Kicks Fix: Nike jumpstarts LeBron's 'retro' sneaker line

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·The Vertical
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LeBron James' first retro sneaker, pictured with his iconic jersey. (Nick DePaula/The Vertical)
LeBron James' first retro sneaker, pictured with his iconic jersey. (Nick DePaula/The Vertical)

If the seven-year, $90 million endorsement contract weren’t a good enough hint, the initial name of LeBron James’ first Nike sneaker – 2003’s Air Zoom Generation – was at its core a declaration.

“We think he’s the athlete that will define the next generation,” a Nike spokesman said more than 13 years ago.

Throughout James’ career there’s been a discussion at Nike of when the brand would re-issue some of his earliest signature shoes. As his sneaker series continued to expand, the brand’s mission was to eventually emulate the retro-heavy business plan that has framed Michael Jordan’s post-career success with the Jordan Brand.

That time is here with Nike recently rolling out a limited 500-pair run of the original white and crimson Air Zoom Generation that James wore in his first Cleveland home game. A new version made of premium tan leather is slated to launch this month as part of Nike’s “Five Decades Pack,” representing the 2000s and giving some updated casual appeal to the silhouette.

The Air Zoom Generation retro (Nick DePaula/The Vertical)
The Air Zoom Generation retro (Nick DePaula/The Vertical)

“For an 18-year-old kid to be able to see his name and his likeness on his first signature shoe, it’s an emotional feeling and it’s exciting,” James said in a recent online video.

Nike’s ongoing “retro” discussions of the last five years often focused on finding a defining moment of James’ career.

Many thought it would be when James was on the brink of winning his first championship in 2012 after his ninth sneaker and as James was heading toward the start of his 10th season. Executives in the sports marketing arm of the brand felt it was too soon, that the re-release might cannibalize the sales and attention of the current models. But once James returned to Cleveland and carried his hometown Cavaliers to the franchise’s first championship this past spring, Nike was ready to proceed.

“It’s time. I think the moment is right and it’s perfect timing,” James said in the clip.

In order to have a signature sneaker ready for James’ first NBA game, the design process started long before the summer of 2003. It was no secret that brands had been hovering around the teen phenom for some time, and Nike accelerated the process of developing a relationship with the high school senior.

A concept sketch of the Air Zoom Generation. (Nick DePaula)
A concept sketch of the Air Zoom Generation. (Nick DePaula)

“We started getting close to LeBron a year before signing him, looking to understand what he would want in a potential signature product,” a former Nike Basketball employee said.

Looking to utilize all of its design resources, Nike assigned three of its top designers to the project. Tinker Hatfield, Eric Avar and Aaron Cooper had each designed the industry’s most innovative signature shoes for Jordan, Penny Hardaway, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen and others in the 1990s.

Those early conversations with James helped to shape the general look and stance of his debut sneaker. He mentioned that the Air Jordan IX and XI were some of his favorite sneaker designs and also shared a glimpse into his “soldier” mentality on the court as he was playing on an AAU team of the same name.

“The overall aesthetic of the shoe is like a futuristic special forces boot for the court. The height of it, the collar line and the angularity of the color blocking,” Cooper said.

Cars have also played a heavy role in sneaker design. It was James’ much-publicized 18th birthday gift, a chrome Hummer H2, that would most directly impact the shoe design, from the metallic accenting to the finer details. The “NIKE” stamp font along the shoe takes inspiration from the hulking car’s font types, and the lacing piece drafts off the H2’s wheel-locking hubs.

On some early sketches, there was even a Rolex-inspired five-point “LJ” logo concept, hinting at the brand’s long-rumored preference for James to wear No. 5 as he entered the league. With the idea that James’ game would represent a new positionless player who could play all five spots, the brand hoped the number would be directly associated with James long after his playing career ended. Of course, he opted to wear Jordan’s No. 23.

Along the bottom of the shoe, Nike played into James’ beastly feline alter-ego – a lion – which would later be heavily incorporated alongside him in marketing print ads for the shoe’s launch. “Tinker was the one who made the connection to the lion. Lions on the Serengeti dig in their claws when chasing prey and when they need to change direction, they dig in their heels,” Cooper said about the outsole’s design. “We added the herringbone pattern to the toe and heel because it was really about digging in your toes for speed and digging in your heels for change of direction.”

LeBron James' first Air Zoom Generation lion ad. (Courtesy of Nike)
LeBron James' first Air Zoom Generation lion ad. (Courtesy of Nike)

In addition to all of the visual cues that would begin to take shape during the design process, James also had one very specific and simple demand for the shoe. “Within the first 15 minutes of meeting with LeBron, I asked, ‘What is the most important performance factor for you on the basketball court?'” Cooper said. “He said, ‘Comfort.’ So I looked him dead in the eyes and said, ‘LeBron, we will make you the most comfortable basketball shoe you have ever worn.’”

With comfort in mind, the shoe featured a heel Air Max unit, forefoot Zoom air, and a plush, seamless collar foam all throughout the upper. Over the last few months of the 2003 summer, as the shoe’s look, materials and details were being fine-tuned and finalized, Cooper remembers the brand’s official presentation of James’ finished size 15.

“We presented him a case that had his lion logo and name on it, with a pair in his size inside,” Cooper said. “He puts on the shoes and gets up from his chair, walks around, jumps around, stops and looks at me and goes, ‘Coop! These are the most comfortable shoes I have ever worn – exactly what you said you were going to do.”

As Nike looks to continue to celebrate James’ journey with the brand, there are already plans to remake other models from his first handful of seasons, brand sources said. For James, the shoe represents the strides he’s made and the heights he’s reached as the most highly touted prospect in league history.

“Behind the wrapper is something for every kid that got a dream, that they can make it a reality, no matter the circumstances,” James said in the video, “because this 18-year-old kid from Akron, Ohio, was able to do it.”

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