From 'the toaster' to the legendary, ranking Kobe Bryant's signature sneakers

ByNick DePaula ESPN logo
Wednesday, August 23, 2017

More than 20 years ago, when the term "signature sneaker" was synonymous with Michael Jordan, Adidas signed a quartet of young phenoms in an attempt to jump-start its fledgling basketball line. The face of that movement was Kobe Bryant, who by virtue of his new Hollywood home with the Los Angeles Lakers and his fresh-faced interest in marketing himself had undeniable star power potential.

Bryant's time with Adidas didn't last, as he exited the deal in 2002 and played the entire 2002-03 season without a sneaker endorsement deal before joining Nike, where he felt he belonged all along.

"It was like when Harry Potter landed in Hogwarts. [laughs] He was home," he told me back in 2009. "I'm always around a bunch of people who are competitive and just as competitive as I am or just as passionate about the sport as I am. I'm not looked at as being different or anything like that because I'm ultra-competitive. I'm just around a bunch of people who are exactly the same way as I am."

Unlike Air Jordans, which only Michael and a few fellow Bulls teammates wore during his active playing days, Kobe's signature series soon filtered across the league, worn by players of all positions on every team -- trusted for their performance. While Jordan's line affected culture and style in ways the industry probably will never again see, Bryant's line similarly affected innovation.

"It means we were doing it right because professional athletes aren't going to throw shoes on their feet just to throw shoes on their feet," Bryant said, just after seeing the adoption of his Zoom Kobe IV across the league. "That's how they make their living, on their feet, so they want to make sure they put something on their feet that's comfortable, that's going to help them perform and that's safe."

Over his two-decade career, Kobe's sneaker catalog spanned more than 50 sneakers. In honor of his 39th birthday, we rank his most notable Adidas and Nike signature models, from the despised to the beloved.

24. Adidas The Kobe Two

This is the shoe that is universally blamed as being the one that forced Bryant to leave the brand entirely. It wasn't just the inherent clunkiness that earned it the dubious nickname "The Toaster" among kids. The shoe performed just as badly as it looked. At the close of the 2002 season, Bryant switched out of The Kobe Two in favor of the previous season's pair. Then he switched out of Adidas sneakers for good.

23. Adidas KB8 III (aka EQT Responsive)

The KB8 III is often the last Adidas sneaker design of his that hardcore Bryant fans can recall. It was the final Bryant model to feature the brand's "Feet You Wear" podular technology, which Bryant had soured on as feeling dated by the 2000s. He wore it in a handful of simple and Lakers-themed colors and then switched to the more classic Forum 2000 for the playoffs that season.

22. Nike Zoom Huarache 2K5

As Bryant and Nike were working on the starting points of his signature series, he was the headliner of the brand's Zoom Huarache series for two seasons before the Zoom Kobe 1. Taking inspiration from Nike's Free Running series, the shoe featured more sculpted flex grooves and a higher, strap-affixed protective collar. The design never quite crossed over casually but was loved by ballers who put them to their intended use on the court.

21. Nike Zoom Kobe III

"When people first saw the shoe, they were like, 'Oh -- I don't know. I don't know,'" Bryant said with a laugh.

The high-cut shoe attracted some love and simultaneously drew comparisons to Belgian waffles. While the all-black version was first to launch, Bryant was soon donning a mix of brighter and more refined looks, all while having one of his greatest individual seasons. Among cult collectors, it is best remembered for what Bryant accomplished in the shoe -- his lone MVP award and a post-Shaq return to the NBA Finals.

20. Adidas KB8 II

Worn only sparingly during the NBA's truncated 1998-99 lockout season, the KB8 II was the shoe that set into motion a sweeping shift in the design of his post-millennium Adidas sneakers. Originally released in only three colors -- black, white and a daring purple -- the second KB8 model has since been relaunched by Adidas, with little love from today's collectors.

19. Nike Kobe VII (System)

Just as his Nike series cemented itself as one of the industry's pinnacle performance products, Kobe and Nike toyed with a working formula. The seventh sneaker introduced the "Kobe System," a modular concept that gave wearers the option of switching between two insoles within the shoe, each with a different tongue. One was a low-top; the other a floppy Velcro-based sleeve. The result was a more expensive shoe that didn't necessarily advance the line, and Nike moved away from the "System" idea the next season.

18. Nike Kobe AD

Yes, the name is unmistakably short for "Kobe After Death," a slightly uncomfortable, definite first in post-retirement signature sneakers. Designed with the same principles of speed, cushioning and lockdown that defined each of the low-top Kobe sneakers before it, the shoe was well-liked on the court and adopted throughout the NBA. Nike provided custom pairs of the AD to some of the top volume scorers around, like Toronto's DeMar DeRozan and Cleveland's Isaiah Thomas.

17. Nike Zoom Kobe II

Released just before shoes were getting lighter and lower, the Kobe II is one of the best-performing sneakers of the entire line but hasn't aged as well.

