When Kobe Bryant announced his impending retirement from the NBA two days ago, it felt as if basketball fans all over the world took a second to tip their hats and let out a single man tear. There isn’t a doubt in anyone’s mind that the Lakers legend has a place in the halls of basketball history as one of the greatest ever to play the game—and it’s even more certain that the NBA won’t be the same without him.
But while Kobe will always be remembered for his hardwood skills and stats, he has also managed to leave a legacy of inspiring basketball sneakers. In his 20 seasons in the league, he’s walked on the court in everything nice—from adidas to AND1 to Converse to Jordan to Nike—and through it all, he’s managed to imbue greatness into each pair he wears.
So as the lights begin to dim on the Black Mamba’s career, let’s take a look back at his shining moments and the greatest sneakers he wore along the way.
adidas EQT Elevation
People today know Kobe as a Nike athlete, but when he first stepped into the scene, he was actually signed with the three stripes. When he wore the adidas EQT Elevation (which adidas recently renamed the Crazy 97) to dominate the 1997 Slam Dunk Contest, Kobe foreshadowed an entire career full of epic posterizations and athletic spectacle.
adidas KB8 (now known as the Crazy 8)
Perhaps as a testament to both Kobe’s acrobatic debut and adidas’ will to push boundaries, Bryant’s first-ever signature shoe was lightweight and, well, loud. When he busted them out for the 1998 All-Star Game (also his first-ever All-Star appearance, which made him the youngest All-Star in NBA history at 19 years old), he would go toe-to-toe with Michael Jordan himself to show just how close he could get to the GOAT, both in terms of skill and sneaker game.
adidas The Kobe
No Kobe sneaker retrospective is complete without remembering the flat irons. The adidas The Kobe (and the adidas The Kobe II, for that matter) was part of a polarizing two-part signature sneaker line that would really take design to an outlandish, futuristic direction. Inspired by the Audi TT and worn by Kobe in a 48-point game against the Sacramento Kings in 2001, The Kobe is a shoe you’d be remiss to forget—but hey, we wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to.
For a brief period in his career (the 2002-2003 NBA season, to be specific), Kobe was in signature shoe limbo. He bought out of his contract with adidas, which, however, stipulated that he could not sign with another brand for a year. That meant that for the entire season, Kobe was free to wear whatever he wanted. Among his many excellent choices was the Reebok Question, an Allen Iverson signature that lives on today for its unique style.
Air Jordan PEs
Even after his retirement, it’s hard to imagine that Kobe will ever be able to shake the comparisons made between him and Jordan. But while the two may always be a point of contention for basketball fans, there’s no arguing the level of respect between them. Before finally signing with Nike, Kobe played much of his 2002-2003 season in Air Jordans—in tribute, perhaps, to His Airness.
Throughout the season, he would step up to the court in shoes like the French Blue 12s, Flint Grey 12s, Chrome 6 Lows, and even True Blue 3s. But the most memorable of his on-court Air Jordans are his Player Exclusives: Js in Lakers colorways made specifically for Kobe himself. These included the Air Jordan 7, 8, and 3—all in purple and yellow. These are widely considered as the ultimate holy grails for Kobe collectors, both for their rarity and for their historical significance.
Nike Zoom Kobe
Perhaps one of the best arguments for Kobe as the greatest of all time is his astounding 81-point game against the Raptors in 2006. Eighty-one points by a single player in a single game. That’s not just his career high—it’s an NBA stat that’s bested only by Wilt Chamberlain’s 100; Jordan ranking third with 69 and Lebron ranking fourth with 61. Kobe accomplished this phenomenal performance in no less than the Nike Zoom Kobe 1—his first signature shoe with a swoosh; laying solid the groundwork for all of Kobe’s succeeding signature Nikes.
Noke Zoom Kobe V
Following the success of the Zoom Kobe 1, Nike would continue to release a signature sneaker for the Black Mamba year after year. Designer Eric Avar spearheaded the creation of Zoom Kobes III to X, and would, with Bryant, lead the resurgence of the low-top basketball shoe in 2009 with the Zoom Kobe V. Iconic and highly collectible colorways like the "Bruce Lee" 5s and the "Chaos" 5s helped bring the Zoom Kobe series to the forefront of sneaker culture, and the Mamba’s fifth Nike sneaker would become the mold which Zoom Kobes VI to VIII would follow.
Nike Zoom Kobe IX
Up until the end, Kobe Bryant’s sneakers kept changing the game, just as he did. When the Zoom Kobe IX first debuted, there was but a singular immediate reaction: "it’s tall." Well, there’s that, and there’s "I had no idea Kobe Bryant was going to try professional boxing."
Either way, it was shock and awe. When Kobe asked Eric Avar, Nike's creative director, for "a high-top that feels like a low-top," Avar decided to integrate lightweight ankle support with a Flyknit collar that allowed the sky-high shoe to be as light and unrestricted as a low-top. The result was, once again, polarizing—as the shoe garnered its fair share of detractors and believers, all because of its height. Regardless, the Zoom Kobe IX remains one of the more memorable and iconic designs in the history of his signature shoes.
Sad as we are to see Kobe Bryant leave the NBA, we take comfort in remembering the many ways in which he was able to leave his mark on the game and on sneaker culture. Here’s to hoping that the next in line don’t just have great shoes, but that they can affect basketball the way Kobe did.
Images via Solecollector.com, Complex.com, Nicekicks.com, Sneakerhistory.com