Nike LeBrons: Five Years into the Petrie Era
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.
EVOLUTION OF THE JASON PETRIE NIKE LEBRON ERA
When Jason Petrie took over with the Air Max LeBron VII, King James was on top of the world, still playing for his hometown Cleveland Cavs and generally beloved, respected and revered by the basketball watching and sneaker consuming masses alike. The VII was a gamechanger for the series and instantly made a statement that the Nike LeBron line was capable of things we’d never imagined. Once it was unveiled, people were immediately talking about LeBron’s shoes in a different way and it didn’t take long before each new release was hanging with the best of the Saturday morning release day heavyweights. Everyone loved the shoes, everyone loved LeBron, everything was good in the land.
Now, fast forward to that offseason, when we were all witnesses to LeBron’s fateful “decision” to leave his home state and team for the lush surroundings and star-stacked roster of South Beach and the Miami Heat. Literally overnight, LeBron went from the NBA’s golden boy to its biggest villain, a development that understandably had to concern Nike about a potential dip in his ability to sell shoes. Lucky for them, it was Jason Petrie to the rescue once again with the LeBron 8. With the tough act of the VII to follow, the shoe was initially met with a mixed reception, but the “South Beach” colorway
soon came along and gave it a kickstart that instantaneously set things back on course for the LeBron franchise and made it clear that even people who didn’t like LeBron as much as they did a year ago were still going to buy his shoes regardless.
Like the 8, the LeBron 9 took a little while to gather steam, but eventually surged in popularity before being one-upped by the next level Elite edition that was introduced around Playoff time. James finally captured his first championship in that shoe, so by the time his tenth signature model came along, there was plenty to celebrate. The diamond-inspired LeBron X upped the ante with a 360 Zoom Air bag and integrated Nike+ technology, and once again eventually evolved into an Elite Series version that LeBron would wear en route to his second straight NBA title. Now back in the good graces of the people and without the haunting void of ringless fingers, LeBron’s eleventh shoe will soon be upon us and you can bet there will be some crazy colorways and special releases on the way to send the sneaker game into a frenzy. In the meantime, take a look back with us at the first five shoes of the Jason Petrie era and how they’ve evolved from one to the next.
NIKE AIR MAX LEBRON VII (2009)
The Air Max LeBron VII changed the game for the LeBron line with the introduction of Jason Petrie at the helm and a brand new approach to LeBron’s yearly signature model. Equipped with a heavily Flywire-infused upper and a full length visible Air Max unit, the VII provided a sleeker and more widely accessible silhouette that changed perceptions of the Nike LeBron line and helped it to start skyrocketing in popularity in the process.
NIKE LEBRON 8 (2010)
The LeBron 8 broke new ground by releasing in three different versions over the course of the season, each with different benefits in mind and different technologies in place – from the sturdy and luxurious leather/nubuck of the V1, to the lighter Flywire-laced composite shell of the V2, and finally the ultra-breathable Hyperfuse layered upper of the Post Season installment.
NIKE LEBRON 9 (2011)
The LeBron 9 brought the ankle and tongue heights to their peak and combined them with carbon fiber-inspired weaving, asymmetric design elements, and a Max/Zoom combo sole for one of the most unorthodox, and intriguing Nike Basketball offerings ever.
NIKE LEBRON X (2012)
Jason Petrie and company pulled out all the stops for LeBron’s tenth signature Nike shoe with a combination of Dynamic Flywire and Hyperfuse construction on the upper and a specially designed 360 visible Zoom Air bag underneath, all while incorporating the diamond theme throughout the shoe’s structural and cosmetic design, as well as with the various gem-inspired colorways. If that wasn’t enough, the X also offered integrated Nike+ technology with all sorts of interactive methods of tracking and measuring your personal performance in the shoe.
NIKE LEBRON XI (2013)
The LeBron XI takes the series into the future in terms of both its angled modern design and the introduction of Armorposite, a lighter foam material that provides added protection for LeBron and gives the shoe a next level look in the process.
With each new signature shoe, designers attempt to convey certain storytelling elements with colors, special details and especially branding. In the case of the Nike LeBron line, an even greater amount of subtext can be read into the logos and personal touches to bring LeBron’s triumphant saga to life. The LeBron VII was the first and only Petrie designed shoe to be worn by LeBron as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the last to feature his classic L23 logo. Following that season, the eventual “decision” left Nike unsure about where LeBron would be playing and what number he’d be wearing next season, so the LeBron 8 was created with no real LeBron logo, instead using the King James lion graphic on the tongue and his signature on the heel to provide the requisite personal nods.
