines, inspiring the Kobe 4 and LeBron 7, considered by many to be the most highly regarded signature in each star’s collection. Even half a decade after Kobe jumped an Aston Martin and secured Team USA’s redemption, Forbes reported that 80 NBA players wore the Nike Hyperdunk 2013, compared to the 71 players, total, who wore rival Adidas that year.
The Hyperdunk changed the game, but it wasn’t just the sneaker.