Inside the Design of the Nike LeBron 18

by September 18, 2020
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Nike LeBron 18

One of the many things that LeBron James and Jason Petrie, Senior Footwear Designer at Nike Basketball, have in common is their love for Jay-Z. James’ friendship with Hov goes back to 2003, when they were hanging out at Rucker Park in Harlem together. And Petrie has been fueled by the Lucky Lefty’s lyrics since forever. So Petrie suggests “Who Gon Stop Me” as the song that best describes the Nike LeBron 18. Throw it on and listen to Jay: “I went through hell, I’m expecting heaven.”

“How could you paint that picture?” Petrie asks. “That evolution of LeBron and really of sustained greatness. And I don’t know what that looks like. Getting a window into that… Maybe it’s just a blank page and you just have a little sliver. And when you look into that sliver you see basketball heaven’s in there.”

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Petrie knows all about James’ reign at the top. He was given the reins to the LeBron line with the 7. And he brought the rain, thunder and the lightning with that model. He was the brain behind the first-ever Nike Basketball silhouette with a 360-degree Air Max unit. It was a sneaker that completely redefined the King’s line-up to that point and one that still remains an anchor of his personal Nike history. The 360-degree Air unit was complimented by Flywire cables in the upper and a patent leather toe rand similar to the Air Jordan XI. The seven colorways that came out have become legendary. Ballplayers still wear them on-court to this day, including The King. That was 2009, back when James had only one MVP award. A lot’s changed since then, but the relationship between Petrie and James has remained. One constant of that relationship is LeBron’s desire to play with an Air Max unit in his signature sneakers.

Petrie reintroduced the all-encompassing cushioning with the LeBron 15 in 2017. The 16 and 17 also got the treatment, with some updates. Max Air returns in the 18 and it features one huge innovation: the cushioning is still there, but the heel is composed just a little differently.

“With the 17, we had the two little pods, the Zoom in the forefoot,” Petrie says. “They were very reactive, very pinpoint, and allowed us to be really flexible and carve away a lot of stuff there, a lot of midsole foam, for a very unique and kind of poppy feel for LeBron with those really thick Zoom bags. But what we noticed as we were working through that project was that in the heel bag, when you look through an Airbag and you see that color there, that’s actually foam that’s filling up the inside of the Airbag. It’s a little bit weird to think about. It’s Air but there’s some foam in the middle. Some of our full-length Zoom bags would fit laid right into that cavity. So instead of filling it with foam, you fill it with Zoom. Which is like, ‘Oh my God, that could be unbelievable.’

“So it just came from really spending time on the 17 and being in Asia and being around innovation and having all those Air units around us and working with engineering and development thinking, ‘Oh, we could do this. This system could work.’ Basically what it did was allow us to integrate in a ton more Zoom than was on the 17 in a shoe that’s lighter than the 17. So now you’ve improved transition, you’ve replaced foam, which is a resilient material, with our most responsive material, which is that Zoom. It just gives you back so much more energy. The whole feel of the shoe—even though you’re using the same heel bag as the 17—the entire feel of the shoe is different than it was on the 17 because of that change.”

Petrie mentions that the reason the tooling has been similar on the 15, 16, 17 and 18 is because of how reliable it is and because of how much time it takes to develop. He says that they don’t want to get rid of it just to get rid of it. So they iterate and continue to find ways to improve.

Plus, peep this: between the first season that Petrie brought the Air Max unit out and now, Bron’s averaging 27 points, 9 assists and 8 rebounds on 52 percent shooting. Those might look like standard LeBron stats. But he’s upped all of those numbers across the board compared to his first 14 seasons in the League, and he had about 50,000 minutes on his legs by the time he laced up the 15. That’s Sinatra at the opera.

That cushioning is helping him play better, straight up. Can’t knock the hustle.

“LeBron’s the main driver,” Petrie says. “He gives you those north stars that you go and get, that day-to-day inspiration, after he provides, ‘Oh man, I need to be all about Max Air.’ And you’re like, ‘Alright, shit, we’ve gotta find some kind of new thing of Max Air that works for him. Now we’ve gotta work with the entire Nike armada, NXT, everybody, to try to figure this out for him.’”

