A rarity from the Black Mamba’s first formal foray with the Beaverton brand is set for a retail debut next fall — Boardroom explores the story behind the shoe.
Kobe Bryant’s Nike archive is returning a deep cut, but probably not the one you were expecting.
Over the weekend, Sole Retriever broke the news that Kobe’s cult classic Nike Air Flight Huarache PE is launching at retail in 2023 for the first time ever.
This news comes months after Bryant’s estate agreed to new terms with Nike, the brand that famously outfitted the 18-time NBA All-Star from 2003 until his passing in 2020.
It also follows a famine of Kobe kicks for sale in stores — or even on SNKRS.
For many, this retro release registers as unexpected considering the sheer number of lauded Nike signature shoes tied to Bryant.
However, a few easy-to-miss nuances may explain why we’re getting this niche Nike next fall before several others.
A New Beginning
Kobe Bryant is no stranger to sneaker free agency.
In the summer of 2002, he paid Adidas $8 million to break his endorsement deal with the company. Due to the unique stipulations related to the generally amicable split, the superstar shooting guard was forced to rotate brands for the entire 2002-03 campaign, essentially serving as a non-compete clause keeping footwear companies looking to swoop in to sign Kobe at arm’s length.
Ironically enough, the unsigned season handed AND1, Jordan Brand, Nike, Reebok, and others the opportunity to seed sneakers to Kobe for free exposure. They’d even color-up exclusive Laker looks as a means to woo him.
Ultimately, in June 2003 — one year after leaving the Three Stripes — Kobe Bryant signed a contract with Nike for $40 million. Internally at Adidas, it was long believed that forces close to Kobe had been influencing him to join the Beaverton brand though no collusion was ever confirmed.
That same summer, the Swoosh bet even bigger on basketball in signing an 18-year-old LeBron James for nearly $90 million. And while that meant the Chosen One had arrived, all eyes remained on Bryant.
Off the court, Kobe was fighting for his livelihood and reputation in Colorado. On the court, the Lakers had just been bounced from the playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs, ending their run of three straight NBA championships.
When the 2003-04 season started, Bryant began the campaign with both new teammates and new sneakers (though the word “new” perhaps wasn’t to be taken literally in this case).
By Bryant’s side were former foes Gary Payton and Karl Malone, veteran All-Stars in search of a late-career ring.
On Bryant’s feet was the Nike Air Flight Huarache: a shoe designed by Tinker Hatfield and Eric Avar over 20 years prior.
Though Bryant was new to being a Nike athlete, he wasn’t new to wearing their product. In fact, Kobe had a pair of original Flight Huaraches as a teenager in Philly.
“It was a fun shoe, and I was very familiar with it back in high school because of the Fab Five,” Kobe told Nick DePaula back in 2008.
Though the nostalgic Nikes were on trend with retro rebellion, the iconic Airs foreshadowed what was to come. As a Nike athlete, Bryant was on his way to becoming the face of the brand’s big Huarache revamp.
From an innovation standpoint, the Huarache’s exposed ankle aesthetic inspired by sandals was forgotten by many — but not by the Steve Jobs of sneakers.
“I always used to look at the technology of a shoe,” Bryant continued to DePaula. “At that early age, I could tell that my ankle had a lot more freedom of movement, which interested me because it felt different than any of the other shoes that I played in.”
Well, maybe more than just different.
“It felt better and it moved better in that shoe.”
Back for its first retro run in respect to Huarache’s hardwood heritage, player exclusive styles of the ’92 novelty appeared in Laker looks made exclusively for Bryant. In many ways, these color codes were not dissimilar to the seeding he saw while in footwear free agency.
More importantly, the Flight Huarache retro PEs served as a test mule for the upcoming Nike Air Zoom Huarache 2K4: the hoop category’s North Star where innovation and homage were concerned. Bryant was to lead the Huarache 2K4 on-court, with modern-made Huaraches likened to running, training, and even lacrosse leveraged over the course of Nike’s next decade.
For Fall ’03, Kobe played almost exclusively in Flight Huarache PEs, wearing black-based pairs for all road trips. Finally in Jan. ’04, Kobe debuted the new-look Nike Air Zoom Huarache 2K4 on-court, with his retro rarities seldom seen sense.
Back for the First Time
After spawning the Huarache 2K4 and his subsequent signature line, Kobe rarely looked back when it came to on-court footwear.
