The Evolution of Kobe Bryant's Signature Sneakers

How Kobe's shoes have changed and influenced the game over the years.

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Complex Original

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Today is the day. Kobe Bryant plays his last basketball game tonight, clocking in his whole career with the Los Angeles Lakers. His influence on the sport of basketball can’t be explained just in words, and neither can his impact on sneakers. Kobe’s footwear career spanned two companies and three different signature lines. Each line brought a new level of innovation that hadn’t been seen in basketball before.

As much as we will miss the Kobe mentality in the NBA, we will also miss his devotion to innovation and performance with all of his shoes.

Follow me as I break down every signature shoe Kobe Bryant has ever had.

A special thanks to Darryl Glover, @brotha_d, for letting us photograph his sneaker collection.

adidas EQT Elevation

Year: 1996-1997
Designer: James Carnes

​Kobe Bryant's first "signature" sneaker didn't belong exclusively to him, but the adidas EQT Elevation would blaze the path for his next three shoes with the brand — he would also wear it during one of his first memorable moments. In his rookie season, Bryant didn't receive as much playing time as he'd see in the rest of career, but he shined through in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. 

The shoes on his feet would use adidas' Feet You Wear technology, which was designed by Frampton Ellis, a non-adidas employee at the time. But James Carnes, who is currently the company's Creative Director of Sport Performance Design, set the foundation for the next three Kobe sneakers with his design on the EQT Elevation.

The Three Stripes on the shoe were subtle, and it was considered a pioneer in the minimal shoe movement, even with its now-clunky sole unit. In the '90s, adidas was going through a renaissance of its branding and product, thanks to Peter Moore, the man who designed the Air Jordan 1. Long gone were the Trefoils on the company's new performance product, and the EQT Elevation was a shining example of that.


adidas KB8  

Year: 1997-1998
Designer: James Carnes 

Kobe’s first signature shoe was a continuation of adidas’ Feet You Wear platform. That platform was way ahead of its time, as it set out to provide the athlete with a “natural” stride and feel. That feature was the dominant aesthetic of the entire shoe, because it was a very dramatic form language. The blended upper and bottom considerably set this shoe apart from others at the time.

Looking at the shoe though, you get the sense that adidas knew they had an exciting player but didn’t exactly know if he was signature shoe ready. While he had won the NBA Dunk Competition the previous season and his popularity was soaring, they provided him with a platform shoe. Meaning a shoe that pushed the major marketing points of the entire current adidas line, Feet You Wearbut it was generic enough to be able to be placed on any athlete at that time. Or for that matter any team in the country with the right color-blocking.

While the shoe was great, and my personal favorite of the KB series, it didn’t posses the umph needed to make an impact as a signature basketball shoe.

adidas KB8 II

Year: 1998-1999
Designer: James Carnes 

This was a rough year for the NBA. The lockout would result in a shortened season. Nonetheless, Kobe’s second signature shoe did not disappoint. Much like the first of the KB8 series it was focused on showing off the Feet You Wear platform. It shifted from a large midsole cage that wrapped up from the sole to becoming a heavily contoured set of pods that were strategically placed to align with anatomy of the foot. The unique pods wrapped from the sidewall to the bottom gave Kobe the ability to have more surface traction during quick direction changes.

On the other hand, the upper created a confusing aesthetic that took away from the sleekness of the sole unit. While well-executed, the lines made the shoe appear heavy. However, the color blocking helped balance out that issue, specifically in the Laker Purple colorway.

adidas KB8 III

Year: 1999-2000
Designer: James Carnes 

Due to contractual issues between adidas and the collaborator on the project the KB8 III was the first Kobe shoe to break away from the Feet You Wear campaign. That didn’t stop Kobe from winning his first NBA Championship in it.

The sole unit was still podular, harkening back to what they had created on the first two versions but the upper became far cleaner and more refined.

This sneaker set the stage for Kobe’s first real signature shoe the next season: adidas finally had a star to capitalize on that demanded the best of his products as he did with his game. And they would have to come with a polarizing product to let the world know they were here to compete.

adidas Kobe ONE

Year: 2000-2001
Designer: Eirik Nielsen

The Kobe ONE represented a dramatic change from the KB series in virtually every way. Abandoning the design landscape it had established, adidas harnessed their German roots by partnering with Audi to create the aesthetic of the revamped Kobe line. Do yourself a favor, and picture the first generation Audi TT and then the Kobe ONE. You will see the similarities.

The ONE’s dramatic design became a true signature sneaker, something that the KB line hadn’t previously achieved. It was controversial and provocative, and honestly, we hadn’t seen a basketball shoe like it before. The construction method of the shoe was similar to the Nike Foamposite One, as it was molded then sewn together providing Kobe with a firm shell that molded to the contour of his foot, but the Audi input added a different element.

