by Adam Figman / @afigman
It’s a tough question: How do you take something that’s great, something that a lot of people care about, something that isn’t necessarily yours, and make it…even better?
This was the dilemma Jon Morris faced in late-1994, when he was tasked with designing the Reebok Kamikaze II, the second sneaker in then-Seattle SuperSonics star Shawn Kemp’s signature line that was to be released for the ’95-96 NBA season. “That’s the hardest thing to do as a designer,” Morris says now. “How do you figure out how to update something that’s really different and cool? It was intimidating because I really respected [the Kamikaze I], and I said, How do I do something like that? I don’t wanna mess it up.”
But it’s a mission Morris and the folks at Reebok accomplished, and they did so at such a high level that over the course of 2013, all these years later, Reebok has been re-releasing retro versions of the kicks to the delight of sneakerheads across the world.
“The [Kamikaze I] had these interlocking triangular shapes,” Morris says, “so the direction was like, ‘You need to take it to the next level.’” His bosses told him they wanted a sneaker with a design that connected the kicks’ upper with its midsole, so Morris put together a couple of rough sketches, laying out the now-iconic zig-zag arrangement. And that was it all it took; the Reebok overlords were almost entirely content with Morris’ original ideas immediately. “That usually doesn’t happen,” he laughs.
The seemingly lightning bolt-influenced look is a standout amidst a group of edgy, bold sneakers released by Reebok in the mid-’90s. At the time, this was the brand’s M.O., to turn heads with kicks that could be loved or hated, but couldn’t be ignored. “A lot of the players, they would tease me, because the shoes were loud,” Kemp told us. “I was fine with that. The shoes were loud, and at that particular time I had a very loud game.”
“If it doesn’t create a passionate response—if somebody says, ‘Oh, it’s nice, but it’s forgettable’—you haven’t really done your job as a designer,” Morris adds. Oddly enough, Morris had entered the basketball realm only shortly before working on the Kamikaze II; previously, he had sketched out a heavily cushioned shoe that then-CEO Paul Fireman unexpectedly decided to use for Shaq—it became the Shaqnosis—after which Morris offered to lend his services to other hoops products. Beyond the Shaqnosis and Kamikaze IIs, Morris worked mostly on tennis and outdoor sneakers.
Kemp had worn Nikes early in his career, but after about a half-decade with the Swoosh he signed with Reebok, initially attracted to the Canton, MA-based company’s Above The Rim campaign. (To say Kemp spent the mid-’90s playing “above the rim” would be an understatement for the ages.) He wore Reebok Pumps and Above The Rims, then was gifted his first sig, the Kamikaze I in ’94. The 6-10 power forward didn’t accept the original iteration of the Kamikaze I—too basic, he said—so he sent the designers back to the drawing board, and they returned with a brash sneaker that perfectly matched Kemp’s bombastic style of play.
“I thought [my Reebok deal] fit like a hand in a glove, a perfect situation for myself, just because of my game and what I was doing on the basketball court at the time,” Kemp says. “And then Reebok did the greatest thing in the world for me, which was to lower the price. That was the one thing I asked when I got involved with them—just to keep an eye on the price and they’ve done that. They’ve done pretty much what I’ve asked them to do.”
Kemp wore the Kamikaze IIs during ’95-96, when the high-flyer averaged 19.6 points, a career-high 11.4 rebounds and countless in-your-face highlights per game. He notoriously sported a white/navy colorway of the kicks at the ’96 All-Star Game in San Antonio, a tilt he started and in which he dropped 13 points, grabbed 4 boards and threw down a few sick dunks. Photos of said throw-downs will dominate Google Image searches forever.
The Kamikaze IIs were initially reissued in a white/black/green colorway this past January—retailing for $100, a price that pleases Kemp—and a variety of releases (ranging from those you can cop at your local Foot Locker to some uber-exclusive drops that might require waiting on a block-long line or a hook up from a solid connect) have trickled out over the past few months. And if you’ve been paying attention to the feet of a select few NBA players, you’ve probably noticed they’ve been making their way into the League, too.
