Remembering the sneakers the Mamba donned to honor the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks barely six weeks earlier
The night of Oct. 30 exactly two decades ago was an eventful evening for Kobe Bryant.
Just 23 years old, the 2001-02 season’s opening game at Staples Center was also Ring Night, as the rising star and his Laker teammates were celebrating their second championship at the turn of the new millennium. An eventual rare three-peat title run was in store for the season ahead.
Playing host to the Portland Trail Blazers, it was also the debut of Bryant’s second Audi-co-designed sneaker with Adidas – The Kobe Two – a brazenly bulbous and polarizing model that followed the flow of Audi’s latest statement speedster, the sleekly round TT coupe.
While gold shoes have become the special edition standard for Ring Nights in recent years, No. 8 laced up a tribute pair with a different meaning.
“It started with Kobe wanting to do something,” recalls Dan Fulton, the original developer on The Kobe Two and a longtime industry veteran at brands including Adidas, Nike, and Columbia.
“It was Kobe.”
Several weeks earlier, just a matter of days after the horrific tragedy of the 9/11 attacks in New York City, Fulton received a call with a special request for Kobe from none other than Peter Moore.
After designing the Air Jordan 1 and 2 at Nike in the mid-80s, Moore was hired away by Adidas in the late ‘80s to launch its US headquarters in Portland and define its approach in performance for the ‘90s and beyond.
Moore created the brand’s slanted Three Stripes performance logo, a shift from the Trefoil badge that now marks its Originals category, and led design teams across all performance categories.
He was also heavily involved in all things Kobe, hoping to helm the high school phenom-turned-superstar with heat.
Kobe’s insight to Moore was simple – he wanted to honor the victims of the tragedy to begin the season, which was just six weeks away.
“Peter’s concept was to make it look like there was an American flag draped over it,” says Fulton. “Not some kind of stylized stars and stripes, but to make it look like a sublimation print of a flag on top of that material.”
Long before the league would loosen its color rules in 2018, this was a more traditional time, with players often wearing a white and black edition of their newest signature sneaker at home games, and a black variation on the road. Perhaps their team colors were splashed in as accent colors, but Bryant had just come off a season in which he wore The Kobe in white, in black, and in silver.
The only semblance of flair came at the 2001 All-Star Weekend, when he laced up the vibrant yellow hued “Sunshine” pair.
With a time crunch in store, the team got moving.
“We turned a sample pretty quickly, and it wasn’t vibrant enough,” details Fulton. “We did it one more time, and I think it all came together within three or four weeks. It wasn’t a long process.”
Only 30 pairs were made – all in Kobe’s size 14 – with Bryant receiving six pairs himself, and the rest going to brand execs and employees. He went on to drop 29 points in 42 minutes in that opening night game, and wore them one more time for a 28 point outing on Nov. 11 – Veteran’s Day – when facing off against fellow Adidas headliner and top-class scorer Tracy McGrady.
“I’d see some size 9s on eBay for sale sometimes, and think, ‘Hey, dude, those aren’t real,’” Fulton jokes. “They were obviously the white ones that someone had painted. They did a good job painting them, but we didn’t make them in size 9.”
While a couple of real size 14 pairs have ended up at auction over the years, none garnered the attention and storytelling quite like the pair that was gifted by Bryant to a high school-aged LeBron James in 2002, some five months after the 9/11 attacks.
“I think my most fond moment is he gave me his shoes when I was in high school,” James recounted in 2016, ahead of his final game against Bryant. “I think I was playing in a tournament in Teaneck, New Jersey, and they were playing in the  All-Star Game in Philly.”
Believed to be a different pair worn by Bryant during All-Star Weekend practice on Feb. 10 of 2002, the USA themed kicks ended up in James’ possession not long after. The then-size 15 SVSM star squeezed into the patriotic Adidas the following night, Feb. 11, during his junior year in a mythical matchup against Oak Hill Academy and Carmelo Anthony.
Fractional investment app Rally bought them for $156,000 earlier this year.
All these years later, even after Bryant’s eventual switch to Nike and his longstanding legacy as one of the most impactful sneaker endorsers in industry history, the USA-themed pair of The Kobe Two still remains one of his most elusive and coveted kicks 20 years later.
With the added nod and tribute to the 9/11 victims and starting point straight from Kobe, the pair had the lasting impact Bryant was hoping to make.
“Adidas didn’t have any plan to try [and retail them],” confirms Fulton. “It was always just a one-off deal.”