KICKS 11: You Know Who

It’s been nearly a month since we started this rundown, and now we’re caught up. Behold KICKS 11, the last “archive” we’ve got. The brand-new KICKS 12 cover will go live before the end of the week and hit newsstands this weekend.

As for this issue, it was only a year ago that Nike and LeBron gave us the exclusive opportunity to photograph and discuss LeBron’s new shoe. A short period of time, sure, but given what a media extravaganza this year’s launch was, this feature story seems sort of quaint. It was also a big moment for KICKS, because while Nike had usually given us LeBron’s shoe (typically shown to media in August and released to public in October) to show in KICKS, we’d never been given the chance to really focus on it and blow it up the way it should be. This was our chance, and in Ryan Jones, we had just the writer for the job.—Ben Osborne

by Ryan Jones

LeBron James is not the sort to be intimidated by new experiences. He showed it on Draft night five years ago, coolly striding on stage to grab David Stern’s hand, smile gleaming like his white-on-white suit. He’s shown it on Saturday Night Live and the ESPYs, rocking silly costumes and shamelessly dancing his ass off. And most important, he’s shown it over and over on the court: 25 points in his NBA debut, a triple-double in his first Playoff game. The list goes on. No matter how unfamiliar the challenge, he simply seems incapable of being shook.

We have all this in mind when LeBron walks into a ballroom at the Radisson in downtown Akron, loose and cracking jokes as always, oozing the surplus confidence that is as much a trademark as his pregame powder routine and drop-the-hammer dunks. He’s here for a photo shoot and interview to document the upcoming (10/31/08) release of the Zoom LeBron VI, and as expected, the session provides further reminders of his boundless self-assurance. But one moment goes against type. One brief exchange, in the midst of an otherwise innocuous Q&A, gets LeBron James to cop to something like fear.

KICKS: Five years in, how involved are you in the design process?
LJ: I’m more involved, because I’m more comfortable with the business. I’m more comfortable saying, “I don’t like that” or “I do like this.”

KICKS: Was that intimidating initially?
LJ: Oh, absolutely. I was 18 years old, trying to tell guys that’ve been doing their jobs forever, saying “I don’t like this.” It was definitely a challenge for me to get to a point where I could say, “I’m not liking the way that’s going.”

KICKS 11 Cover; Lebron James, 2008. OK, so maybe “fear” is an overstatement, but still, it’s worth noting—when was the last time you heard LeBron admit to being intimidated by anything? But just as five years was way too long a wait to get him on the cover of this magazine (honest, we tried), it’s been more than enough time for Bron to get over any trepidation he might’ve had about holding his own in Nike’s legendary design shop. If he didn’t fully understand it as an 18-year-old phenom, he certainly knows it now: These are his shoes, and his input isn’t just encouraged—it’s essential. With the Zoom LeBron VI, that input is readily apparent.

We’ve come to Akron because it’s LeBron’s hometown, of course, but there’s more to it than that. The high school kid who talked about putting Akron on the map is now the superstar who keeps Akron on the map, basing his charity operations here and bringing 80 of the nation’s best prep ballers to town each July for the Nike LeBron James Skills Academy—held, not coincidentally, at the University of Akron, where his old high school coach, Keith Dambrot, now heads up the Zips program. This year’s camp provided the perfect time and place to link up and talk kicks, and for LeBron to get back to the roots he never really left.

The idea of returning to roots provides a smooth transition into any discussion of the VI. The sixth incarnation of LeBron’s signature line is easily the most accessible since the first—and as both the shoe’s senior designer and the signature himself will tell you, that’s no accident. “We want to make performance footwear live in the real world,” says Ken Link, lead designer of LeBron’s line. “The first five years were really about setting the benchmark, about excellence in the product. Now we’re starting to open up the arms and inviting more people to be a part of it.”

LeBron, as is his style, puts it more directly: “We always talk about how people buy shoes for offcourt first. I think the Is were offcourt friendly, and we finally got back to it with the VI.”

KICKS 11 Feature; LeBron James. Let the words echo what the photos show: The VI is easily the cleanest, least-adorned LeBron shoe since the Air Zoom Generation (aka the “I”) dropped back in 2003. Without question, Link and Co. have succeeded in establishing a distinctive and often groundbreaking signature line, all while maintaining the performance necessary to meet the uniquely demanding standards of LeBron’s game. But in the five years since the debut of the Zoom Generation—which immediately and agreeably answered the all-important question, “But can you rock ’em with jeans?”—subsequent shoes have leaned more toward performance and LeBron’s personal taste than that of the average couch-bound consumer who gets most of his “run” at the mall.

With the VI, Nike and LeBron are leaning the other way. “Technology is expected from Nike, so we don’t have to scream it as much,” says Link. “In the past, we wanted to scream about that. Now we feel we can pull back a little bit.”

The result? Gone are the utilitarian straps that dominated the II and the V, the multi-textured sleekness of the III, and the audacious rebirth of Foamposite that defined the IV. Instead, the Zoom LeBron VI keeps it simple on the outside—clean lines and a mostly unadorned profile, the better to rock with some crisp denim—while focusing as intently as ever on the shoe’s heart and guts. Says Link, “We’re gonna get a lot simpler design-wise, but it’ll still be all about performance. We just want to open performance back up to the rest of the world that just loves basketball.” Even if, he might’ve added, they don’t actually spend much time on the court.

