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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Kobe Bryant on Designing Shoes, Winning Championships

Kobe Bryant made some very interesting statements in recent interviews with Sole Collector magazine and USA TODAY.

The Sole Collector interview focuses on Bryant's role in designing the Zoom Kobe IV, his newest Nike shoe. I'm not a "shoe guru" but I think that Michael Jordan was probably the first basketball player who really got involved in the design process of his signature shoes (as opposed to simply cashing the checks for putting his name on them and doing some advertisements, which is what I believe that most players prior to Jordan did). However, my understanding is that Jordan's input had at least as much--if not more--to do with the look and style of the shoe as it did with the actual functioning of the shoe. In contrast, Bryant is completely focused on how well his shoe functions; when asked "How much importance do you place on your shoe looking good in a casual settting?" Bryant replies, "Actually, none. That's never even something that's crossed my brain. This shoe I personally wanted to play in. Whether it (works) well off the court or not, is really irrelevant to me at the time." Bryant also says, "When it comes to the color schemes, I tell the designers, 'You guys just go have a good time and knock yourselves out.'"

Interviewer Nick DePaula writes, "Rarely has an athlete been so involved in the back story of his shoes, calling out specific inspirations and needs in his footwear as he looks to improve not only the playability of his shoes every year, but also his performance on the basketball court as he seeks out an NBA championship every season. His sneakers are a crucial component to that quest. It was at Kobe's request that the Zoom Kobe IV be made as a low-top in order to help with his range of motion, help reduce weight and also help the shoes become part of him, ridding him of any worry or distraction that might prevent him from making that lightning-quick first step as he splits a pair of defenders and heads right towards the rim. He also has been closely involved in the development of every one of his shoes, and it's his attention to detail and close working relationship with Nike Designer Eric Avar that allow the two to continue to push the envelope of design and the boundaries of performance."

Bryant lists two reasons why he wanted his new shoe to be a low-top: "One is, I wanted the foot to move comfortably. I felt like hi-tops at times can be a little bit restricting of your movement. Also, I wanted to decrease weight. I wanted to cut the shoe (in height), make it lighter, make it sleeker, and we were able to accomplish both of those things."

Bryant played soccer growing up in Italy. Of course, soccer players play in low-tops all of the time, so Bryant has never bought the idea that you have to wear hi-tops to play basketball: "I just wanted to have better range and flexibility within the ankle and be able to move and cut and not feel like that movement is restricted. I think how the soccer background came into play is understanding how much stress you put on your ankles and how hard you play the game. In soccer, you can still wear low-tops, and they put more stress on their ankles than we do, but they can still wear low-tops. So I think you need a confidence to be able to push the boundaries a little bit."

Matt Nurse, a Senior Researcher at the Nike Sports Research Lab, confirms Bryant's belief that playing basketball in low-tops is no more risky for the ankles than playing in hi-tops. Nurse says that ankle injuries are inevitable if you play basketball long enough and that neither taping the ankles nor wearing hi-tops offers any additional protection; according to Nurse, the only thing scientifically proven to offer some protection is strengthening the ankles by using a training device called a "wobble board" (presumably, analogous strengthening techniques would also help but the point is that the way that the ankle is structurally put together renders it very difficult to protect the ankle via external wrappings).

Bryant's design idea for the shoe was actually inspired in part from a scene in one of the Spiderman movies: "It's that scene in the movie where he's trying to pry it (the suit) off of him and he can't get it off of him because now it's part of him. And that's how I want the shoe to be. I want the shoe to be part of my foot. I don't want it to be separate. I don't want it to be my foot and the shoe. I want the shoe and the foot to mesh together."

Bryant was wearing Zoom Kobe I shoes when he had his famous 81 point game versus Toronto. The Zoom Kobe I had a different design philosophy than the new Zoom Kobe IV, as Bryant explains: "Well, with the Zoom I, what I wanted to do was I wanted to have more cushioning. It was a season where I was coming off of some knee injuries and some things like that. So, we actually sacrificed some weight with this shoe for a lot more cushioning. As soon as you put that shoe on, you are going to see that it has a lot more cushion. A lot of power forwards and a lot of players that are bigger in stature enjoyed those shoes more than some of the others because it had a lot more cushion in them. Coming off of that shoe, I wanted to get back to the lighter-weight stuff."

As for his state of mind during the 81 point game, Bryant recalls, "I was just in--it was almost like a trance, where you're just relaxing and you're playing and everything is just flowing. You put a lot of work into the offseason, and everything is just clicking."

Everyone knows the burning desire that Bryant has to win more NBA titles but he has said that nothing tops winning the Olympic gold medal and Bryant stands by that statement: "Winning an Olympic gold is second to none and it's the most special moment you'll have as an athlete. Being on that stage and representing your country, there's just no greater honor." That is the way that most if not all athletes from outside of the United States feel about Olympic and FIBA competition but few American basketball players have expressed that sentiment so forcefully, let alone backed it up with such a scintillating clutch performance in the gold medal game.

Bryant has long been weary of answering questions about the time that he spent playing alongside Shaquille O'Neal but this is what he told USA TODAY's Chris Colston: "I hear people say, 'Kobe has to prove he can win a title without Shaq.' Personally, I don't think that's true. The people who say Shaq would've won (the three championships from 2000 to 2002) without me, they're crazy. Those who think I would've won without him are crazy. That we both would've won without Derek Fisher, Robert Horry, Rick Fox and Horace Grant? Those people are crazy...I just want to just win it again. That's all I want. We were so close last year."

The Lakers went 10-5 in March but the Cleveland Cavaliers surpassed them in the race for the number one overall record in the league by going 16-1 in March, tying the NBA record for most victories in a calendar month. Getting home court advantage throughout the playoffs was one of the Lakers' preseason goals but Bryant is not fazed by the possibility of having to win on the road in the postseason: "In my years of experience, if you're going to be a champion, you should win on the road anywhere. The better team is going to advance, no matter where you play." While the Cavs have the best home record (36-1) in the NBA--and if they win out they will tie the 1986 Celtics for the best home record in one season in NBA history--it is worth remembering that the Lakers have the best road record (27-11) in the league this season and that they are the only visiting team to defeat the Cavs in Quicken Loans Arena this year.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:11 AM

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