It’s hard to imagine now, but just a few short years ago there was nobody wearing low-tops on the basketball court. For years, the basketball universe was under the impression that you had to have a mid or high top to protect your ankles from sprains and breaks. Since the olden days of models like the Converse Chuck Taylor, adidas Superstar, and Nike Bruin, the low-top silhouette had only been seen sparingly on the court since roughly the mid 1980s. There were a few exceptions—like Michael Jordan wearing the Air Jordan XI Low IE for a few games in 1996, or Mike Bibby in his low-top PE Air Jordans—but somewhere in between, the high-top became protocol, worn by pretty much every basketball player at every level of play.
It wouldn’t be until 2008 that the low-top would make its return as a formidable on-court option, when Kobe Bryant and Nike designer Eric Avar changed the basketball sneaker game with the Zoom Kobe IV. A grand departure from his previous model, the Zoom Kobe III, the Kobe IV broke new ground in basketball shoe design, proving skeptics and non-believers wrong. The low-top basketball shoe didn’t snap your ankles, and it would be here to stay. This next installment in our look back at Kobe Bryant’s 20 Year Sneaker Legacy is the most impactful chapter of his footwear legacy of all: the rise of the low-top.
2008-09 NBA Season
What’s Up With Those Hyperdunks?
Fresh off a summer in which Kobe helped lead Team USA to Olympic Gold, he continued wearing the original Hyperdunk into the start of the 2008-09 NBA season. But soon there seemed to be something different about his PE versions. It probably wasn’t even visible from your television, and only the nerdiest of shoe nerds noticed, but the tooling was different. We’d eventually learn that what Kobe was playing in was the Hyperdunk upper with the sole of his next signature shoe, the Zoom Kobe IV.
The Nike Zoom Kobe IV Brings a Low-Top Back to the Court
For what would end up being a revolutionary design, Nike, Kobe, and Eric Avar brought the low-top back to the NBA basketball court on December 19, 2008, when Kobe debuted the shoe in a game against the Miami Heat. He would wear them for the rest of the season—with no ankle injuries, of course—all the way to the 2009 NBA Finals, where he’d get his first championship since signing with Nike in 2003.
As could be expected, Nike hooked Kobe up with something special for the NBA Finals. In home and away colorways, the Kobe IV got a graphic makeover featuring the Black Mamba’s various career accolades written across the upper.
In a brilliant reversal of the worry that the Kobe IV would cause ankle injuries, the marketing campaign for the shoe featured Kobe as an “ankle insurance” salesman, with the spots showing how the quick and light sneaker actually broke your opponents ankles—not your own.
2009-10 NBA Season
“Gradient” Kobe IV
After a Finals victory, Kobe would begin the following season in new colorways of the Kobe IV, highlighted by the “Gradient” editions featuring a two-color fade from heel to toe.
The Kobe V Debuts
As another Christmas treat to the sneaker world, Kobe and Nike once again chose to debut his new signature model on Christmas day, just like they had done in the past. The “Chaos” colorway introduced the eye-catching and non-traditional Christmas colorways that would become the norm in the Kobe line. The Kobe V was much the same as the Kobe IV, but went even lower and lighter for one of the most minimal basketball shoes in the modern era.
Kobe V “Bruce Lee”
Inspired by his love for the martial arts legend, Kobe and Nike created a “Bruce Lee” colorway of the Zoom Kobe V, featuring a black and yellow colorway modeled after Lee’s iconic jumpsuit and complete with the scratch wounds he sustains in Enter the Dragon. Now one of the most beloved colorways of any Kobe sneaker, the “Bruce Lee” look was officially recreated on Kobe’s latest shoe, the Kobe 11.
Kobe’s second year in low-tops would end with another NBA championship, after Kobe and the Lakers got some revenge on the Boston Celtics who beat them in the Finals two years earlier. Kobe laced up “Big Stage” colorways of the Kobe V in home and away colorways, each featuring gold accents and tonal graphics.
2010-11 NBA Season
Zoom Kobe VI
A new season had begun, and once again Kobe’s new signature hit the court on Christmas day in an eye-catching colorway. This time it was the Kobe VI in the “Grinch” colorway, which many Kobe collectors rank near or at the top of their list of favorite shoes of all time. Inspired by the Dr. Seuss character, the shoe featured a vibrant green upper for the snakeskin-textured upper of the design’s Black Mamba personification. With a bold look and once again in a low-top silhouette, the Kobe VI would prove to be another great performer on the court, and one of the most popular shoes at any level of play while it was in production. Kobe and the Lakers would only make it to the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2011 Playoffs, being defeated by the Dallas Mavericks who went on to win it all. Kobe didn’t achieve another three-peat, but the Kobe VI did become an all-time classic in his signature line.
2011-12 NBA Season
Same Story, But New Shoe
For the 2011-12 season, the Kobe sneaker story would be much the same as the last year: wild new colorway of his new model debuted on Christmas day. Along with the bold purple leopard colorway of the Kobe VII, the shoe had plenty of interesting details in its design. It introduced the KOBE SYSTEM, a new system of interchangeable drop-in insoles with your choice of Cushlon or Zoom Air cushioning. Designated as “Attack Strong” for the Cushlon version with an added ankle collar wrap and “Attack Fast” for the Zoom insole, the Kobe VII introduced the new concept of customizable cushioning, which would also be seen in that year’s Air Jordan, the Air Jordan 2011. The unorthodox ankle collar of the Attack Strong insole was also the precursor to similar ideas we’d see from Nike in the future, I.E. models like this year’s KD 8 Elite.
More Olympic Gold
After the Lakers were again booted from the playoffs early in 2012, Kobe’s summer soon improved significantly once the Olympics started, as he once again helped Team USA earn the gold medal at the Summer Olympics. Kobe continued wearing the Kobe VII for the games in an appropriate red, white, and blue colorway.
2012-13 NBA Season
Nike Kobe 8
The Nike Kobe 8 would continue the low-top design for the fifth straight year, but this time it was lighter and lower than ever, weighing in at 9.6 ounces (men’s size 9). The feat was achieved by utilizing engineered mesh for the upper, while the tooling featured a drop-in Lunarlon insole designed to sit low to the ground for better court feel and stability. This year, Kobe chose to debut the Kobe 8 right before the Christmas in a December 22nd game against the Warriors, with a colorful Christmas day edition soon following. After wearing the shoe throughout the season, Kobe’s year would end abruptly and unfortunately on April 12, 2013 when he ruptured his achilles.
Down, But Not Out
A blown out achilles would be a career ending injury for some players—especially at his age—but not for Kobe. After a grueling year of rehabilitation, he’d be back on the court, and the next era of Kobe’s Nike signatures shoes would begin. Stay tuned for the fifth and final entry into our look at Kobe Bryant’s 20 Year Sneaker Legacy, where we’ll detail the dawn of Flyknit as well as the return of the high-top in the Nike Kobe signature line.