The legendary designer speaks with Boardroom on drafting sneakers for basketball’s best and ideating a commemorative beer bottle with Michelob.
As the NBA wraps up its celebratory 75th season, TV’s talking heads and fans around the world debate who was the greatest player to ever hit the hardwood. When it comes to proximity to the pros, one icon embedded in hoop culture sees two titans flying far above the rest.
“Michael and Kobe? They’re the best,” Tinker Hatfield told Boardroom.
While Hatfield wasn’t talking about stats — he considers both ballers to be his favorite players to work with — the Black Cat and the Black Mamba both don decor all adversaries admire from finger to foot. Yes, every athlete loves their shoes, but even more so, they lust after their rings. Famously, Michael Jordan won six rings when playing for the Chicago Bulls, while Kobe Bryant collected five fingers’ worth of championship jewelry as a Los Angeles Laker.
Through film, friendship, and footwear, MJ and Kobe are forever linked. Through Tinker, the winning ways established by both crossover to another arena of celebration. And in joining up with Michelob ULTRA in back-to-back fashion, Hatfield has designed yet another championship beer bottle for the NBA Finals.
Michelob ULTRA & NBA75
Notably, Michelob ULTRA didn’t just tap Tinker Hatfield to commemorate the 2022 NBA Finals, but 75 years of the NBA. Serving as the official beer of the NBA, Michelob ULTRA will launch 75 of the limited edition Championship Bottles in the eventual NBA champion’s city. In both Boston and The Bay, giant shoeboxes with scannable QR codes will start popping up in local bars. The box will only unlock in the winning team’s city once the final buzzer rings. On parade day, winning fans will receive the limited bottle and will also score an NFT designed by Hatfield himself.
Recently, Boardroom chopped it up with Tinker to talk about his commemorative collaboration, admiration for fellow designer Eric Avar, seeing icons rock his retros, why Kobe and MJ are in a league of their own, and his broader intentions behind taking on this latest project.
IAN STONEBROOK: We all know your work with Nike over the past 40 years, but Michelob ULTRA has called you in again to celebrate the Finals and the NBA75. How’d this collaboration come about?
TINKER HATFIELD: The project last year almost came out of thin air through a friend of mine connected to the industries around entertainment and advertising. I got connected to Michelob ULTRA which was interesting because I’d never done anything like that. My ultimate goal was to drum up some money for an inner-city youth program in Chicago called CHAMPS. I support it myself, but also through projects like this. I’ve been to the facility once and I’m in contact with Vondale Singleton and his crew. I really think that what they’re doing is really important.
I was very thankful that the check went to CHAMPS and went to them at a very important time. Here we are now in the second year and CHAMPS will be the recipient of another check. That’s great because they’re doing really important work in Chicago, providing a safe haven for kids after school to get on a computer or play sports. It was fun to reconnect with Michelob ULTRA and their design firm, Dinner Party.
IS: What was your approach to working on the sequel to last year’s bottle?
TH: It was a continuation of the first one. It just rolled right off of my iPad conceptually.
Last year was all about the net; cutting down the net and being able to bring the bottle into the winning scenario. It worked out great and it was visible from a distance, there were some tricks there that we were hoping would work, and they did.
Everybody talks about Michael Jordan’s six rings or Kobe’s five. It seems to me that rings are a big deal, so drafting up an NBA style championship ring that wrapped around the bottle would be a nice nod toward what it means to win and all that goes into it.
IS: As an athlete in your youth and a designer in adulthood, you’ve seen some of the best ballplayers both on TV and in your office. When looking at the last 75 years of the NBA, which players popping up in your work still surprise you?
TH: I’ve been a fan of sports my whole life. I watched great teams from the Celtics to the Lakers to the Knicks. I remember Bill Bradley from the Knicks, who I thought was a fantastic politician in his later years, was someone I saw wearing a pair of sneakers I designed after his NBA career and after his political career. That was pretty cool. Someone had given him a pair of Air Jordan 3s, which was the first shoe that I had done and tends to be an often-requested model.
Michael & the Mamba
Tinker Hatfield is world-famous for designing Air Jordans 3 through 15, XX, XX3, 2010 through 2012, and XX8 through XXX. All of those models outfitted more than just Michael over the course of their original launch and retro runs, favored on- and off-court by the celebrated second coming, Kobe Bryant.
