words & interview // Nick DePaula:
When your game is as fast, as quick and as frenzied as Kyrie Irving’s, your footwear needs to match that frantic style of play, and there are endless performance demands that come with it.
As Nike Basketball’s Design Director Leo Chang explains, they didn’t yet have a shoe in the line that could capture the explosive speed of Kyrie’s game, so over the last three years, they’ve spent countless hours building out the point guard’s signature series, engineered to his exact specifications.
It’s the 20th such namesake line for Nike’s hoops category to date, as the new Kyrie 2 looks to enhance his speed with relentless traction, lockdown fit and a 360 containment story. The grip underfoot takes inspiration from motorcycle tires, sitting lower to the ground and with a noticeably sharper stance.
For more on Irving’s second signature shoe, including details that led to the design of the outsole’s traction pattern, the shoe’s strap and the personal details throughout, I caught up with designer Leo Chang at length over the phone last week.
Nick DePaula: From a broad view, before last season, you had Kobe, KD & LeBron, all wings and forwards with signatures. There’s also been this growing group of point guards around the league with signatures at other brands. At the time, people were talking about Kyrie, James Harden or Paul George as the next signature guy for you. How early on was Kyrie identified as the guy, and how was that decision made? He was only 22 when his first shoe dropped.
Leo Chang: Our sports marketing guys have a very clear strategy of who they feel possesses that type of quality to be a signature guy within the Nike roster. For us, from the footwear side, it made sense, because we have these silos that you’ll every now and then see in a Nike store: Electric Quickness, Explosive Power and Dynamic Versatility.
KD is in the middle, with the Dynamic Versatility. Explosive Power is of course LeBron, and Kobe at his pinnacle has really exemplified Electric Quickness. We felt like, “Well, Kobe is going to retire, and obviously his game is very different now.”
Kyrie really was a sharp point for Electric Quickness. He exemplified that notion of speed in multi-directions. It was awesome to have that kind of player that could be one of the muses for that silo. It worked out great in that way. Each guy has their own lane, which is kind of nice.
NDP: Definitely, and it’s always been a really complementary field of signature guys, whereas maybe some other brands are stacked at one position of signatures, and then they’re overlapping.
LC: Yeah, exactly.
NDP: Kyrie was leading shoes like the Hyperdunk 2013 and the first HyperRev even before, so I’m sure you were hearing his likes and insights along the way. Once you got into building out that first Kyrie shoe, what were some of the specific things that he really wanted to see incorporated?
LC: For him, it was all about that multi-directional movement for him. He doesn’t say it in that way, but he’s all about that forefoot containment. He wants zero movement. When he’s making these moves, he doesn’t want any loss of time.
He wants to be able to stop on a dime and go. His change of direction, and the spins he’s doing, or cutting between defenders – he wants his footwear to really match his game.
What was awesome, was Tony Grosso, who is our Product Line Manager on this shoe, he talked about it in a really great way. He said, “Up until the 1, we didn’t have footwear that matched his game.”
The Hyperdunk was built more for the Dynamic Versatility silo, and is a universal shoe that all players can wear. Kyrie is more to the left of that, and he’s a little bit different in the way that he moves. He has to have a shoe that’s for the multi-directional quickness that he plays with.
In thinking about it in that way, we realized, “You’re right, we don’t have shoes like that.” In some of the things we noticed in watching him play, as he’s dribbling, you can see the buildup of his crossover to a certain move, and the footwork that’s happening within that. You could see the way his feet are on the edge, and his shoe’s upper or toe box on the medial side, would actually be touching the court.
We were like, “Damn, we don’t really design for that.” Things like that are special to his game and players like him, and we didn’t have that in our other signature players. It was really cool to watch his movements and see how different that was from LeBron, KD and even Kobe.
Everything he said really matched that. He wanted to feel fast, locked in and tight. Traction was incredibly important as well. Working with him has been really fun, because he’s been able to really articulate everything too.
“He wanted to feel fast, locked in and tight. Traction was incredibly important as well.”
