Kobe Bryant launches the New Nike Hyperdunk Limited Colorway in Santa Monica, California, 2008 (Tiffany Rose/Getty Images)
SNEAKERS & FASHION

How Kobe Bryant Became the Steve Jobs of Sneakers With Nike’s Hyperdunk

On Kobe Day 2021, remembering when the Black Mamba unveiled Nike’s new Hyperdunk model, forever branding himself as basketball footwear’s most trusted futurist.

Innovation knows no barriers, whether it’s on a hard drive or the hardwood.

And on April 7, 2008, the two overlapped.

Appearing on stage with employees, media, and investors, Kobe Bryant presented the Nike Hyperdunk — a futuristic basketball shoe set for the Lakers superstar to wear that summer at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Despite being three shoes into his own signature sneaker line with Nike, Kobe was billed as the frontman for the future of the brand’s progression in basketball. The newly crowned captain of Team USA was thriving on the court, making him the perfect pitchman for Nike’s most advanced basketball sneaker yet.

Sharing the stage with then-CEO Mark Parker, Kobe co-signed the future of footwear and instantly established himself at the intersection of sports and technology.

“It’s all about performance for me,” Kobe said honestly and prophetically at that Summit. “Every split second counts.”

While fans waited weeks to see the future of basketball on the court, the technology that drove Hyperdunk was years in the making.

Deep in the depths of Nike’s famed Innovation Kitchen way back in 2005, designers Eric Avar and Kevin Hoffer found themselves ecstatic. After endless attempts, the restless creatives finally had their first prototype sample of Lunarlon foam — a responsive replacement to the Beaverton brand’s trademark Air technology — that was meant to mimic walking on the moon.

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600 miles away in an apartment in San Fransisco, PayPal employees Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, and Jawed Karim were experiencing a similar high. Approaching affluence after eBay purchased their parent company, the tech trio was in the process of launching their own product: an online video platform known as YouTube.

It wouldn’t be until April 8, 2008 that Nike’s designers and YouTube’s developers shared that same high on the same day. Leading NBA MVP candidate and Nike Basketball frontman Kobe Bean Bryant was doing laps on SportsCenter, international news networks, and across the booming blogosphere thanks to what we would now call a viral video.

Smiling into a camcorder, basketball’s best player slid on the new Nike Hyperdunk, showing off the lightweight Lunarlon foam. Suddenly, a speeding Aston Martin sports car charged toward Bryant, who promptly leapt over the British blur.

He stuck a soft landing.

Not only was Bryant the perfect pitchman for the Hyperdunk, but he did his own stunts.

Debated in barbershops, on talk shows, and in comment sections, the world wondered if Kobe’s car jump was real or fake.

In the meantime, the product placement in the video resonated with both sneaker blogs and auto blogs. Imagination and mystery officially surrounded Kobe’s new shoes, the Nike Hyperdunk.

In the weeks to follow the Aston Martin video, Kobe claimed the 2008 NBA MVP award and led the Lakers back to the NBA Finals. But after playing in 103 total games and getting embarrassed by the Boston Celtics in a decisive Game 6, one might assume Kobe had no energy left to play in the Hyperdunk, let alone talk about them.

A man of his word, the Nike-clad car-jumper made good on his promise toTeam USA and Nike’s desires.

American men’s basketball needed a big boost after getting embarrassed at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and the Swoosh now happened to be USA Basketball’s sponsor. Both Nike and America at large were counting on Kobe to lead the Red, White, and Blue back to gold medal glory despite the massive weight he just carried all season long with the Lakers.

Enter the ultralight Nike Hyperdunk.

Lacing the Black Mamba in a patriotic pair, Nike had Kobe’s new shoes already set aside when he arrived in Las Vegas for Team USA camp just four days after losing in the Finals to the Celtics. After impassioned practice with teammates like Jason Kidd, Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron James, the Americans boarded a flight to New York for a photoshoot where Nike unveiled the new uniforms and team-tone Hyperdunks that the Redeem Team would wear in China.

Kobe Bryant with Team USA driving against Australia’s Andrew Bogut at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing (Eric Gay/Pool/Getty Images)

It was on Kobe not just to perform, but pitch.

Because there not only was gold to be won in Beijing, but green.

By 2008, Nike was the top sportswear brand in China, having already passed their annual earnings goal of $1 billion in the country while cultivating a retail presence in more than 300 Chinese cities. At that point, the world’s most populous country was where Nike did the biggest portion of its business outside the US.

But before handling things out East, there was work to be done back home.

In July 2008, Bryant surprised fans in Santa Monica who lined up to get the first retail release of the Nike Hyperdunk with an homage to Michael J. Fox’s self-lacing Back to the Future Part II sneakers. Dubbed the “McFly” Nike Hyperdunk, the theatric color blocking translated the shoe’s futuristic ethos while also appealing to collector culture — something modern basketball couldn’t conquer since Michael Jordan retired.

