by Ryan Jones

I’d like to start by apologizing to the kids.

Back in July, I spent a few days in Akron covering the LeBron James Nike Skills Academy, which was all the reason I needed to make the trip. Turns out I was given another, equally compelling reason — an interview with Mr. James himself, to talk about his as-yet-unreleased new shoe, the Zoom LeBron VI. The timing was great: I was gonna be there, LeBron was gonna be there, and a top-secret armored car shipment with full SWAT team escort would bring the shoe to Northeast Ohio. This would work perfectly for all involved.

Well, all except for those “kids,” the 70 or so highly ranked high school ballers attending the camp. We had initially planned to shoot and interview LeBron in the early afternoon, in a big open space at one end of the University of Akron’s Rhodes Arena. This seemed to make sense for everyone, until one of our friends from Nike decided it didn’t. Instead, the shoot and interview were moved to a ballroom at Nike’s hotel just down the road. This didn’t seem to be a big deal, until we realized that the ballroom in question was also being used as the campers’ dining room, and that the shoot was now scheduled for shortly before dinner time.

In the dining room.

Just so that’s clear.

So it was that when the shoot finally went down, we (photographer Peter Yang, his assistant and I) waited in a corner of the ballroom while hotel staffers set up place-settings and Brian Facchini, our homie from Nike PR, waited for updates from Bron’s camp. In short order the King rolled through, with his homie Brandon and some dude named Chris Paul in tow, and we got a bit more than our promised time for the shoot and Q&A. Job done. No worries.

At least, not until I walked out of the ballroom to find 70-some really big high school kids standing, sitting, and otherwise filling the lobby, looking understandably bored and impatient and very, very hungry. They were an hour late for dinner, and — indirectly, at least — it was all my fault. I quickly made my way through the lobby, apologizing loudly as I moved, hoping they wouldn’t deliver a somewhat deserved beatdown as I speed-walked toward the door.

They did not, for which I thank them—and apologize, one last time.

All of which needed to be said, and none of which has anything to do with why you’re most likely reading this. Most likely, you’re reading this because A) you like or are at least mildly interested in famous and talented NBA player LeBron James, and B) you like or are at least mildly interested in basketball shoes. Should you qualify as someone who C) likes or is at least mildly interested in both LeBron James and basketball shoes, well, my goodness, today is what might be called “your lucky day.”

LeBron on the KICKS cover? Yeah, no kidding. For all the oncourt impact dude’s had since joining the League, his place in the sneaker game is arguably more compelling. Alright, so maybe “compelling” isn’t the right word — I trust most of us care more about the game of basketball than the shoes people wear when they’re playing it — but it’s almost taken for granted than this kid pulled a nearly nine-figure sneaker deal before he ever played an NBA game. But it shouldn’t be (taken for granted, I mean), because that $90-million-dollar deal was, and remains, amazing.

That was also 2003, which might lead regular readers to wonder why the hell it took so long to get LeBron on the cover of KICKS — especially when he’s had six or seven SLAM covers since his junior year of high school. It’s a fair question; I can only tell you that we tried. Timing has generally been the biggest issue: With LeBron’s signature kicks not dropping until the fall each year, our late-summer publishing date has always been just a little too early to fit the specifics of Nike’s marketing plans. What changed? The Olympics helped push things up — Bron has already rocked the VIs in the Olympic run-up — allowing us to give the VI its official worldwide semi-exclusive unveiling.

Yay for us.

If you buy KICKS (On newstands any day now! Unless you live outside the U.S.! In which case, wait a week or two!), you can read the cover story and learn the answers to cool questions like “What does LeBron think of his shoe?” (he totally likes it!), glean insight from designer Ken Link (he’s good at his job!), and hear (not literally, of course) LeBron making fun of Chris Paul when Chris isn’t really paying attention. What you won’t get in that issue is a lot of historical perspective on LeBron in the shoe game. I initially thought I’d write the entire story about just that topic, but I changed my mind. Now you get to read about it here.

I have been inspired by the haters, seemingly everywhere, who will (and do) argue that LeBron was always going to be overpaid and overhyped as a sneaker endorser — that Nike was never going to recoup that $90 mil, and that LeBron could never have close to the impact Michael Jordan had with his shoe line. I don’t have access to Nike’s books, so I don’t have any idea if he is or will be “worth” the money they spent. As to the Jordan comparison: No sh*t. Just as no one NBA player, no matter how good, could ever match Mike’s impact on the game, no signature line was going to be able to match the cultural impact of the J’s. Most of us understand that Jordan’s oncourt impact was influenced by factors that went beyond his own remarkable ability. The same can be said of Mike’s shoes.

Predictions are for suckers, but I feel relatively safe saying that, at least for the foreseeable future, and maybe forever, the Jordan line (particularly the first, say, 60 percent of it) will be the iconic basketball shoe line of all time. It may never even be close. Given that, I’d argue that LeBron (or Kobe, or whoever else is or might one day be in this conversation) has a much better chance of equaling Mike’s impact on the court than they do in the shoe game. This may seem crazy, but I’m not sure it’s even debatable.

My point, then, is to remove the Jordan brand from the discussion when it comes to comparing anyone else’s sneaker lines. As a basis of comparison, he’s simply on another plane—to paraphrase my main man Russ, it’s like apples and tow trucks or something. In an era when retros and re-issues tend to be hotter than anything new that drops, and when the average 12- or 15-year-old kid is more likely to be rocking DC or Etnies than Nike or adidas, priorities and realities have changed. Damn near every last drop of stylistic innovation has been exposed, exhausted and reissued seven or eight times. (It’s sort of like the Dunk Contest: When everything’s been done, what do you do?) What’s left for the shoe companies, their designers, and the players is one of two routes: Replicate the tried and true, or cross your fingers and keep pushing the innovation envelope. These days, the former is too easily written off as “boring,” and the latter usually just ends up looking wack.

Whether you “like” LeBron’s shoes is irrelevant, determined as it is by personal taste and the cult (or lack thereof) that sweeps up too many sneaker heads into loving or hating shoes based on which tastemakers are wearing (or rhyming about) them, or which brand logo is plastered on the heel. I’d argue that what’s relevant, post-Jordan, is that the line as a whole is distinctive, and that the shoes do the job on the court. I’d argue that the days of signature joints that define eras and stand as icons of on and offcourt style are over, and that LeBron’s never gonna be that dude in the sneaker game because the game as we knew it no longer exists. And that’s fine. What LeBron has instead is a singular place in today’s dialed-down sneaker game, in which he’s the only current player — certainly the only relevant one — who’s set for a run of 15 or 20 shoes with his name on them. And yes, he’s still the dude with the $90-million-dollar deal that’s due for a re-up in the next year or two. Like it or not, if the kicks game is anyone’s right now, it’s his.