"The designer on that, Kenzo [Ken Link], is extremely talented," Bryant said. "We just sat around the table and chopped it and came up with a design that I really liked."

There was ample cushioning by way of Zoom Air, and firm support via a lockdown strap and plastic heel chassis. There were some storytelling elements as well, as the shoe featured a laser-cut diamond pattern graphic throughout, a subtle nod to his daughter Natalia Diamante.

16. Adidas EQT Elevation

Worn in simple black and white during Bryant's first trip to the NBA playoffs, the Elevation is fittingly more known for his aerial assaults during the 1997 slam dunk contest. With his warm-up top still on, Bryant donned an all-purple pair for the annual All-Star Weekend event, flashing a bit of the arrogance and flair that had come to define his early years in the league. Bryant took home the trophy in his lone contest and elevated the quirky Adidas design through the rest of that spring.

15. Nike Kobe 9 (low)

The 9 Low is oft-forgotten on the court, as Kobe primarily wore the high-cut 9 Elite during the few times he did see the court during his injury-riddled 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. Beloved by collectors for its Flyknit material and sharply sculpted carbon fiber sides, it was the model Bryant wore as he passed his idol Michael Jordan for third place among the NBA's all-time scoring leaders.

14. Adidas Top Ten 2010

In the late 1970s, Adidas introduced the original Top Ten sneaker on the feet of 10 players from around the league. The shoe launched to celebrate the best of the era, with input coming directly from the players who wore it, like Rick Barry, Adrian Dantley and Bob Lanier.

It was only right that Bryant was among the batch of youthful players hand-picked in 1996 to wear the brand's latest Top Ten sneaker, highlighting the best of the next generation. Bryant wore a white, silver and black pair for home games, and black, silver and white on the road, as he kicked off his debut season in the NBA.

13. Nike Zoom Kobe 1

"With the Zoom 1, I wanted to have more cushioning," Bryant said. "It was a season where I was coming off of some knee injuries and some things like that. So we actually sacrificed some weight with this shoe for a lot more cushioning."

The shoe featured Kobe's "Sheath" logo proudly on the tongue. The sword-holster-inspired icon drew its design from the movie "Kill Bill," an action favorite of Bryant's. Throughout his 80-game season, Bryant channeled that attacking mentality and went on to have the greatest scoring season of his career, averaging 35.4 points -- none more impressive than his iconic 81-point barrage against Toronto in January 2006.

12. Nike Kobe X Elite (high)

For the second straight season, Kobe had ditched the low-top silhouette that players across the league had worn nightly, in favor of the ultra-high sneaker that often drew comparisons to boxing shoes. With a fully Flyknit upper, the shoe was more flexible and conforming than the Kobe 9 before it, and is still worn by players now two seasons later.

11. Nike Kobe 11

While the design was more evolution than revolution, the 11 is best distinguished as being the final sneaker Bryant wore during his illustrious 20-season long career. He wore a mix of both muted and bold fully knit executions of the model throughout his final campaign, none more memorable than the simple black and gold "Mamba Day" look. While scoring 60 points at home in his final game, players from around the league also were wearing the commemorative kicks to honor Bryant, leaving a lasting memory among collectors.

10. Nike Kobe 8

Coming off of the VII's "System" approach, the eighth Kobe sneaker was simplified in every facet. There was an engineered mesh upper for more flexibility and less weight, along with a thin one-piece tongue. The design wasn't as groundbreaking as the Kobes 4-6 before it, but the shoe still ranks among everyone's favorite on court. Players like DeMar DeRozan will still break out the 8 from time to time, several seasons later.

9. Nike Kobe X (low)

With a fully clear bottom and two-pronged support wedge, the 10th Kobe model amplified Bryant's consistent insistence on releasing sleek sneakers meant for an attacking mindset. Nike launched a few Flyknit versions as limited editions, while the main mesh-based version featured a basic, no-frills design that immediately made it one of the most worn Kobe sneakers in the NBA. Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo hasn't been able to take them off for more than two seasons.

8. Nike Zoom Kobe VI

As Kobe became fully committed to his self-anointed "Black Mamba" nickname, it was only natural that the lethal snake alter ego make its way into his footwear storytelling. At the time, the shoe's design was the subject of several internal shouting matches at Nike, with designer Eric Avar and Kobe eventually winning out. The sneaker featured an entirely snake-scale-inspired upper and is one of the most loved Kobe models all these years later thanks to its unapologetic Mamba motif.

7. Adidas The Kobe

In partnering with Audi, located just an hour south of Adidas' headquarters in Germany, the brand debuted The Kobe, a re-imagined Bryant signature sneaker defined by its Audi TT-like silhouette and grill-cued front. There were even pseudo brake lights and a spoiler on the heel, which somehow looked refined and polished.

The marketing campaign featured Bryant in the shoes and monochromatic tracksuits, alongside modern furniture and motorcycles. Most notably, the shoe also debuted Bryant's signature logo -- dubbed "Frobe" by fans -- a side portrait silhouette that incorporated his sculpted afro hairstyle of the time.