NDP: He’s a super sharp guy, of course. By all accounts, everyone seemed to really like playing in the first shoe. A lot of guys around the league wore it and still wear it. Did he actually have any call outs in terms of things to improve on there, or was he really happy with them?
LC: He loved the 1. That’s the thing, he wanted to be so invested into the signature process; that was his baby. If you look at his friends and his team around him, they were like, “This is our shoe.” We finally were finished on the 1, and finishing up the nuances of it, and even going down to some of the aesthetic things, like the heel counter, we went through four different design iterations on that.
We had one that was super clean, one with a slight ridge, one with big spikes to even where it ended up. We just wanted to obsess on getting it right. Throughout the process, he was fully invested in making it right, from a performance standpoint and also aesthetic. He’s just sharp on all of that.
NDP: For the Kyrie 2, it seems like this idea of 360 lockdown fit and all-over traction were the two key points. How early did you guys look at switching from a herringbone to that curved traction concept?
LC: Early, and we knew that the 1 was step one to getting a shoe closer to his game. On the 1, we wanted to make sure we had great traction, and we wrapped it up on the forefoot 360 around the toe, because of how he plays on the edge of the shoe. We didn’t want him to slide out on the midsole while he was cutting. That could be the end of a game or the loss of a game. So we had to solve that, and make sure that his first point of contact was right.
It was funny, because he and LeBron being on the same team, it’s interesting how they support eachother as part of the Nike family and the same team. LeBron showed up to the launch of the 1, and sat in the back with Tristan Thompson. It was great to see him there and supporting him.
LeBron even wanted to wear his shoe, and Kyrie was telling me, “Yeah, LeBron tried to wear it in practice.” It was just such a different shoe than what he’s used to, and not built for him, so he couldn’t play in it and had to take them off. Kyrie was making all kinds of squeaking sound effects, and saying how LeBron was changing direction and stopping on a dime so quickly, but it wasn’t really right for his game, you know?
NDP: That’s funny, and it was cool even seeing LeBron wear them casually from time to time or post them up on Instagram, just to show some love. I also thought that whole event last year was really cool, how you had past signature guys like Penny and Chuck [Barkley] really welcome Kyrie into the signature family.
LC: Yeah, I thought that was great too, and it was definitely a proud moment for him to be in that class. So as we got into the 2 and the outsole, we wanted to look at how we could take the traction even further. We wanted to really build and tune the geometry of the midsole and the outsole to further allow him the ability to make the moves that he does. One of the things that Matt Nurse [Nike Sport Research Lab head innovation lead] kicked around, was this idea of banking.
In the Lab in the past, they had proven that these permanent wedged midsoles could make you faster. They’d have a wedge out to the side to help the shoe bank a certain direction when you’re cutting. That was a really cool idea, but it didn’t go anywhere, because the solution was still a bit limiting for the game of basketball. You just don’t go or cut in one direction all day long, so we wanted to adjust the banking so that it could go left to right, forwards and backwards and all of that.
That’s where that idea and inspiration came from, and looking outside of our industry at motorcycle tires, some of the roads aren’t banked and are flat, and you’ll see guys bank their motorcycles at really extreme low angles. If they hit a pebble, they’re screwed. [laughs] Their knees are like a centimeter from the ground, and it’s ridiculous. So I was looking at the way that they did that, and it has to do with the geometry of the tire being rounded. It’s pretty cool. If you also look at cycling tracks, the edges are banked, to allow you to be a little more perpendicular to the ground, while hitting a curve.
You can maximize the power of your foot through that system, by being a little straighter when you attack. That’s where the rounded bottom idea came from for the Kyrie 2. We round most of the medial sides of our shoes anyway for years now, because of that, but this is taking that to another level. If a guy is cutting, a lot of times we just focus on the medial side of the outter foot, but on the inside foot, it’s doing the opposite.
