by Abe Schwadron | @abe_squad

Last week, Nike hosted media outlets from around the world at the 2012 Nike Innovation Summit in New York City. The two-day event featured appearances from Nike athletes like USA sprinter Alyson Felix, New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz and champion boxer Manny Pacquiao, as the company unveiled a series of new technological advances and modern designs, for everyone from Olympians to average Joes.

But while innovations like Nike FlyKnit technology for marathon runners and Nike+ Training applications for fitness are sure to be a hit across its relevant sports, we here at SLAMonline had our eyes on basketball. And in that arena, the Nike geniuses did not disappoint. On day one, after introductions by 10-time Olympic medalist Carl Lewis, Tamika Catchings of the Indiana Fever and Deron Williams of the New Jersey Nets were on hand to model and discuss brand new Nike Hyper Elite uniforms for Team USA. Beyond the updated look and logo, the jerseys are the lightest ever made by Nike, and feature 3D-structured Dri-FIT fabric that pushes sweat away, rather than absorbing it.

On the differences between what he wears for the Nets on a nightly basis and what he’ll wear this summer at the London games, Deron Williams joked, “Ours are adidas, so I don’t like wearing them. But I have to. These are just a lot lighter…12 ounces lighter than our game uniforms, which is a big difference, especially when you compound it with sweat.”

On day two, the world was introduced to Nike+ Basketball, which through pressure sensor technology (available in the all-new Lunar Hyperdunk, launching on June 29) can break down your game to track how high, how hard and how quick you ball. What does it mean? Imagine being able to measure your vertical leap in real time—via computer chips in your kicks.

Nike basketball’s global creative director, Tracy Teague and Ricky Engelberg, Nike+’s director of user experience each sat down to give us the inside scoop on the inspiration and function of the new Hyper Elite uniforms and Nike+ basketball technology.

SLAM: What’s new for this year, and where did the inspiration come from?

Tracy Teague: Probably the first place that I would start would be listening to what the players are telling us. So they continue to say, “Hey, you guys need to make this stuff lighter and lighter. We want to carry less stuff around on our bodies as we’re playing.” So that’s really at the top of what’s driving all the stuff that we’re doing at Nike basketball. Not only all the stuff that we’re doing for USA [Basketball], but all the stuff that we’re doing in college and all the teams that we’re working with, and it really goes all the way down.  You can even buy Hyper Elite uniforms for high school teams. So it starts there. The players will ask for lightweight, but it can’t just be light. There’s way more things to it than just making it the lightest thing ever. The dynamics that a basketball player goes through when they’re playing the game, and what the needs are in a uniform and specifically in footwear, they demand that the shoes and the apparel be incredibly durable, incredibly strong, provide the support necessary. It’s all of those things rolled into making a great product. I think the biggest thing is we just listen to the voice of the athlete, and we talk a lot about that at Nike. That’s what we do at Nike basketball, is listen to what they’re telling us and then take that and apply that through new materials that we’re using, new manufacturing techniques. We’re able to do things now that weren’t even thought of five or ten years ago.

SLAM: How do you find a balance between the classic tradition and look of the Olympics with fresh apparel technology?

TT: To me, I think those are two separate things but also intrinsically linked. There’s an overall aesthetic of the uniform that we work against—and it’s not just only in basketball, it’s really in all of Nike design. What we’re doing is, we’re creating the new modern uniform of sport. I think there’s a real modern aesthetic that we’ve been able to incorporate into these uniforms, and really the entire kit—footwear to the socks to the uniforms themselves to even the warm-ups that the guys are wearing. I’m biased, but I think the biggest story in London will be this team of superstars. It’s a raging debate, and you can make a strong argument that this team will be the greatest team ever assembled. You’ll have Kobe, it’ll probably be his last Olympics, but you’ll have LeBron absolutely in his prime, you’ll have Carmelo in his prime, you’ll have DWade at his peak. The original Dream Team was awesome. These guys are right in their prime. But I would also say the competition they’re going to face is light years above where it’s been in past Olympics. The Gold Medal game in Beijing was arguably the greatest game that no one saw, because it was in the middle of the night. If you ever get a chance to see the tape of that game, it was an amazing basketball game, and we’re excited about what the future holds in London.

SLAM: Does that belief about how special this team is add to the importance of making an impact with the new uniforms and technology?

TT: At Nike, we really look at big moments as a great showcase for our absolute pinnacle innovations. And what’s going to come to light in London won’t be any exception. This is absolutely our state of the art, and what’s great about it is, we’ve kind of been known for footwear—over the course of time we made our mark. This uniform represents state of the art basketball.

SLAM: What would you say to someone who suggests that small tweaks to a basketball jersey can’t possibly affect performance in the way that new advances might help a track and field athlete, for example?

TT: We’ve actually tracked Kobe, and he runs more than four miles in a game, so these guys are running an incredible amount. It just happens to be in 93-foot increments. But it’s back and forth, and just think about the overall course of a game, and how much the guys perspire. Just think about the notion of the weight of the gear that they’re wearing at the beginning of the game, and compare that to the end of the game—now they’ve played an entire game, they want to be carrying around less. Think about how much they’ve sweat. Through the design of these new materials, this product doesn’t absorb sweat. It absorbs it, but not nearly at the rate that the previous uniforms did. Not only is it lighter right off the bat—like, crazy light—but then at the end of the game it’s not going to absorb sweat, so it’s going to be light at the end of the game, when they need that. We try to give our players, on the basketball side but track and field as well, we try to give them a competitive advantage. And we think we can do that though the design of both the footwear and apparel.