6. Nike Kobe 9 Elite (high)

Just as he was recovering from his disastrous Achilles tear injury in 2013, Kobe was set to launch one of the most disruptive sneakers of his Nike tenure. The 9 wasn't just a mid-cut, it was sky-high -- and a complete shift from the five low-top signature models before it.

Nike built up the relentlessness with which Kobe attacked his recovery period and utilized players around the league to debut the sneaker while he sat out. The first Nike basketball shoe to introduce the brand's Flyknit material, the 9 is best remembered for its nine stitched lines along the heel, representing each threaded stitch of Bryant's Achilles surgery.

5. Nike Hyperdunk

Bryant was tapped to debut the Hyperdunk months before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, which represented a massive global opportunity for Nike as it launched two of its newest innovations: Flywire and Lunar Foam.

"The thing that sold me on it was the technology," Bryant said. "I'm a real technology guy, and there's not a lot of people who would push that boundary or hop in a shoe that's so new."

The angular, linear look and synthetic construction of the Hyperdunk went on to define the next decade of basketball footwear, with Bryant leading the charge. Nike's first viral video featured Bryant leaping a speeding Aston Martin atop a parking garage, and helped make the Hyperdunk one of Nike's most successful basketball sneakers ever.

4. Adidas KB8

By just his second season in the league, Kobe already had his own signature shoe. The renamed "Feet You Wear" model now scrunched together his initials and jersey number, and the bold black and white debut color quickly became one of Adidas' most coveted basketball designs.

Photos of Bryant wearing the KB8 while battling Michael Jordan, then in his final season with the Bulls, in both the Forum in Los Angeles and at the 1998 All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden, became iconic. Adidas still re-releases the shoe under the "Crazy 8" name, in both its original form and a knitted and modernized version.

3. Nike Zoom Huarache 2K4

After signing with Nike in 2003, Bryant went on an exploration trip with now-CEO Mark Parker and longtime Nike designers Tinker Hatfield and Eric Avar. As the group got to know one another, their conversations turned to points of inspiration for Bryant.

"The first meeting with the 2K4," Bryant said, "as soon as I started to talk about the great white [shark] and the design and the sleekness of [the shoe] and how I wanted to incorporate that into the shoe ... he got it right away."

For Avar, the Huarache 2K4 was a chance to re-establish Nike's point of view on modern design, after the early 2000s had become riddled with gimmicks and visible cushioning systems.

Bryant soon became the vehicle to headline Nike's newest innovation and wore the 2K4 throughout his first season with the brand, most notably at the 2004 All-Star Game in Los Angeles and the 2004 NBA Finals.

2. Nike Zoom Kobe V

Building off of the massive success of the Zoom Kobe IV, Nike looked to tweak and upgrade the fifth model just slightly. The biggest difference came from the fully synthetic "Skinwire" upper, and the lower collar height.

"It's really about functionality and about doing something that makes sense," Bryant said. "It's not just about having a shoe that's low to the ground for whatever reason but having something that's functional. We felt like we could cut out an ounce and significantly lower the weight by going lower, and we're not losing any of the functionality or comfort in the shoe."

As he did with the IV, Kobe once again took the shoe to the NBA Finals , winning back-to-back championships and getting his fifth ring in the Kobe V.

1. Nike Zoom Kobe IV

After finding his way in giving input, influencing design and working with designers, Bryant and Nike hit their stride together with his fourth signature model.

"I just wanted to have better range and flexibility within the ankle and be able to move and cut and not feel like that movement is restricted," Bryant said.

Players like Steve Nash and Gilbert Arenas had worn low-tops previously, but no one had the league-wide impact and influence that Kobe had. Shortly after the shoe debuted, everyone from point guards to fellow wings like Trevor Ariza and Lamar Odom were soon wearing it.

"They know how meticulous I am and how detailed I am about my game, and I'm not going to throw something on my feet just to throw something on my feet," Bryant said about the IV's impact across the league.

Avar was tasked with the low-top demand from the start and delivered a sneaker that is universally considered one of the greatest basketball shoes ever made.

"We kind of developed a theme for my shoes," Bryant said. "We always want to push the boundaries of lightness and speed."

In pushing those boundaries, the shoe's classic lines also incorporated several subtle nods to Bryant's approach. The bottom of the shoe took inspiration from Venom, the comic character featured in 2007's "Spider-Man 3." One particular scene stuck with Kobe, when Venom's alien symbiote suit took hold of the character, eventually merging as one atop his skin.

In true Kobe fashion, he went to his shoe designers shortly after and asked for a shoe that could "fit like a second skin." The IV, with its sleek low-top stance, also featured a Venom-like graphic along the bottom, representing Bryant's vision for the ultimate expression of his signature shoe.

Nick DePaula is the creative director for Nice Kicks and former editor-in-chief of Sole Collector Magazine.

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