You’re landing first laterally, and then your foot is going medially. So you need to have both working together in the tooling. That’s why it’s rounded on both medial and lateral side here. We’re allowing his foot to bank on both sides. We went through rounds and rounds of exactly what the right curvature is, to get the stability that you still need.NDP: I noticed that there wasn’t much variation in all of the traction patterns in the samples. Did you guys have that nailed fairly early and then just need to refine it? Once he got a chance to test it out, was it something that he was on board with right away too?
LC: Yeah, he was super excited. The sensation is different at first, and that’s what we wanted, to push something more specific within each silo that we have. We want Electric Quickness to feel different than Dynamic Versatility and Explosive Power. Each one should have their own distinct feel. That was unusual to him at first, and he said, “Wow, this doesn’t feel like any other shoe.” Once he started to do his movements, and doing his spin move, his crossover and all of the stuff that he does, he started to really enjoy it and love it.
One of the things that happened early on, was I had a prototype that was super generic of the tooling with a herringbone pattern, just to test the rounded bottom. We just filled it with a generic herringbone, and that could be the standard and a baseline, just to see if the rounded part works. It was probably the wrong herringbone, where the spacing was too tight, so it didn’t really allow for the midsole to deflect and conform to the ground like we wanted. It was a hard surface under the foot.
“The whole map of the outsole is based on the motions of basketball.”
People didn’t like it, and that’s where we started off. So we knew that, “Hey, the traction has to be designed with the bottom, so that it all works in conjunction. We can’t just throw a pattern on there.” We learned very quickly that I needed to really get the traction right so that it’d work with the rounded nature of the outsole. You can see how some blades are running more heel to toe in some directions, and then on the medial side, they allow you to cut and dig in. In the center, it’s more radial, and that’s great for multi-directional movement, and it also allows the rubber to deflect into the midsole. The whole map of the outsole is based on the motions of basketball.
When they came to town on the 26th of December for the Portland game, I said, “Well how’s it feeling?” He said he loved it and it was working great for him. It’s been great, and it’s nice when it all works out.
NDP: That’s definitely preferred, I assume.[laughs]
LC: Definitely, versus the opposite.
NDP: How was the strap designed, and was that something that he asked for?
LC: We had heard rumblings from our Sports Marketing guys that he was looking for that. They meet with him all the time throughout the year, and they had said to me, “Kyrie is thinking about a strap.” That got me thinking, and I started to anticipate what that could be.
I wanted to ground it in function, and one of the things that the strap does, is it was inspired by the ligaments in the foot. If you google any ligaments around the foot, there’s a whole network of ligaments around the ankle area, and they all work together and connect to the parts of the foot and toes. All of those are a network that keep your foot stable.
A lot of times, if you have an ankle roll, you could tear or sprain a ligament in your foot. The idea was, “How could we utilize a strap in that area to simulate the proprioception of stability around the ankle?” We wanted to use it for that purpose, and that’s why it looks that way.
NDP: I’m not sure if it was just a coincidence or what, but a lot of people have been saying that it looks –
LC: Like the KD IV. [laughs]
NDP: Yeah, a bit like a reverse KD 4 flow. I always loved the look of that shoe, and it’s given this one a real unique look too.
LC: For me, maybe I’m in the weeds of it too much, but I feel like people have said the same thing about some of the Soldiers in the past too. Any time we do a strap in that area, there’s comparisons that people make. If you look at the nuances of it, the KD 4 strap was completely different.
It had the Adaptive Fit concept and really locked into the arch band on the inside. They were completely different functions, but I don’t think people care. [laughs] I think it’s cool that people make that reference if they want to, and I’ve heard that too.
NDP: There’s been a lot of comparisons to the HyperRev just in the radial design of the collar too and a bit of the shape of it. Was that a shoe that he called out as liking, or something that you drafted back to?
LC: You know, that didn’t ever really come up. It just sort of happened. [laughs]NDP: What’s the cushioning setup this time around? You guys switched from forefoot Zoom to a heel unit? Was that from feedback of his?