On the tech front, the priority remains the same as it has with all of LeBron’s joints: accommodating “the culmination of speed and power”—a phrase Link and his design team repeat like a mantra—that defines LeBron’s game. The challenge of creating a shoe for a 6-8, 250-pounder with running back quickness is a substantial one, and it’s always on Link’s mind. In Akron, he watches intently as LeBron runs pickup with homie Chris Paul and a crew of top college players; clearly, you don’t get to design signature shoes for iconic superstars without being at least a little bit obsessed with the subtleties of their game.

With the VI, Link emphasizes two design elements, both of which are geared toward comfort and performance. One is the continuation of the fit sleeve, featured in the Zoom IV and V among others, that aims to find the balance between cozy and constricting. Link refers to a “dual layer of lockdown and comfort” that makes the VI “probably the most comfortable LeBron we’ve done,” while still capable of holding up to intense on court stress.

The other tech touch is a bit of a throwback: a reintroduction of the cup sole, the same comparatively low-tech support mechanism that has helped the Air Force 1 remain a standard for damn near three decades. Why would Nike choose such a retro approach for such a next-level player? Simple: It works. “Lateral motion on the cup soles is unsurpassed, so we took the best of that and applied it here,” Link says. “It’s the same reason we chose Posit for him with the IV—anything to help maximize that combination speed and power.”

All of which is vital for LeBron and for the ballplaying consumer who appreciates the high-level performance rep that his signature line has established. But let’s get back to aesthetics. The VI’s accessibility could be seen as a half-step backward in a line that’s already seen some progressive visual statements. Link in particular has said that many of LeBron’s previous shoes were specifically designed not to be for everyone. So how to explain the VI? Think of it as going bold by not going bold. Or, try this election-year metaphor: Think of the VI as an Obama-esque move toward middle ground—a pragmatic choice from a proven groundbreaker focused on reaching the broadest possible audience.

Part of that for-the-people approach comes from LeBron’s own decision-making style. On the court, he’s the undeniable team leader who thrives on getting teammates involved. Those who know him understand he’s much the same way off the court, surrounding himself with friends and advisors, always up front but always rolling deep. In both cases, group input is vital, and victory is collective. “We stay coming up with ideas,” LeBron says.

Reference points are always an issue with signature sleds, and from the hints of Humvee inspiration on the Air Zoom Generation to the “milkcrate” technology featured on the V, that truth has applied to LeBron from the get. With the VI, though, those references have been dialed back a bit; they seem less specific and more about a general look and feel. “He talks a lot about his previous shoes and about what he and his buddies have worn,” says Yuron White, the footwear product director for LeBron’s line. “He talks about what he likes about them, what he doesn’t and what he’d change if he could.”

With five of his own signature joints to look back on (not to mention low-top versions of the same, the memorable 20-5-5 and a couple generations of Soldiers), recalling the strengths and weaknesses of his own product provides LeBron with ample inspiration: “I do reference my past shoes and other people’s shoes also—you know, what to take from that, or what to stay away from.” It’s a matter of taste, of course, about which LeBron is typically blunt. “You can tell the difference between a nasty-looking shoe and a good-looking shoe.”

It’s a cool bit of irony that the visual simplicity of the VI leaves room for some potential colorway creativity down the road. Not unlike the AF1, the ultimate blank sneaker canvas for an endless combination of colors, both the VI and LeBron’s fearless style sense (don’t act like you don’t remember those jackets he rocked during the post-game Playoff press conferences) lend themselves to seemingly infinite options. “This year, he was like, ‘Let’s really blow the color out, do stuff that’s not so oncourt,’” Link says. “It’s like when you see him kind of getting into fashion, sort of pushing the envelope—when they first came out with the dress code, you could kind of see it in his eyes, like ‘I’m OK with this.’ We definitely feel like we can push things farther with LeBron.”

It’s a theme that has applied to his game since we first heard of the skinny kid from Akron. Why not apply it to his shoes?

Back in that hotel ballroom, the photo shoot is wrapping up, and Bron is chilling with a couple members of his extended crew: Brandon Weems, Bron’s “little brother” and former high school teammate who just finished a standout career at NAIA power Walsh University; and Chris Paul, who doesn’t need an introduction in these pages. We’ve got time for a couple more questions, one of which seems obvious: Which of your six signature shoes is your favorite?KICKS 11 Feature; LeBron James.

“I think the first ones will always be my favorite,” Bron says. “Those are going to be classics, of course, because they’re my first shoe—just because it was the beginning of the whole thing, and something I always dreamed of when I was a kid—having a shoe with my name and initials on it. So the first one will always be the best.”

As ever, LeBron wastes no time on false modesty.

Last question, and a chance to have some fun with two of last year’s top-four MVP candidates. It helps that Chris, sitting next to LeBron, isn’t really paying attention.

KICKS: If you couldn’t wear your shoe, whose shoe would you wear—someone who’s out right now?
LJ: If I couldn’t wear my shoes? Um… I’d wear the Hyperdunks. Right now, those are the best shoes out there—beside my shoe.

KICKS: What about any of the Jordan guys? I think Chris Paul has a shoe.
LJ: Chris Paul’s shoes? Nah, I wouldn’t wear those shoes. I mean, I’d wear them because that’s my friend, but not because they look good.

CP: What’d he say? I wasn’t listening. Is he saying some sh—
LJ: Nah, I was talking about when we went to the prom our senior year, we wasn’t looking good because our suits was cheap.

CP: Oh, for real?
LJ: Yeah—and our shoes, too.

LeBron stays coming up with jokes, too. Five years and six shoes in, what’s not to smile about?