The age-old sports adage is true: Father Time is undefeated.
After a storied 20 years in the NBA, five-time NBA champion, 18-time NBA All-Star, Olympic gold medalist, and future Basketball Hall-of-Famer Kobe Bryant is saying goodbye to pro basketball. The leading vote getter in this year’s NBA All-Star Game announced his pending retirement earlier in the season through a personal sonnet to the game of basketball, which read something similar to how someone would say goodbye to a high school sweetheart before leaving for college—bittersweet.
“My heart can take the pounding/My mind can handle the grind/But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye,” Bryant wrote in November of last year.
However, his work as a muse for Nike designers has no expiration date. Bryant’s sneaker deal extends beyond his playing days, and working on sneakers for Bryant is more than just rubber, leather, and glue.
“He always comes with a deep, insightful, and almost philosophical point of view,” said Nike’s Eric Avar, who’s helmed the design of Bryant’s signature line since 2008. “Whether it’s an inspiration on the metaphor side, or also on the performance side.”
Over the last decade, Bryant helped put together a catalog of more than 10 signature sneakers. He’s in elite company, considering that he joined Nike in the middle of his career, and that only Michael Jordan and LeBron James have had more silhouettes bearing their name.
While most players at this stage of their NBA career would be reminiscing about the contributions they’ve made to sneaker culture, Bryant is looking forward. His signature sneaker line will continue despite his absence from the basketball court. Bryant and team are currently working on the Kobe 12 and Bryant says he already knows what the next three silhouettes in the Kobe line are going to look like.
While the physicality of playing professional basketball for 20 years has taken a toll on Bryant’s body, it’s made his sneaker design acumen more refined. There’s only one thing that matters to him when it comes to sneakers, and it’s not retroing one of his models every other year or dropping a new hyped colorway every month. It’s pushing basketball sneaker design into uncharted waters.
“I don’t focus on how fashion changes,” Kobe said. “I only focus on creating innovative product.”
Taking risks has been inherent to every one of Bryant’s sneaker designs. He’s been a catalyst. Whether it was moving to a low-cut shoe when no one in the industry was asking for one, or making a basketball sneaker that looks like a boxing boot, Bryant has completely shifted how Nike and the industry approach basketball sneakers.
(This feature appears in special edition Sole Collector issue 48)