SLAM: You mentioned that there’s a special material inside the neckline for when players use their jerseys to wipe away sweat?

TT: Again, just listening, watching, observing the way the players are playing, we actually developed this neat thing, a flocking that we’ve applied to the inside of the uniform. What it’ll do is it’ll literally act like a wiper-blade. It’s just a soft flocking so when the players lift their jerseys up and wipe the sweat off their face, it helps with the moisture management, keeps them a little cooler, and help them perform at their best.

SLAM: How does the process work as far as working with the players to develop new advances in uniform and footwear for the Olympics?

TT: Our cycle really is, we shoot to big International moments every two years. So we’re coming up to the Games in London, and then two years later, we’ll have the World Championships, so we’re working on the next version of this. It’s already underway. The great thing about it is, we’re able not only to take this and put it on the highest level of competition in the International world, but then also if you saw the Nike Elite launch a couple weeks ago for the NCAA, it’s essentially the same uniform. So we’re able to take it and utilize showcases not only on the International stage, but all the great college teams we work with, and also take that down to the high school level that every single kid that plays the game can access.

SLAM: What was the decision like to have LeBron James wear the Lunar Hyperdunk and be the face of the Olympic footwear push, rather than have him wear his own LeBron 9?

TT: Yeah, if you think back to 2008, Kobe was the lead guy for the Hyperdunk in Beijing. So this one, we talked about the triple threat of performance benefits that went into designing this—that’s exactly the way we approached LeBron’s signature shoe. From the outset, we had the goal of having LeBron in the Hyperdunk for the Olympics. Really, the only way for us to do that was design a shoe that was going to work for him. Now, the great thing about that? Well, if we design it for him, we can put anybody in it. Because he puts his own unique twist and spin on it. So we’re excited, LeBron was great to work with on this. It was interesting conversation when we first approached him about wanting to do it, but then when we told him how we were going to approach it, he goes, “Okay, you guys have always been able to do great stuff for me, so I’ll go with you, let’s go get ‘em.” So it’s been great.

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SLAM: Where did the idea come from to bring Nike+ to basketball?

Ricky Engelberg: For me, it’s a really personal thing. I’ve grown up loving basketball always. I grew up in the Penny era in Orlando. And so now, being with Nike for almost a decade—it’s funny, working in digital that whole time, when I got to the Nike+ running launch, the first question I was asked was, “So when are you going to do this for basketball?” And I was like, “You know what, one day we should.” So as we’ve been developing Nike+ running, we’ve seen more and more opportunities emerge. About three years ago, we started to see the technology around pressure sensing really evolve and emerge as this unique opportunity. We started to begin to craft some thinking around, “What could this be? What could a Nike+ basketball experience be like?” We went over a lot of the things we’d done over the years—helping kids get better, looked around the world at how kids play basketball, how they play in Europe, how they play in the U.S. and began to put together this idea of how high, how hard, how quick you could play the game. There’s this great opportunity to really just make every kid on the playground’s dream come true, of understanding what they’re doing, and how to go get after it and become better.

SLAM: Nike+ seems like a natural tool for runners—what are the challenges with bringing it to the basketball court?

RE: I think there weren’t that many challenges in the scheme of things as much as it was unbelievable opportunities, and where to really focus the opportunity. I think for us, obviously, you’re never going to replace points, rebounds and assists. Points, rebounds and assists will be critical components of basketball for the rest of time. What we wanted to find is the game inside the game—the myth of, “Hey, how high did someone jump,” but also just the idea of “Hey, this person’s a gym rat.” How do you begin to actually quantify some of these things that for years and years and years have been unquantified. So one of the things that really excites me about the experience is there’s this opportunity to see things like double jumps. This idea of when you see a great rebounder go up for a rebound and then bounce right back up for it, then saying, you know what, little gold star for you for that. Things like that hustle board really begin to come to life. When we really got into testing on this people went, “You know what, third quarter I did start dragging a bit.” Now you can say, third of fourth quarter, here’s where your jump height was, and now I’m going to go to Nike+ training and do an endurance pack, or a jump pack. So you can begin to improve your game, as well as track your game.

SLAM: What was the initial reaction of some of the athletes who first got to test Nike+ basketball?

RE: One of the most fun days I’ve ever had at Nike was the day we finally got to show this to LeBron. I’ve had the fortune of working with LeBron for a long time, I remember his first visit to campus. LeBron often times in meetings gets incredibly excited about things. We have this funny photo of him hanging on the rim, and you see his head looking at the screen that we had set up that was showing his jump height. Every photo we have is like, “Why is LeBron looking over there? Oh, he’s looking at that screen over there.” He called over his friend Rich and said, “Can you imagine if we had this growing up in Akron?” To see reactions like that have been awesome, for an entire team that worked on this. We have people that love playing basketball, and that idea that the 7 A.M. run or the lunch run, you can go back and say, “Hey, looks like you were cherry-picking the whole time.” The trash talk becomes even more real.

SLAM: What’s next? Can we expect to see Nike+ technology in other basketball models beyond the Hyperdunks?

RE: I think there are endless opportunities for us, and we’re just excited to get Nike+ basketball out there into the world through the Lunar Hyperdunk. I think the opportunity with it is, as people begin to fall in love with it, and fall in love with this idea of measuring their game, they’re not going to want to not have every game on the record, every practice on the record. So those are things that we’ll be figuring out over time. Right now, we’re just incredibly excited to get people introduced to the shoe.