Due to the unpredictable nature of 2020, this year's NBA All-Star Weekend feels like it was ages ago. The event took place just weeks before COVID-19 swept the country, prior to the nation's unrest in response to police brutality, and before anyone knew what the Disney Bubble was. For New Balance and reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, the celebratory weekend was the coming out party for his first official signature sneaker.
Known simply as the Kawhi, fans would only get a few glimpses at the new model before the NBA regular season was called off due to the novel coronavirus on March 11. With the season restart now in full swing and Leonard's Los Angeles Clippers set to meet the Dallas Mavericks for the playoff opener, New Balance is readying for the moment with the formal unveiling of the Kawhi.
Designed by Jonathan Grondin, senior creative design manager at New Balance, the Kawhi picks up where the not-quite-signature-sneaker OMN1S left off. While Leonard was the main player to wear the OMN1S on court and was connected to several of its colorways, it wasn't considered his official signature shoe, which is where the Kawhi comes in. Unlike the OMN1S, Grondin emphasizes that the Kawhi is a signature sneaker in both its conceptualization and its execution.
"Talking to Kawhi changes everything," Grondin says. "He literally wanted me to come into the meeting with a blank piece of paper," the designer says of the early stages of the sneaker, which resulted in weekly calls back and forth between the two for around a month as they nailed down the finer points.
Starting from the bottom, the Kawhi uses a similar, yet refined midsole setup in comparison to the OMN1S. Both pairs make use of New Balance's FuelCell foam cushioning, but it's been trimmed down on the Kawhi for a sleeker, lower-to-the-ground feel—something Grondin says Leonard requested himself. Cushioning aside, a closer examination of the sneaker reveals that this is far from an OMN1S sequel.
The upper of the Kawhi is cut noticeably lower, although it's closer to a mid-top than a traditional low. The materials are also more elaborate, shifting away from the OMN1S' woven FitWeave base for a bootie-style construction that blends heat-bonded synthetics with mesh, genuine leather, and a microfiber tongue. Further details range from conspicuous, such as shifting the New Balance logo from the lateral side to the heel (a personal request from Leonard to help separate his shoe from other models), to more subtle, like the addition of a top metal eyelet as a nod to Grondin and Leonard's shared love of the 1964 Chevrolet Impala.
Arguably the most striking feature of the Kawhi's upper is its quarter panel design, which Grondin says uses the brand's Kinetic Stitch material in a data-driven pattern that is not only eye catching, but adds targeted stretching and support in areas where Leonard needs it. Readers can expect to see the erratic pattern take on a variety of colors, some of which Leonard has already worn in the bubble.
Speaking of colors, Grondin notes that Leonard's first signature sneaker seems to have brought out a new side of the NBA star's personality. While the OMN1S was produced in a wide range of styles, Leonard was somewhat reserved when it came to his on-court selections, often opting for quiet colorways rather than some of the shoe's flashier offerings. With the Kawhi, though, Grondin says it's as if a switch flipped, and Leonard has been much more open to taking chances.
Like the OMN1S, which had a "No Emotions Are Emotions" collaboration courtesy of Joe Freshgoods during All-Star Weekend, the Kawhi is expected to see its share of special makeups leaning on the lifestyle side of things. While the brand didn’t elaborate on specific partners for the Kawhi model itself, Leonard arrived at a bubble game in a Jolly Ranchers-themed version of the brand’s BB480 low-top shoe, which could be a taste of what’s to come.
The Kawhi’s debut colorway will continue the theme of the reptile-embossed black, gold, and royal blue scheme seen on 2019's "2-Way" pack of OMN1S and 997S. It’s named “Four Bounces” as a reference to the number of times the ball bounced around the rim during Leonard's his unforgettable game-winning shot against the Sixers during Game 7 of the 2019 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
The New Balance Kawhi "Four Bounces" releases on Thursday, Aug. 20.