On February 8, Nike officially launches the Nike Kobe 9 Elite. But if we know anything about Kobe Bryant, Eric Avar and the lauded Nike R&D department in Beaverton, they're already refining and testing out the Nike Kobe 10 and assuming Bryant retires as expected after the 2015-16 NBA season, there are already plans out there for his on-court swan song, the Nike Kobe 11. They're so far ahead of the sneaker game and it has nothing to do with getting retros a few weeks early.
One of the lingering questions with regards to Bryant is what exactly is Nike going to do with his signature line after he retires. Is there a viable future for a Kobe Brand much in the same vein as a Jordan Brand? The shadow of Jordan looms over anybody that dares challenge his spot and he has millions of followers who defend his relentlessly, but if any athlete right now has the drive to pull it off and the worldwide fan base who will continue to buy his products, it is Bryant. Having essentially grown up in Los Angeles as he was winning championships and climbing up the record books, the unique circumstances of his rise to legendary status has afforded Bryant a celebrity that is unmatched by even the biggest Hollywood stars. With all that money on the table to be made, it would seem foolish to just stop at 11, call it a day and just Prelude everything moving forward.
And money aside, would Kobe want to stop?
Just because Kobe Bryant will stop playing basketball at the highest level in a few years doesn’t mean he will stop thinking about basketball at the highest level. He does not strike as the type to just quietly retire; he will be around looking for that next challenge that will push him to be better than everybody else. When he steps down he will be involved in the game in one form or another (he has a good and filthy rich role model in Magic Johnson to emulate if he needs help) and that includes his basketball shoes.
There is a train of thought among the sneaker intelligentsia that Bryant should carry on and build a “Kobe Brand” that essentially becomes Nike’s equivalent of Nintendo’s famed R&D1, which made critically acclaimed but quirkier titles like the Warioware franchise. While guys like LeBron James and Kevin Durant and whomever Nike decides to bless with a signature shoe moving forward will continue to serve the populous and produce products that the people are ready for, Kobe’s eyes will always be to the future, giving the people what they didn’t know that they wanted.
Kobe’s value to Nike is much more than sales. Assuming this is a lifelong partnership, both parties will continue to push each other to new heights, only stopping when they have to actually release a shoe. Even when they were presenting the Nike Kobe 9 Elite back in December, there was a good chance that Bryant, Avar and Nike CEO Mark Parker were thinking in the back of their minds that the stuff they’re showing off today was so two years ago and were just itching to tell them what they’re working now at that very moment.
When Flyknit was first revealed back in 2012, it seemed like it was a given that Kobe was going to be the first one to have those on his kicks. Bryant was the first to jump on board technologies like Flywire, Engineered Mesh and even Feet You Wear from his days with adidas. It would be disingenuous to say that Bryant was the first to have low-cut basketball shoes, but he was the biggest name calling for a revolution and sometimes that’s what it takes to get people to change their minds. At the moment, people are having doubts about whether Flyknit is strong enough to handle the demands of an NBA game that requires quick lateral movements and unseen amounts of physicality. But when a product that has somebody as meticulous and demanding as Bryant putting his stamp on it, the chances of having to “redefine” it are slim.
One of the most endearing images of Kobe Bryant ever produced was a piece by the Freedarko team called “Chasing Perfection.” It is a drawing of Kobe dressed in his Euro-centric style trying to put together a masterpiece of a ship inside a bottle. Anybody who has ever performed the exercise by hand knows the precision and patience required to create the ship and that any little mistake can destroy the piece or make it seem imperfect in the eyes of the artist. And in a sign that Bryant doesn’t always get it right, there are shards of glass and boat pieces laying on the floor possibly shattered out of frustration by its creator. Kobe Bryant is doing the exact same thing with his basketball shoes; he’s chasing perfection and stopping only when they actually have to sell it.