by Russ Bengtson (@russbengtson)

Of all the places I’d expect to be at 10 on a December morning—still in bed, sitting bleary-eyed in front of my computer, waiting bleary-eyed in line at Starbucks, waiting bleary-eyed in line at Best Buy, or perhaps still in bed—courtside at Venice Beach didn’t even rank in the top 4,593. Yet here I was, rubbing the sleep from my eyes and the lint from my camera lens, listening to local announcer/heckler “Mouthpiece” hype up the Venice locals. It was a beautiful, sunny, Southern California morning—all the more surprising after a dreary, rainy, cold Southern California evening—but I’m not sure whether any of us, players or journalists or Nike reps, were fully awake yet. Well, except for Mouthpiece. He was plenty lively for all of us.

The whole reason I was in California in the first place was for the official release of the Zoom Kobe V. As Ben was committed to a prior engagement, and I’ve had much prior experience both with shoes and with Kobe (I believe Ryan is on a watch list of some kind), I was selected to represent the SLAM fam in So Cal. All I knew before I embarked on the Gang Starr (JFK to LAX, what) flight was that we were staying Santa Monica, would take bus rides to various locales including Venice Beach, the Forum and the Staples Center, and would no doubt receive enough information on the new Kobe V to be able to make a pair myself out of common household materials. What I’m trying to say is that they had me at hello.

Anyway, back to Venice. I didn’t mean to imply I had a problem with being on the Venice Beach courts in the morning. For starters, I love West Coast time. In fact, I love it so much that I try to stay on it at all times, despite the fact that I live in New York. It sounds much better to say “yeah, I woke up at 9 a.m. L.A. time” than “I got up at noon.” Plus, ever since that scene in “White Men Can’t Jump” where Woody Harrelson pillowed himself on a basketball under the hoop and woke up to a fiercely fought game going on right over his head, I’d wondered what a morning in Venice would be like. Now I knew. The only tragedy was that lunch would be at a place called “Gjelina” (no doubt named for Angelina Jolie and her new secret boyfriend Gjeff) and not Sizzler.

Venice Beach throwdownI’ve gotten in the habit of bringing my old Canon AE-1 on any trip I go on, and shooting as much black-and-white as possible. Here you can see the fruit of my labors—a from-the-corner shot of Kobe’s commercial stand-in throwing down a mean two-handed dunk on the baseline. He wasn’t the best player on the court that morning—that honor would go to streetball legend Bone Collector, who added a few more fibia and tibia to his collection despite the early hour, getting to the basket with ease and, if it wasn’t obvious enough, exclaiming about how easy it was each and every time. Cue Flight and Willie.

Forum ClubBut rather than get bogged down in the minutia—I should save some things for the magazine—let’s jump forward to the introduction of the actual shoe. We were bussed over (no pun intended) to the L.A. Forum aka The Great Western Forum aka The Fabulous Forum aka The House That Jack Kent Cooke Built And The Faithful Central Bible Church Bought. From the bus, we were escorted straight to the legendary Forum Club, which, if it could speak, would probably be pleading for copious amounts of industrial cleaners. Frequented over the years by the notorious likes of Jack Nicholson, Wilt Chamberlain and Magic Johnson, it’s a wonder that the Faithful Central Bible Church folk didn’t immediately have it torn out and burned, or at least boarded shut. There, we were plied by a lamarodious post-lunch spread of candy and other foodstuffs, including some caper-topped deviled eggs that may very well have been left over from the ’87 Finals. The walls were covered in framed action shots of giant Lakers past, from Wilt and West to Cap and Magic. No Mike Smrek, though. I checked quite thoroughly.

Eventually, we were escorted out into the Forum bowl itself, where championships were won, records were set, and the 1981 NHL All-Star Game took place. Some of us first noticed the court, which while flanked with regulation NBA baskets, was half covered with real grass and just white-lined like a basketball court (ideally, you’d want to shoot on that basket in the FIRST half). Others’ eyes were drawn skyward, where they were flabbergasted to see exactly zero luxury boxes. To the modern basketball fan, this was like seeing peach baskets instead of breakaway rims, making it doubly hard to believe that the Lakers played in the archaic facility until 2001.