With the unveiling of the LeBron 9, a new logo was finally introduced – a simple, but effective stretched-out “LJ” with a crown above it. The new Nike LeBron logo appeared on the heel of the 9, as well as on the laces, but it wasn’t until the celebratory LeBron X that it was placed front and center on the tongue label, accentuated by a diamond textured finish and accompanied by a large gemstone-carved lion head lace lock sitting right below it. The LJ logo is back again for the LeBron XI, this time protruding from the tongue in an eye-catching engraved metallic makeup complemented by an embroidered “XI” logo featured above it on the tongue loop.
Nike’ revolutionary Flywire technology has played a major part in the Petrie era of LeBrons, utilized in some way or another on each of the last five models. Its placement, visibility and even function has evolved from one shoe to the next, starting with its LeBron debut on the VII, where it was featured prominently woven throughout most of the shoe’s transparent upper. For the LeBron 8 and 9, the Flywire cables were worked more subtly into the visual appearance, but provided even more support by securely wrapping targeted areas of the shoes, embedded within the layers of the upper and now running all the way down to the base of the shoes.
The LeBron X brought the line’s first appearance of the thicker Dynamic Flywire upgrade, this time using the durable construction cables to pull the lace loops together all the way from the eyelet strip down to the sole of the shoe for the most serious lockdown yet. A similar approach can also be found on the upcoming LeBron XI, but this time with the unique touch of open triangular windows on the side of the shoe that give a look inside at the meaty Dynamic Flywire supports running the length of the inner shell beneath the Hyperfuse/Armorposite-constructed upper.
Any time we’ve interviewed Jason Petrie about the various LeBron models he’s worked on, it always becomes quickly evident that cushioning comes before all else. Protecting LeBron’s feet from the explosive impact he brings to the floor is a always a paramount concern, and finding the right blend of cushioning and responsiveness is a tediously analyzed process. After playing the first six years of his career with Zoom Air underfoot, Petrie’s first LeBron shoe drastically changed things up with the use of a full-length 360 Air Max bag, a choice that gave the shoe a fresh new look and feel unlike anything seen before in the Nike LeBron line. LeBron seemed to respond well to the change and they decided to stick with what was working for them moving forward.
The LeBron 8 followed with a very similar approach, once again using the 360 Air bag with some slight modifications made to the tooling and outsole shape. When the series continued with the LeBron 9 the next year, it brought new and old together as Zoom met Air thanks to a bulging 180 Air bag in the heel and a Zoom unit hidden in the forefoot. The tenth Nike LeBron shoe raised the bar even further with a never before seen full-length 360 visible Zoom Air bag, which not only looked incredible, but also provided the most technically advanced cushioning system ever seen on a basketball shoe. The 360 Zoom bag is back again for the LeBron XI, but this time buried beneath the Armorposite shell of the upper, making it the first non-visible Air midsole since Petrie took the reins of the franchise five shoes ago.
While not a technical or performance aspect, the placement of the Swoosh on Lebron’s shoes has also been constantly evolving with each release. Nike designers obviously have to make a concerted effort to separate the look of one year’s signature model from the next, and one of the easiest ways to make a drastic statement right off the bat is by switching up the size, placement, or angle of the everpresent Swoosh logo.
The LeBron VII uses the most traditional placement with a large Swoosh across the side of the upper, although it still provided a new touch in the way that it extends onto the heel and cuts into the leather that curves around it. The LeBron 8 also opts for a classic side Swoosh, but this time aligning it further back towards the rear of the shoe – a seemingly minor adjustment that actually pretty
drastically alters the general look of the silhouette in comparison. The LeBron 9 saw a smaller, sharper Swoosh moved way forward towards the dead center of the shoe and sitting atop the carbon-fiber inspired woven panel of the upper.
For the LeBron X, the logo got its most severe tweaks of all, not only flipped horizontally and placed all the way back on the heel, but also textured with a raised pattern inspired by the underlying diamond theme of the design. Now, on the latest offering, the futuristic LeBron XI, the Swoosh plays into the forward-thinking motif with an unorthodox 45 degree placement extending all the way up to the midfoot laces and featuring an engraved wave pattern that provides some extra layers of depth and complexity to the overall aesthetic.