The design inspired love/hate reactions to it, but it didn’t matter as long as Kobe kept on winning. And that he did, as he won his second NBA Championship in this shoe.

adidas Kobe TWO

Year: 2001-2002
Designer: Eirik Nielsen 

The Kobe TWO made the Kobe ONE look tame. The TWO built on the Audi-driven aesthetic of the ONE, and in the process established a very radical design sense. In fact, it was so dramatic it was enough to drive Kobe Bryant away from adidas altogether.

While Bryant won his third straight NBA Championship in it, the shoe was just unfathomably different. Sometimes it is necessary to create a revolutionary style but, in this case, it begged to be questioned, not only from a visual standpoint but also from a functional standpoint. It didn’t seem to add up. Signature basketball shoes have been and will always be a balance of art and science, form and function, the athlete and fashion. But this design may have taken it too far. None of it made sense on the basketball court.

However, had this shoe shown up in a Rick Owens collection today for adidas, it might be heralded as groundbreaking.

And if you think this was bad, just Google the Kobe THREE and @ me if you want to hear the full story of Kobe’s reaction.

Nike Air Zoom Huarache 2K4

Year: 2003-2004
Designer: Eric Avar

Following the TWO debacle with adidas and Kobe leaving the company before his contract was up, he was forced to take a year off from the signature game during 2003. That year of “sneaker free-agency” provided exciting times as Kobe wore a rotation of Nike, Jordan, and Reebok every game. Kobe also had a dominant year on the court with nine consecutive games with 40 or move points. It was an astonishing feat and further proved his value to sneaker brands.

Coming off of that season he signed with Nike, who wasted no time giving him a juggernaut of a “signature” shoe with the Huarache 2K4. While it was Kobe’s shoe and designed specifically for him, it never became his official shoe due to legal issues stemming from an incident in Colorado at the time.

Nonetheless, that shoe proved to be an amazing beginning in design for both Kobe and Nike as he was paired with industry veteran, Eric Avar, who is considered to be one of the greatest footwear designers of all time. Their relationship began with this shoe and while it took a short break, would continue on to create one of the most innovative lines Nike has ever created. And it would not have happened without the Huarache 2K4.

Nike Air Zoom Huarache 2K5

Year: 2004-2005
Designer: Eric Avar

Kobe continued to be signature shoeless for one more season as Nike allowed him to take the time to rebuild his personal brand. Meanwhile, he was carrying a lackluster supporting cast on his Lakers squad to heights that no one could imagine, showing that his on-court dominance was undiminished.

Even though Kobe was going through some things off-court, Nike didn’t treat his footwear game as a lay-up. The Huarache 2K5 was a phenomenal update to the 2K4. For the first time in Nike Basketball history, it incorporated its Free platform, which is not so much a technology but a philosophy of crafting a shoe to naturally fit around the foot. This innovation would prove to become a staple in Kobe’s line moving forward.

Nike Zoom Kobe 1

Year: 2005-2006
Designer: Ken Link 

The Kobe 1 was created from the work of two designers, starting with Eric Avar and later transitioning to Ken Link while Avar was on leave. Link did a phenomenal job of blending aspects from the Huarache series for Kobe into what would become his first, true Nike signature shoe. If you recall at that time Link was balancing a heavy amount of design weight as he was doing the LeBron line in addition to the Kobe line.

The Kobe 1 evolved the Huarache-style collar line synonymous with the series and focused in on the Free movement for the sole. By voiding out a section of the collar in the heel it allowed for the foot to bend and flex more naturally. While this look has become common today, it didn’t exist back then and was considered pretty aggressive at the time.

What really cemented this shoe in history though, was Kobe’s iconic play in them. Kobe dominated the 2005-06 season. He averaged 35.4 points per game that year having career game after career game. It was unbelievable. In one game against the Mavericks he scored 62 points through three quarters and outscored the entire Mavs team 62-61. In January of that season, he became the first player since 1964 to score 45 points or more in four consecutive games. However, it was one game that cemented his and the Kobe 1’s legacy: On January 22 he led the Lakers to a 122-104 victory over the Toronto Raptors, scoring 81 points.

Nike Zoom Kobe II

Year: 2006-2007
Designer: Ken Link 

The Kobe II took the Freeapproach to the next level by creating a completely podular sole unit that was divided between forefoot and heel. In my eyes, this unit became the hero of the Kobe II: It took color really well and was the focal point of the design. The upper was stitched directly to it, thus creating a very lightweight but modular approach to the shoe. Old basketball shoes were made like this all the time, but it was very different in 2006, which would be a huge part of how Nike merchandised the shoe.