Newly made Brooklyn Net Jason Terry, Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas and now-Suns swingman Gerald Green all donned them on NBA floors during ’12-13, with Thomas rocking his during the Rising Stars Challenge and Green slipping his on for the Dunk Contest. “They feel really good on the feet,” Green told us at a Reebok photo shoot during All-Star Weekend this past February. “I would say that these are the most comfortable shoes from Reebok that I’ve worn—and I’ve worn the Pumps, the Questions, [and] the S. Dots back in the day when Jay-Z had them. And I’ve always worn the Reebok Classics. But these right here for basketball apparel, they’re comfortable and they’re light.”
That’s not a coincidence, either. “The difference between the [re-released version] and the ones I wore is the new shoes are a little lighter,” Kemp explains. “That’s the biggest adjustment with any shoes that are made now [in comparison with sneakers from] the ’90s. Reebok’s done a great job making that transformation. It’s a little lighter, and I think that’s why some of the guys are still willing to play basketball in them.”
Thomas, for one, says he can’t get enough of them. “They’re probably my most comfortable basketball shoes,” he says. “People always say to me, ‘Where’d you get those? Can I get a pair?’ I can wear them when I work out, then put on another pair and wear them with jeans later in the day.”
The 5-9 PG was raised in Washington, worshipping the likes of Kemp and Gary Payton. “They were the guys you wanted to be—the Reign Man and the Glove,” says Thomas, who is spending this summer working on his game back home. “If you were playing basketball, at least somebody was wearing them, because everybody wanted to be Shawn Kemp. I didn’t have a pair of Kamikazes, but I wanted them. Back then I wished I got a pair.”
Luckily enough for IT, he would wind up becoming an actual, real-life friend of Kemp’s. As the story goes, the SuperSonics legend was in the building during a game in Seattle not long after Thomas, then just a high school player who was known to blow past a defender or three, had a few consecutive high-scoring games and began making some serious noise. Someone passed word to Kemp that he’s gotta meet the kid from Tacoma, WA, who was thoroughly tearing up any and all competition, so Kemp went and introduced himself.
Naturally, the then-teenage Thomas was floored: “It was surreal,” he says. “[Kemp] knew of me and I knew of him, but I wanted to meet him way more than he wanted to meet me. But he knew who I was—that was crazy. It hasn’t hit me yet that I’m really a friend of Shawn Kemp’s.”
The connection has made Thomas a logical Reebok endorsee. The Kamikaze IIs, though, have caught fire to the degree that they’re being repped by some celebs who aren’t aligned with any specific brand. The sleds have already been spotted on the likes of Jay-Z, Rihanna, Fabolous and DJ Khaled, and every day it seems a different celebrity pops up on a sneaker site with their feet harnessing the iconic zig-zags.
There should be plenty more of that still to come, too, given the planned upcoming releases. A “Sonics” colorway drops on August 16; a colorway titled “Letter of Intent” will drop on August 30; and a colorway titled “Nocturnal” will drop on November 26. They’ll all maintain the $100 price point.
“I’m pretty proud of that shoe because it still holds up, design-wise,” Morris says. “It’s definitely iconic, and it’s a good representation of what Reebok was. We had really aggressive shoes. Reebok was on fire—it was very bold, fresh, definitely different. It just worked, you know?”
And Shawn Kemp, as you would imagine, is pretty damn proud as well. In fact, Kemp tells us that these days, when he laces ’em up—which, believe it or not, he does often; as we spoke with him he was in the midst of training (!) in preparation for a basketball tournament he’d be hosting and playing in the following weekend—he solely rocks Reeboks, usually going with one of his signature joints. “I don’t go out on the court without playing in Reeboks these days—I will not do it. I was going to the airport the other day, and I went out of my way to go over and say something to this guy because he had the shoes on,” Kemp says with a hearty chuckle. “He couldn’t believe it was me—he was like, ‘Oh, my!’ It’s definitely a good feeling. I go out of my way just to tell people thanks for wearing the shoe.”