All good things must come to an end. And that’s indeed what is happening at the end of this NBA season, when Kobe Bryant calls it quits and ends his twenty year career. You’re going to see about a thousand stories from now until…well, maybe forever about Kobe’s accomplishments on the basketball court from every sports news outlet and blog across the internet. Love him or hate him, what Kobe has done for the game of basketball is immeasurable, and he rightly deserves all the coverage and farewell tributes that have already begun. We could talk about his points, championships, MVPs, and arsenal of records held like everybody else, but we’re confident that you’ll hear plenty about all Kobe’s statistical achievements elsewhere. The other important part of his legacy is what we’re here to focus on today: the sneakers.
Making an impact on the basketball sneaker world from the moment he entered the league in 1996, the fresh-out-of-high-school Bryant became the new face of the adidas Basketball program and brought some much-needed new life to the brand’s hoops market. Young Kobe wasn’t exactly a superstar right out of the gate during his rookie season—it would be Allen Iverson’s electrifying play that garnered most of the attention from the ‘96-97 rookie class—but he definitely provided a fresh face for adidas and helped bring the Three Stripes back to relevancy in the hoops world, paving the way for future signature stars from Tracy McGrady all the way to James Harden. In Part 1 of our retrospective on Kobe’s twenty important years in sneaker culture, we’ll recap his coming-of-age era with adidas and document the shoes he wore and when he wore them on the way to super-stardom.
Rookie Season – 1996-97
Unlike fellow rookie Allen Iverson, Kobe wasn’t yet at the status of having a signature shoe, but just like AI was for Reebok, Bryant was the new face of adidas. As a rookie Kobe would promote the brand’s Feet You Wear models from the EQT basketball line, wearing the Top Ten 2000, Top Ten 2010, and EQT Elevation. The latter would become his most iconic of his three rookie year shoes, as he wore a PE of the Elevation in eye-catching purple on the way to winning the slam dunk contest at All-Star Weekend ‘97.
Original print ad for the adidas Top Ten 2000 featuring Kobe
Kobe wearing the EQT Elevation at the 1997 Slam Dunk Contest
Year Two – 1997-98
By the beginning of his second season, adidas had Kobe set with his first signature shoe, the adidas KB8. Continuing the Feet You Wear line, the design is now Kobe’s most famous adidas model, still in regular rotation as the Crazy 8 within the brand’s retro hoops catalog. Worn throughout 1997-98 season, Kobe would also break out the KB8 occasionally during the following season as late as the 1999 Playoffs.
Original 3-page print ad for the adidas KB8
Year Three – 1998-99
Kobe’s third year in the league saw the debut of his second signature shoe, the KB8 II, which he wore throughout most of that regular season. Like the KB8, the KB8 II is also still relevant in the adidas hoops line, recently receiving its first retro run in both original and new colorways. By the end of the ‘98-99 season, adidas had the wavy KB8 III ready for Kobe, which he debuted during the the 1999 Playoffs.
Original print ad for the adidas KB8 II
Basketball cards with a clear look at the KB8 II and KB8 III
Year Four – 1999-2000
Kobe continued wearing the KB8 III, his last model with Feet You Wear technology, for the start of his fourth year in the league, but then he switched to the Forum 2000 for roughly the second half of the season (around this time adidas was in a licensing dispute with the original creator of FYW technology and had to stop producing footwear utilizing it). Making it all the way to the NBA Finals in only his fourth year in the league, Kobe then debuted his next signature model, The Kobe, in the 2000 championship series. Six games later, Kobe Bryant had his first ring and the next—and final—chapter of his time with adidas had begun.
2000 NBA Finals
Year Five – 2000-01
If you were paying attention to sneakers during the 2000 Finals, you were definitely wondering what the hell Kobe had on his feet. Indeed, The Kobe was unlike any sneaker before it, featuring a futuristic design inspired by Kobe’s favorite brand of sports cars, Audi. A major departure from the Feet You Wear design language, the adidas The Kobe was certainly a love-it-or-hate-it shoe. Kobe himself was apparently pretty cool with The Kobe, because he wore them throughout the regular season, playoffs, and all the way to the 2001 Finals for his second Championship with Shaq and the Lakers.
Original print ad for The Kobe
Year Six – 2001-02
If you thought The Kobe 1 was funky, The Kobe 2 was even more out there in relation to traditional basketball sneaker design. Similar to the first Kobe model but even more boxy, the shoe was once again modeled after Kobe’s Audi. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to find very many fans of the shoe from either its aesthetic or performance standpoints. For the shoe’s most notable appearance, Kobe wore a special USA flag graphic-covered pair in honor of the September 11th World Trade Center attack for the NBA’s opening night in 2001. After that patriotic debut, it seemed apparent Kobe wasn’t a huge fan of the shoe either, as he sometimes wore The Kobe 1 throughout that season, and was wearing his previous model full-time by the 2002 Playoffs.
The original print ad for The Kobe 2 (and about as good as the shoe ever looked)
2002 – The End
The Kobe 2’s unfavored design would prove to be the catalyst for the end of Bryant’s relationship with adidas, as he split ties with the Three Stripes after the ‘01-02 season. But not before The Kobe 3 made it to the sample stage, with another similarly futuristic design. Kobe didn’t quite see eye-to-eye with adidas and the direction his shoes were going, and opted to buy-out his contract with the brand. As part of his buy-out agreement, he was restricted from signing with another brand for one year, and thus began his “sneaker free agency”—which we’ll detail in full in Part 2 of Kobe Bryant’s 20 Year Sneaker Legacy. Kobe’s run with the Three Stripes may have ended on a sour note, but that makes his time with the brand no less important to his own sneaker history, or that of the adidas basketball program as we know it today.