“Tinker has caused my parents a lot of headaches over the years,” Kobe told Nike in 2016, “from being a kid and having to go find a bunch of Air Jordans. The Jordan 3s were my all-time favorite. Still my favorite to this day.”
When transitioning from Adidas to Nike as a footwear free agent, Bryant brought out an array of new and retro Air Jordans on-court. After signing with the Swoosh, Tinker and Kobe became close with the decorated designer offering input on the Huarache 2k4, early signature Nike Kobes, various HTM Nike Kobes, and 2016’s Kobe 11 “Muse” launch.
“To be able to grow up and appreciate all the Jordans and then to actually sit with the man who designed those and kind of understand how he designed them the way he did, why he designed them the way he has?” Bryant said. “That’s amazing.”
As we found, the feeling is mutual.
IS: You mention Kobe and his connection to championship rings. What was it like seeing him break out some of your most memorable Air Jordan designs?
TH: Kobe Bryant wore a lot of Air Jordans before he started his signature shoe with Nike. In that interim period where he was shifting from Adidas to Nike, he wore Jordans.
I’m still a huge fan of Kobe and miss him a great deal. I was friends with him and was quite honored when he got to wear all types of Air Jordans that I had done. We talked a lot about which ones were the best and it was pretty fun, I’ve gotta say.
IS: Your peer, Eric Avar, helped carry the Nike Kobe line in a similar fashion as your work with Mike. Describe your relationship with Avar and Bryant when it came to creating.
TH: Eric Avar is a fantastic designer and he used to do the Kobes. I worked on the very first three Nike Kobes plus the Jordans that he wore, so I was good friends with Kobe and the three of us would have dinner together every once in a while. I always felt that Eric had the best job in the design world, which was to work with Kobe Bryant.
Kobe was right up there with Michael Jordan, and I think they are the two very best that anybody has ever worked with in the NBA. Kobe was so inquisitive and interested in trying new things; Michael Jordan was the same way. The Nike brand or the Jordan Brand would not be the same without those two people.
IS: The Michelob ULTRA collaboration is about joy and celebrating. Recently, Joey Guinan posted a photo of you presenting Mike with the Air Jordan 14 during the 1998 NBA Finals. What do you most remember about those kinds of moments?
TH: I don’t want to reveal too much about Mike’s personal life, but I will say that it’s been an honor and a joy to travel, visit, stay in his house, go to the games, and in subsequent years being a consultant to the Jordan Brand. There aren’t enough words for me to describe how fun it was and how well we meshed.
IS: When it comes to working with Mike, you didn’t leave much on the table. Are there any NBA athletes you wish you worked with or made more shoes for?
TH: I wish I had maybe done one more Kobe shoe before Eric stepped in because it was such a joy to work with him. But Eric did such great shoes! I might have not done as good of a shoe, so it all worked out. [Laughs]
Some of these projects that are more advanced in performance? There are only a few athletes that will go down that journey with us. Kobe was one and Michael was another. The process of working with those guys was one of adventure because they were willing to try some things that had never been done before in the interest of trying to pursue the very highest level of performance they could ever attain. They both felt like footwear was a big part of that.
IS: Recently, Jordan Brand made headlines by adding Howard University to its roster. Being a part of JB at its inception, what do you recall about the early days of signing schools and players?
TH: I was aware enough to stay out of the politics of teams, contracts, and the things that make the whole thing run. I step aside and let that happen, but I am always there for the athlete and I think that’s been part of the secret of success. All the athletes I’ve worked with, especially Kobe and Michael, really have to go with their gut and not trust a lot of people because somebody is always trying to get something out of them.
My job was to be honest, forthright, and in their corner always — even if issues came up corporately, I tried to help them resolve [them]. Some of us are driven to do more than just make money for our shareholders, I’d like to think that we’re trying to improve people’s lives and make athletes perform better. That’s more on my mind than profits or sales.
The interesting thing about the decision-making early on at Jordan Brand to add teams was that internally at Nike there were a lot of people with different perspectives on who should be a Jordan team and who should be a Nike team. A lot of people were confused about what the difference really was and we had to spend a lot of time explaining the style and performance of the Jordan shoes, whereas Nike’s footwear is slightly different in many ways. We had to navigate that.
IS: Any final thoughts when it comes to working with MJ and the Mamba?
TH: Michael and Kobe? They’re the best.