Driven by innovation, he and Nike designer Eric Avar pushed the boundaries of basketball, changing the shape, style, and speed of the sport. Their work was so acclaimed that even fellow Flight Huarache creator Tinker Hatfield still has to bow.
”I always felt that Eric had the best job in the design world, which was to work with Kobe Bryant,” Hatfield told Boardroom in June 2022. “Kobe was so inquisitive and interested in trying new things. Michael Jordan was the same way.”
During the duration of Kobe’s playing days with Nike, the baller and brand only nodded to the past through marketing moves like 2013’s “Prelude Pack” or 2016’s “Fade to Black” collection. The goal was always to move forward, as optimized by the avant-garde Nike Kobe 9.
Meanwhile outside of performance basketball, retro reigned.
On occasion in the ’00s and ’10s, the Beaverton brand brought back the Nike Air Flight Huarache as a lifestyle release.
Meanwhile, purists pined for Kobe’s player exclusives, with the elusive white-based “Home” iteration debuting at retail in 2015.
To some, the road rendition was still the holy grail where hoop Huaraches were concerned, tracked down in original form and played in by PJ Tucker.
After Kobe retired in 2016, he and Nike honored the past through Protro pairs. Debuted in 2018, the Nike Kobe 1 Protro matched performance branding with retro appeal, later reaching various silos from the Black Mamba’s acclaimed signature series. At first, commercial appeal was lukewarm as the brand brought back early models less loved than later looks.
Sadly, Bryant’s tragic passing in Jan. 2020 turned the corner on consumer perception. While cards, jerseys, and apparel all drew massive interest in homage to the ascended hero, Kobe’s signature shoes from Nike remained most adored.
Due to slow sales of early Protro pairs, Bryant’s unforeseen death, and production issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, demand absolutely eclipsed supply, only aiding the appetite of those looking to consume Kobes.
The tension perhaps peaked in Dec. 2020 with the return of the “Grinch” Nike Kobe 6 Protro. Often considered the most popular pair from his storied signature series, most fans missed out due to limited production.
Months later, the partnership between Bryant’s family and Nike ended in April 2021 to the dismay of many, putting all Protro pairs on hold.
Nearly a year later in March 2022, Vanessa Bryant announced that the Kobe estate was back with the Swoosh and that more retro releases and Protro pairs were on the way.
As rumors range from the return of the “Prelude” Nike Kobe 6 to the debut of Nike Kobe 8 Protro, the Huarache hype seems unexpected.
Maybe it shouldn’t be.
Within the footwear industry, most brands operate on an 18-month window. That schedule accounts for the ideation of a product all the way to the manufacturing of a sneaker up to that of its official retail release.
Nike, a brand long led by storytelling and an acute sense of nostalgia, typically operates on said schedule as well. However, the Swoosh and its contemporaries continue to battle manufacturing and supply chain issues that arose due to the pandemic.
Over the course of 2020 and 2021, a handful of sought-after sneakers played musical chairs on the all-powerful release date calendar. This affected an array of products, including those related to specific anniversaries.
Tracing Nike’s pre-pandemic trends, flagship models made to live twice in retro life often return to the market 20, 25, or 30 years after their original release.
However, we’ve now known for months that the famed Nike Air Flight Huarache will be returning to retail in its original “Fab 5” theme in April ’23 — coinciding with the model’s 31st birthday.
Intriguingly enough, the Fall ’23 release of Bryant’s black-based PE amounts to similarly keen timing. Not only is the Kobe estate back with Nike, allowing the Swoosh to tell that story if it chooses, but it places the rarity right in the sweet spot of the 20-year anniversary of the time No. 8 first wore it.
Reportedly coming back with a sticker price of $125, the Flight Huarache retro notably sees a lower retail starting point than that of most peers; in recent years, Kobe 6 Protros retail from $180 to $225.
So, does news of this fabled Flight Huarache PE returning as a retro speak to the next chapter of Nike and Kobe? It just might.
Fall 2023 will mark roughly 18 months since the revived partnership was announced, potentially paving the runway for not just this Huarache hit, but more Protro pairs.
Regardless, this news renders hope of a future where fans can pay homage to the Mamba on foot without having to break the bank.
For even once, there was a time when a young Kobe himself had trouble tracking down Nikes.
“Those shoes were so tough to find,” Bryant told DePaula when speaking to his childhood Huaraches. “I think I only had one pair and I only wore them once a month.”
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