Fans lined up around the block for a chance to purchase the rare (and loud) sneakers only to be one-upped as Bryant himself arrived with the “McFly” exclusives on his feet, hopping out of a 1982 DeLorean.

By bringing Kobe into the fold, Nike ushered in even more hype around the Hyperdunk before its formal retail debut and Olympic showcase. And in the years since then, the Swoosh has used creative colorways that appeal to collectors as a way to heat up performance pairs before they hit the masses.

This move didn’t simply pan out for the Hyperdunk; the “McFly” launch catered to hardcore collectors who camped out before fanning out over footwear would come to be compared to stock trading, still making enough mainstream noise based on convergence culture to get coverage on CNBC.

Kobe arrives in a ”Back To The Future” De Lorean for the launch of the new Nike Hyperdunk Limited Colorwayin Santa Monica, 2008 (Tiffany Rose/Getty Images)

Weeks later on July 26 — months after the viral video and days before the Beijing Games — the Nike Hyperdunk launched at retail. Priced at a reasonable $110, the performance pair weighed 18% less than its basketball brand peers and donned suspension-bridge-inspired Flywire support and moon-mimicking Lunarlon foam. Both were a first for the category and new to the market.

Over the course of the Olympics, Kobe captained Team USA to an undefeated run and gold medal glory. That summer, the world’s best basketball players donned Hyperdunks on the sport’s biggest stage while pick-up players picked up their own pairs. To hoopers casual and competitive, the Hyperdunk felt less like a sneaker and more like the latest iPod, proving just how modern technology could amplify the experience of an age-old pastime.

With the Hyperdunk, Kobe cemented himself as an influencer by way of innovation rather than pure swagger. Previous to 2008, Kobe’s coolness cachet was far less pronounced than predecessors like Michael Jordan or contemporaries like Allen Iverson; you’d be hard-pressed to find the masses mimicking Bryant’s cropped afro haircut like Iverson’s cornrows or collecting his kicks like Mike’s.

But through the Hyperdunk, Kobe would come to be branded as the ultimate basketball technology guy in a way that truly felt as modern and hip as it was authoritative.

In that sense, the Hyperdunk positioned Kobe as the Steve Jobs of sneakers, offering functional innovation in the sleekest package possible.

Kobe Bryant taking on Cuttino Mobley of the LA Clippers in a pair of Nike Hyperdunks, 2008 (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

The marketing around the Hyperdunk also produced a separate triumph: making Kobe relatable. Frequently depicted as a pronounced introvert who never hung out with teammates, the Aston Martin leap video showed Kobe laughing and dapping with then-teammate Ronny Turiaf. The dynamic humanized the superstar, harkening back to the cocky kid who leapt straight to the pros from Lower Merion High School.

Further, he even made fun of himself and the pseudo-stunt by doubling down with the jokers from MTV’s Jackass, producing a sequel video in which he jumped over a pool full of snakes.

Still, Kobe was not here to make friends. He was here to win championships.

The technical nuance of the Hyperdunk spoke to exactly who Kobe was and who he was going to be from then on out. While early Adidas and Nike products played to his cross-culture upbringing and studied, artistic approach to the game, the Hyperdunk and every Kobe signature to follow leaned all the way into gaining every edge possible on the court.

As the Air Jordan line skewed toward luxury and the Zoom LeBron series chased crossover, casual appeal, the Kobe line was strictly for hoopers who wanted nothing more than to win. Every advantage counted. Every technical trick was worth the money.

With the Hyperdunk, Kobe moved in the mind of consumers from pretentious to performance.

From artist to assassin.

In the 2008-09 season to follow — in which the Lakers won the first of what would be back-to-back championships — the Nike Hyperdunk would preview what we see in today’s game: footwear made for position-less basketball, all tied to Bryant.

Through one iconic sneaker, Kobe symbolized a brand you could utterly trust on the court.

On Mamba Day 2021, Bryant is no longer with us in the physical, and his estate is no longer linked to Nike. While fans flock to resale sites to secure Swoosh-stamped Kobe kicks, it’s the footwear-obsessed hoopers who believe in the Kobe brand the most.

While Nike may never again produce a pair of sneakers stamped with Kobe’s namesake Sheath logo, it does retain the rights to make more Hyperdunks without invoking his name and likeness.

In the big picture, thanks to Kobe’s original co-sign, the Hyperdunk has become so revered by basketball players that the line lasted nine years, and was reborn as the AlphaDunk in 2019.

And as we look back on what the Kobe brand has become, it all started with a leap.

By reinventing himself as basketball’s boldest risk-taker, the Steve Jobs of Sneakers has left a legacy built to live far, far beyond his passing.

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