Most remember the Kobe II as the midtop with the ankle strap, but there were actually three versions of the shoe. There was also a midtop with a midfoot strap and an ultra lightweight hightop version. All of this was made possible because of the modular sole unit, which was attached in a similar fashion to each respective upper.

This scenario of offering multiple versions of one shoe for multiple playing styles would lay the groundwork for future variations of the Kobe series.

Nike Zoom Kobe III

Year: 2007-2008
Designer: Eric Avar

The Kobe III ushered in the return of Eric Avar at the perfect time as Kobe was making a serious run at his fourth NBA Championship. While the shoe was quite dynamic and amazing for performance, design wise it ended up being an outlier. That isn’t a bad thing by any means, but when looking back at the Kobe line this shoe doesn’t fit. It did however serve as something of a testing ground for a few of the upper materials that would become consistent throughout the line. The III featured a fully injected upper that acts as a cage around the foot. One of the most unique aspects of the sneaker was the underlying mesh is exposed through the voids of the cage, allowing for more breathability and flexibility

Much like the adidas Kobe TWO should have been a bridge between the ONE and THREE, the Nike Kobe III wound up being a gateway to the VI, VII, and 8. As they hadn’t completely mastered how to execute this injected upper, they set it aside for a couple of models before reintroducing it when the technology caught up.

Nike Zoom Kobe IV

Year: 2008-2009
Designer: Eric Avar

Nike rewrote the formula for basketball sneakers with the Kobe IV. They stripped it down to the bare essentials and crafted a product that fit around the foot securely without any lack of support. Typically, lowtops were considered a summer shoe, just something to get you through pick-up until real play began again in the fall. The Kobe IV changed that perception by using modern production and manufacturing techniques to produce a piece of footwear that met all of the rigors of high performance basketball shoes with sufficient support. Kobe’s inspiration came from soccer players, who always played in lowtops.

This was a dramatic shift from where basketball shoes had been. We know stories of how tenacious Kobe is on the court and how far he is willing to push himself and his teammates. He does the exact same thing to the Nike team. This mentality has made him important to the evolution of basketball shoes. He wants a shoe that challenges footwear and ultimately meets the performance expectations that he puts on himself. Not many athletes do that. Kobe’s intelligence around product and his brand took basketball sneakers from just being a functional extension of players’ style to a tool for the game.

With the introduction of the Kobe IV, the Kobe line was no longer a shoe — it was another weapon in Kobe’s arsenal.

Nike Zoom Kobe V

Year: 2009-2010
Designer: Eric Avar 

The Kobe V continued where the IV left off by evolving the low top silhouette, making it both lighter and lower. The key difference between the V and the IV was that the V shed a tremendous amount of layers—and weight—by utilizing a material bonding technique known as welding.

By seamlessly bonding materials together you are able to rid a design of overlaying materials, such as leather or mesh, and reinvent the way shoes have been created for decades. The stripped-down upper of the Kobe V was comprised of four key pieces: the mesh liner, the synthetic base, the synthetic support overlay and the heel counter. Its minimal approach created a foot-hugging fit that was extremely lightweight and flexible allowing Kobe to play at a consistent level each night.

The 5 to me is the most pivotal shoe in the entire Nike Kobe line as it really evolved and mastered what the IV set out to be, much like the Huarache 2K5 refined the 2K4.

Nike Zoom Kobe VI

Year: 2010-2011
Designer: Eric Avar 

Fundamentally, the Kobe VI was not very different from the V but visually they were worlds apart. Nike started using a new process on the VI called Kurim, also known as a fine mold, which allowed them to directly inject polyurethane in strategic areas on the shoe. What was groundbreaking about their use of the process was not only did it create a bold aesthetic but it was functional as well.

Nike played off of one of Kobe’s nicknames, the Black Mamba, to create a snakeskin-like upper aesthetic. The Kurim technique allowed them to group the scales together tighter in areas that needed support and open them up in areas that didn’t. The evolutionary approach to the upper led to a game-changing approach to the aesthetic that set the tone for the next three generations of Kobes.

Nike Kobe 7

Year: 2011-2012
Designer: Eric Avar

Throughout the Kobe line, each models’ subtle evolutions have built on one another to stay technically advanced while maintaining familiarity. The VII continued the evolution that started with the IV but at the same time completely revolutionized the concept.

The VII took modularity to an all-new level, offering multiple replaceable midsoles with sleeved uppers of varying height. This was a game changer since it went against the philosophy of the low, but the key element to it was sock fit. It still felt like you were wearing a low, only with more support. The midsole construction was the other piece of the puzzle. It all became all internal in the form of Cushlon foam with a Zoom Air insert. This provided lightweight support with maximum cushioning, and the internal construction brought the sole unit closer to the foot.

