When Nike signed LeBron James to an unprecedented seven year $90 million dollar shoe deal right out of high school, it was still unknown if the young phenom would live up to his off the charts potential on the NBA hardwood. It didn’t take very long at all to see that LeBron was the real deal and not only a rare talent, but a new breed of bigger, stronger, faster NBA star, the likes of which the league had never seen before. We’ve come to a point that sports fans and TV analysts are no longer looking for someone to be “the next Jordan”, and while we’ve come to accept that there will never be another MJ, in the sneaker world, everyone still wondered if another athlete could ever come close to claiming a signature shoe line to rival the Air Jordan franchise.
With Jordan’s playing career in the rearview, Nike had some impossible shoes to fill, but if ever there was the right combination of ingredients to give it a go, LeBron appeared to have it. He was already a marketable star before playing his first professional game and sneaker consumers badly wanted his shoes to live up to their own respective hype and provide that spark of hope that a fresh new face would be able to carry an enticing signature line well into the days ahead. Starting with the well-received Air Zoom Generation, top Nike designers like Aaron Cooper, Ken Link and others crafted six years worth of worthy efforts that made their fair share of noise in the sneaker world and sold a good amount of shoes in the process.
But with all its success, in the overall scope, those first six shoes never really came anywhere close to rivaling the Air Jordan lineage in the hearts and wallets of the people. Those years provided some very good LeBron models and memorable ad campaigns, but most fell short of the level of mass appeal required to ever legitimately challenge the throne. At the root of the issue was the fact that the shoes were built for a player with such a massive powerful frame, that to properly protect LeBron’s feet and ankles, a lot of his early signature models seemed a bit bulkier and heavier than your typical Air Jordan silhouette. Their cushioning and foot protection made them a popular choice for the court, but the crossover into street-wearability was a little slower to catch on.
Then, with one shoe, the Nike LeBron series and the way people thought about it was drastically changed forever. The shoe was the Air Max LeBron VII and the young designer responsible for creating it turned out to be a story that somewhat paralleled LeBron’s own. While not quite as unproven of a commodity as LeBron was, Nike took a bold roll of the dice by placing such a large responsibility in up and coming designer, Jason Petrie’s hands. Prior to the VII, Jason had already been with the Swoosh for a few years and had a solid resume of Nike Basketball models under his belt, but he had never been assigned to be the lead designer on anything as prestigious or high profile as the yearly LeBron James signature shoe.
Nike saw something in Jason Petrie and his design sensibilities, and that decision to place LeBron’s seventh shoe in his hands has been paying off ever since. When Jason took over the LeBron design duties, he took the line in a new direction that instantly resonated with sneaker enthusiasts. Equipped with a progressive approach to structural problem solving and the technical know-how to execute those concepts effectively, Petrie possessed all the teachable tools needed to be a successful designer, but it was his more intangible sense of style and an understanding of what the sneaker-buying public wanted from a LeBron shoe that took the LeBron VII and the shoes that have followed to the lofty heights of desirability that they were always expected to reach.
Now five shoes deep, we’re taking a look back at a half-decade of Jason Petrie-designed Nike LeBron models and how they’ve evolved over that span. Unlike many of his elder contemporaries, Jason grew up on the classics and understands the fanatical passion for sneakers from the consumer side as well. Now that he can say he’s created some classics of his own, he’d likely be the first to admit that he owes much of his success to being an observant student of all the great shoes and designers that came before him. Only time will tell how high the ceiling is for the eventual legacy of the Nike LeBron line, but it’s undeniable that its astonishing ascent in recent years can most directly be attributed back to Petrie’s design heroics and the fateful decision to place the brand’s most revered signature franchise in his hands in the first place.