Nike’s roster of basketball players with signature shoes is unmatched, even when taking the Jordan Brand out of the picture.
The company’s clients could create one of the NBA’s greatest superteams if they all wound up in the same lineup, with LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Giannis Antetokounmpo standing out as the best of the brand’s active talent.
Add in the legacy of Michael Jordan and the immense impact he had on the shoe game before turning his name into its own brand, and you see why dollar signs start flying when the signature “Swoosh” shows itself on the court.
Even when factoring in the popularity of each of those superstars, one of the most notable names in the brand’s history is a man who retired from the sport in 2016.
He died tragically in a helicopter crash less than four years later, and will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame by Jordan himself in the summer of 2021.
That man is Kobe Bryant.
Bryant notoriously signed with Nike in 2003, right around the time of Jordan’s retirement from the league, after a seven-year tenure with Adidas. In the process, he instantly became one of the brand’s signature athletes.
But, that historic partnership came to an end 15 months after Bryant’s death, as Vanessa Bryant and the Kobe Bryant estate decided not to renew the partnership with Nike.
“Kobe’s Nike contract expired on 4/13/21,” Vanessa Bryant wrote in an Instagram story. “Kobe and Nike have made some of the most beautiful basketball shoes of all time, worn and adored by fans and athletes in all sports across the globe. It seems fitting that more NBA players wear my husband’s product than any signature shoe.”
“My hope will always be to allow Kobe’s fans to get and wear his products,” she continued. “I will continue to fight for that. Kobe’s products sell out in seconds. That says everything. I was hoping to forge a lifelong partnership with Nike that reflects my husband’s legacy. We will always do everything we can to honor Kobe and Gigi’s legacies. That will never change.”
In a statement to ESPN, Nike noted the impact Bryant had on the company, and on the brand’s fanbase as a whole.
“Kobe Bryant was an important part of Nike’s deep connection to consumers,” Nike told ESPN. “He pushed us and made everyone around him better. Though our contractual relationship has ended, he remains a deeply loved member of the Nike family.”
While the news confirmed that there won’t be any Kobe Bryant-related releases in the future through Nike, it also heightened the demand for the Los Angeles Lakers legend’s signature shoes from the duration of his deal.
So, to celebrate the legacy of “The Black Mamba,” and to look back on one of the most successful shoe deals of all time, it’s time to break down the most iconic shoes from Bryant’s 18-year tenure with Nike.
6. Nike Zoom Kobe 1
It only makes sense to start this list with Kobe Bryant’s first signature shoe under the Nike umbrella, right?
When thinking about the “most iconic” of anything, people tend to prioritize the first of something. The first person to fly an airplane. The first person to step foot on the moon. The first person to score 100 points in an NBA game.
Operating with that mindset, many would likely put Bryant’s first Nike shoe higher up on this list. But, placing it in the sixth spot shows you just how much of an impact Bryant’s releases had on the shoe game and the sport as a whole.
This shoe had a ton of cushioning for players to work with, and featured a relatively-simplistic design in comparison to future releases throughout the Mamba’s Nike deal.
Oh, and Bryant just so happened to drop 81 points against the Toronto Raptors while wearing this shoe.
It’s a solid, classic shoe, and seems like the perfect way to kick off this countdown.
5. Nike Kobe 9 Elite
It may be considering cheating to factor in both the high and low versions of this release, but we’re throwing the rulebook out the window by placing the Nike Kobe 9 Elite in the fifth spot on this list.
One of the highest high-top shoes you could ever think of, the Nike Kobe 9 Elite was a massive release for Nike, debuting what would turn out to be a popular feature in future releases: its Flyknit material.
Coordinated with Bryant’s recovery from an Achilles tear in 2013, this shoe changed the game for many basketball fans, whether they liked the shoe or not.
It became popular for other players around the league, as well, even after Bryant’s passing. Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant, who suffered an ankle injury at the beginning of his sophomore season, exclusively rocked high-top Kobe shoes early in 2021 for the extra support.
With such a bold design, it’s arguably the most unique out of the laundry list of shoes Nike put out throughout Bryant’s deal.
The design was eventually transferred into a low-top version, making it one of the most well-rounded releases of Bryant’s deal.
4. Nike Hyperdunk
It wasn’t exactly a signature shoe in the sense of it having the Kobe Bryant name attached to it, but the Lakers legend turned the Nike Hyperdunk into a massive product for Nike around the time of the 2008 Olympics.
On a worldwide stage, Bryant became the first to wear the Nike Hyperdunk, which featured Flywire and Lunar Foam technology. In the process, Bryant and Nike were changing the shoe game, and debuting one of the brand’s most popular sneakers of all time.
Bryant jumped over a car in a viral commercial for the shoe, rocked it while winning gold in the Olympics with the “Redeem Team,” and truly made the shoe his own throughout its monumental debut.
3. Nike Zoom Kobe 5
The Nike Zoom Kobe 5 was Bryant’s fifth signature shoe of his Nike deal, and, of course, he managed to win his fifth NBA Finals for the Lakers while wearing them. So, naturally, we put the show in the…third spot?
While those who appreciate it when numbers perfectly line up may be upset with this shoe not landing in the fifth spot, you have to respect the success this shoe had in the second half of Bryant’s career.
The “Skinwire” technology, the lighter weight by making a lower-cut shoe than the Nike Zoom Kobe 5’s predecessor, and the success Bryant had with the shoes on his feet all made this a fan favorite.
Had it not been for the top shoe on this list, this release would have been an easy candidate for a spot in the top two.
2. Nike Zoom Huarache 2K4
If we’re talking “iconic,” the Nike Zoom Huarache 2K4 goes down as one of the most important and influential shoes from Bryant’s Nike tenure.
During his first year on the Nike roster, Bryant rocked these kicks in the 2004 All-Star Game, and brought them with him on the Lakers’ journey to the 2004 NBA Finals.
It didn’t have his name in the title, but like the Nike HyperDunk, Bryant made it his own with his influence on the shoe’s design and the bright lights he was able to put the shoe under.
It set the tone for a slew of future releases, and solidified Bryant’s impact on the Nike brand from the get-go at the start of his historic deal with the company.
1. Nike Zoom Kobe 4
There was a time in the NBA where low-top shoes weren’t as popular as they are now. A time before the popular low-top releases of players like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Kobe Bryant changed the game with the Nike Zoom Kobe 4, and it’s remembered fondly by shoe game enthusiasts as the best and most influential shoe Nike put out in the Mamba’s name.
The design was sleek and light. The colorways were phenomenal. The range the shoe had turned it into an instant classic.
“I wanted to go low for a couple of reasons,” Bryant said, according to an article from Sole Collector. “One is, I wanted the foot to move comfortably. I felt like high tops at times can be a little bit restricting of your movement. Also, I wanted to decrease weight. I wanted to cut the shoe [in height], make it lighter, make it sleeker, and we were able to accomplish both of those things.”
There was plenty of risk involved with shifting from the norm like Bryant and Nike did, but the release of Bryant’s fourth signature shoe proved that he and the powerhouse brand weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
The Nike Zoom Kobe 4 changed the course of the industry, and allowed for so many more options for both basketball players and fans in the years that would follow.