For the first time in the history of the Kobe line there was also an “Elite” version. The all-Kurim upper formed in the shape of dramatic scales that again were placed based on functionality. The biggest piece of innovation on the Elite was the heel counter, which went from a painted clear piece of TPU (Thermal Plastic Urethane) on the VII to a real piece of carbon fiber. It was stunning and beautiful, adding a further exotic touch, and helped usher in a new era of material innovation for basketball shoes.

Nike Kobe 8

Year: 2012-2013
Designer: Eric Avar

The Kobe 8 was more or less another bridge product. While it was very important to the series, it was mostly just an updated version of the VII, only without the interchangeable midsoles. The main innovation on the 8 was a refreshed upper construction. The Kurim upper technique featured on the VI and VII was switched to an Engineered Mesh, a first for a basketball shoe. The mesh was tightly woven in key areas for strength but was still flexible and moved naturally with the foot all while providing 360 degrees of breathability. This laid the groundwork for what would become the most revolutionary basketball shoe ever created.

Nike Kobe 9

Year: 2014
Designer: Eric Avar 

Nobody saw this shoe coming. As much as the Kobe line is an evolution from one to the next, this iteration revolutionized the entire industry. In my eyes, it could be the single most important basketball shoe ever designed—not created, but designed.

Kobe tore his Achilles in the Kobe 8 — not because it was a lowtop as much, but due to the game’s wear and tear on his body. To help aid in recovery following his surgery, Eric Avar and his team crafted a shoe that would become an extension of the foot, a sock, if you will. Many designers have dreamed of creating this type of basketball shoe but none have been able to achieve it. The thought of a sock for a shoe is nothing new, but the processes and capabilities of manufacturing were finally advanced enough make it happen.

Enter Flyknit, Nike’s revolutionary upper construction method that literally knits the entire shoe together with multiple threads creating a seamless fit. The knitting process meant that manufacturing capabilities had finally caught up to the visions of Eric and his team, and the sock-like basketball shoe was born.

The Kobe 9 came in two iterations, high and low. They ushered in the high first to help Kobe overcome what is often a career-ending injury. The Elite versions came first, so they came with a much higher price-point but also with enhanced materials, including a carbon fiber heel counter. Later down the line, Nike would offer a non-Elite version of the lowtop with an Engineered Mesh upper rather than FlyKnit and a midsole without the carbon fiber at a lower price-point. This represented the first time the Kobe line had three different iterations of the signature shoe since the Kobe 2.

This shoe revolutionized not only what the Kobe line was, but also what it would become. Nothing would be the same after it.

Nike Kobe 10

Year: 2015
Designer: Eric Avar 

The 10 had very large shoes to fill—​pun intended—​to keep up what the 9 set in motion. What made the 10 great was that it was to the 9 what the V was to the IV. It was just a matter of fine-tuning all aspects of an excellent shoe to really make it perfect.

From an upper standpoint, Nike maintained the FlyKnit and Engineered Mesh uppers on separate models, but really honed in on the sole unit this go around. One small critique I could make was that the traction wasn’t perfect, so Avar and his team went back and created a system of nodes that formed a multi-directional grid to grab traction at every direction and every angle of the basketball court. It also shifted back to featuring an external midsole that featured full length Lunarlon and Zoom Air in the heel.

The completely clear rubber wrapping over the entire midsole not only looked dope, but it created a holistic approach for the Free-inspired traction. 

Nike Kobe 11

Year: 2016
Designer: Eric Avar

If the Kobe 10 was to the 9, what the V was to the IV, then the 11 is the VI to the V, if a bit more subtle. You follow? Nike lowered the midsole of the shoe, bringing you closer to the court and providing the ability to react quicker to the game. They also evolved the FlyKnit to feature TPU threads that reinforce the knit at extreme levels.

With the 11 being the swan song of Kobe’s signature line as an active player (the line is rumored to be continuing) it is a beautiful going-away shoe for a man who changed the game of basketball—and basketball sneakers. Once Kobe retires, not only will his influence on the game be missed, but his impact on footwear will as well.

Speaking solely from a form and function standpoint, the Kobe line is the most important line in Nike Basketball history. I argue that the only line of shoes that receives greater attention to function within Nike is the Mercurial. The Kobe series is the most consistently function-focused basketball shoes Nike has ever created, and that is solely because Kobe Bryant demanded them to be that way.

Kobe challenges himself and therefore challenges all of his designs to meet his expectations. Style be damned, it's all about function with him.