Kobe on grassWhen we were finished ogling all there was to ogle, we took seats on office chairs set on the hardwood and waited. This wasn’t all bad, as the DJ was spinning Lil Wayne, and it’s been proven scientifically that waiting is much more palatable when Lil Wayne is involved. The DMV should look into that. Finally, the lights went down, a short introductory video played, and Kobe Bryant himself emerged from behind the video screens. (Again, I was hoping for Mike Smrek, and again, my hopes were dashed.)

Rather than recap exactly what was said by head designer Eric Avar, researcher Matt Nurse and basketball player Kobe Bryant—although I’ll eventually touch on several of these things—allow me to give my own impressions of the Zoom Kobe V first: What I appreciated most of all was the consistency from the IV to the V. All too often, a company will design a distinctive signature shoe, come up with all sorts of highly technical explanations as to why detail X or midsole Y or criss-crossing Velcro support strap Z is the penultimate development in basketball shoe design, and how everything you thought you knew was wrong. Then, the following year, they produce something entirely different for the same player and try to sell you the same bill of goods regarding a completely different set of design elements.

This isn’t what happened with the Zoom Kobe V. The Zoom Kobe IV was low, the Zoom Kobe V is lower. The Zoom Kobe IV was light, the Zoom Kobe V is lighter (10.6 ounces in a men’s size 9, Nike’s lightest basketball shoe to date). It represents a refinement rather than a complete re-think, which makes sense. The way Avar tells it, Kobe asked for “the lowest and lightest basketball shoe ever.” And seeing that Avar was already interested in achieving much the same goal, it wasn’t hard to get started.

Zoom Kobe VThe design inspiration was the modern soccer boot, hence the grass half of the court. Kobe’s long been a fan of the beautiful game and a fan (and friend) of Ronaldinho, so it makes sense that this thought would have struck him while watching Barca. Soccer players (pardon the American term, but it makes things easier) pivot and cut as often and suddenly as basketball players, in cleated boots, no less, and they don’t feel the need to wear clunky high-tops. Why should basketball players?

Revolutionary as this thought was, this isn’t the first time a Nike athlete has gotten a signature shoe based on a product designed for another sport. Jason Kidd’s Zoom Flight V, which is still being worn by Nets forward Chris Douglas-Roberts, was designed after a track spike. But the Zoom Flight V was still recognizable as a basketball shoe. The Zoom Kobe V takes things a step further.

As Nurse points out during the presentation, you can’t make a low-top basketball shoe by simply cutting off the ankle collar of a hightop. (Which didn’t stop companies like Nike from doing exactly that for decades, but I digress.) You have to start from scratch. Fortunately, for years they’d been working on design elements that would allow for a low-cut basketball shoe. There was the low-profile cushioning afforded by Zoom Air, forefoot outriggers to prevent rollover, and the lightweight suspension-bridge like support provided by Flywire. A proprietary TPU material developed exclusively for this shoe allowed the pliable one-piece upper to be half the thickness and half the weight of the Kobe IVs Flywire panels. Leather was done away with entirely, as were stitches. Fewer pieces, fewer problems. Additional support and structure is provided where it’s needed (the toecap and the eyestays) by lightweight heat-applied overlays, not stitched-on pieces of leather. Even the outsole is lightened as much as possible, with the heel decoupled (i.e. split) to allow for a smoother footstrike and more stable base.

Listening to Kobe speak, one gets the feeling that this is the shoe he’d been waiting for all along, or at least what he wanted when he first broached the idea of a high-performance lowcut. It’s a basketball shoe designed like a runner—all that isn’t necessary has been stripped away. “You lose seconds,” Kobe says of unnecessary weight. “That’s one of the things I stressed to them—I don’t want to lose those seconds.”

Kobe CodeFortunately, even with all the stripping away, there’s room for Nike’s traditional detailing. There’s a morse/Braille like “Kobe Code” (not to be confused with “Tha G-Code”) on the forefoot outsole; hints to its translation will crop up over the course of the season. The herringbonesque outsole pattern is based on an EKG (as Avar says, at one of the brainstorming sessions, “[Kobe] just wrote ‘heart’ on [a piece of paper] and slid it across the table.”). There’s the Kobe “sheath” logo on the tongue and outsole, and his signature on the exposed heel counter. Plus, on the ID versions of the shoe (which you can design now and order starting on Christmas day), there are four different patterns for the upper that reflect back on a different element of Kobe’s persona.

But hold on a second, you long-winded moron, how does it play?

Ah yes, that. Well, we had to leave something for Part East, didn’t we?

To be continued.