Petrie has been the face of the LeBron line on the Nike side for over a decade now. But he doesn’t do any of this alone. The “armada” he brings up comes in the form of designers, engineers and marketing experts. Like Hov said, “Recruited lieutenants with ludicrous dreams of getting cream.”

“We’ve got a lot of creative people,” he says. “Nike, in general, but [with] Basketball you’ve got Ben [Nethongkome] working on Kyrie stuff and he’s always doing something new and crazy and Ross [Klein] doing his thing. We’ve had so many greats come through. Your game gets elevated and we work as a group. So a lot of stuff floats around. Maybe you talked about it two years ago and somebody else picks it up, makes it better, runs with it.

“Our NXT and Advance teams and Air research and product research and Innovation are coming up with stuff all the time,” he continues. “So when you give them something to go after like that—LeBron loves Air Max, he wants to be in Air Max—how can we make something that’s lower to the ground? And that’s what can take some time. They go after it. They test it. They try it with six flex grooves, with 20 flex grooves. You know, everything. And we work together as you go through that process knowing that it’s way out. And when they start getting something that’s like, ‘OK, we can kinda make this work, we might be able to integrate this in, you know, Holiday ’25 or whatever.’ Then it’s like, ‘OK, now how can we start working a shoe around that?’”

Because the entire Nike Basketball team works at least 18 months out on products, some ideas can take up to three years to fully finish. The final touches on all of these projects are earned by many, many people, both in the States and abroad. Though Petrie, and eventually LeBron, get to approve the sneakers, they run through the hands of countless people who all have a role to play in the development stages.

Another part of the relationship between James and Petrie that hasn’t changed after all this time is the way they react to seeing progress made on a new model.

“I get happy like a kid,” Petrie says with a big laugh. “I’ll curse or something, like, ‘Ohhh shittt! That’s gonna be crazy!’ Or sometimes it’s just a wide grin. They’ll be telling me something and I just start smiling. I know we must be doing something right because I literally get like a little kid. And LeBron does the same thing, which is, like, really one of the most incredible rewards of the job is being able to put something in front of him and have him react like that and take pictures and be excited. It’s really cool.”

The knit that covers the upper of the newest LeBron sneaker elicited that kind of reaction. Petrie says it’s a combination of all the knits that have been seen on the 15, 16 and 17. The protection aspect from the 15, the high-tenacity yarns from the 16 and the TPU yarns that got heated on the 17 served as the foundation. They took what they learned from those three BattleKnit uppers and adapted it to make it sleeker and faster. Petrie says that it feels like armor-skin.

“Roberto and Jose Luis, they were two gentlemen that worked with us on [the knit],” he continues. “They’re with us all the time so they’re kind of thinking about the same things. And they come back with a bevy of stuff. ‘We could do this, we could do this, we could do this.’ And as Roberto and Jose Luis started laying these elements together, it was like, ‘Oh shit, OK, that’s the stack.’ We started to get a really strong, really thin [knit] and from the get-go, the thing I hung on was the way the TPU knit felt when you scratched your fingers on it. And the way it looked. It looked so intricate.”

The complexity of the yarns is extended into a Flywire cable system. The knit works with the Flywire to secure the whole ride, which goes back into the “skin” feel that Petrie mentioned. It wraps around the whole foot.

“We just basically took the best bits of every knit to form this ultimate version of BattleKnit for LeBron,” he says.

The 18’s split-construction is a callout to the mixture of speed and power the King still plays with, even after all this time. That kind of talk is only reserved for the bosses.

“That’s where lightning strikes and it cracks open Pandora’s box, but in a good way. It allows us to get a witness to these insane things that LeBron can pull off. The chasedown block and even these things that he’s doing off-court. This ain’t a quick lightning strike,” Petrie says about James’ career. “This is what he does. It’s just him. That’s another thing that makes it special. Sure, every now and then an athlete will put that combination together for a great game, maybe even a great season. But LeBron’s done it, really, for people’s lifetimes.”

Never change. This is James every day.

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