LC: One of the things that I heard in a few reviews of the Kyrie 1, is people expected the 1 to be lower to the ground, because of his style of play. That was interesting, and maybe they were right and it was too middle of the lane and too democratic of a stance. So, I wanted to push it to be even lower to the ground feeling. Also, I wanted it to work with that rounded geometry, which really follows the curvature of the last.
Fitting a forefoot bag and an added layer in there, it felt like it potentially could take away from the rounded geometry working in giving you that low feel. So we shifted the Zoom to the heel, to give you some cushioning in the back.
There is a Poron unit in the strobel [under the footbed] that we added in too, to give it some cushiness. For the most part, you’re getting more of a race car feel in the forefoot, and it’s lower to the ground and you can really feel the rounded nature of it.
NDP: As you guys got into making this a signature product and adding in some personal touches, what were some of the things that you wanted to incorporate? With the 1, the jagged toe was inspired by the Sydney Opera House, and there was also the handwritten #2 and the nod to his mom.
LC: I don’t think these guys are looking to add more family members to their shoes all of the time anymore.
NDP: Yeah, KD was pretty heavy on that early on. [laughs]
LC: Yeah, exactly. [laughs] There’s some constants here for Kyrie, and his mother’s passing and also birth date are on [the underside of] one of the straps. That was consistent with what we had on the 1. There’s a “H&H” logo on the other strap, which is for “Hungry & Humble,” a tattoo that he has on his chest. His #2, he wanted it placed on the back again, but he wanted it more integrated into design, so you see the radial lines coming off of that 2, and it wasn’t just slapped on.
As we went through each colorway too, one of the key things was him looking at the design. When we started out, we kind of downplayed the strap a little bit. He was like, “No man, lets celebrate that.” That’s one of the heroes of the shoe, and he wanted us to have more fun with and bring that strap to life. He wanted to have some that really pop. The ‘Inferno’ colorway started out with just a bright crimson strap, and he said, “That’s not enough. Lets bring some life to that.”
That’s where the graphics from Lola Dupre, that we used on the ‘Kyrie Effect’ colorway, really came from. That was such a limited thing, and we knew that the Effect colorway was going to be gone right away, so we wanted it to also live on a little beyond that too. It’s fractalized and exploding in multiple directions, which totally fit in with his style of play too.
“When we started out, we kind of downplayed the strap a little bit. He was like, ‘No man, lets celebrate that.'”
On that one, [Erick] Goto led the Kyrie Effect. When we were talking about the colorway with Kyrie, it was more about the dream, continued. He loved the first shoe for the 1, which was around how it was a dream for him to be in the league, and a dream for him to have a shoe. He’ll tag on social media #StillADream, and that was something that he wanted to still continue on with. Goto looked at different ways to approach that concept, and this one was around lucid dreams.
It’s kind of like you don’t know what’s real and what’s not real, and what’s your dream. He found an artist that has a style to capture that – Lola Dupre. I actually saw her work at one of the First Thursdays here in the Pearl [District] in Portland, and it was super cool. She does these portraits of Marilyn Monroe and other figures, and breaks the image apart, and it’s crazy. It’s awesome. He found her, and got in contact with her to work on it.
She was a pleasure to work with, and I don’t think she gets enough credit for that style. The image that you actually see on the shoe, the heel is actually the Opera House in Sydney, which tells the story of Kyrie’s Australian roots. The other one is an image of Kyrie’s driveway basketball hoop at his dad’s house.
I asked his dad Dred for a picture of the hoop that they used to duke it out on, and he actually sent me that. We sent it to Lola and then she did her magic on that. On the strap, it’s a fractalized graphic of Kyrie doing a crossover in a brand shoot that we did. It all turned out great, and I always love when we can bring in an artist that’s maybe outside of our world.
NDP: With the 1, it was such a huge shoe on NIKEiD too. Did that influence at all how you designed the 2, knowing that you’d want to make it a real versatile shoe and something that could take color in a lot of ways?
LC: That was a huge request from Kyrie too, actually. He saw how crazy people went on iD with the Kyrie 1, and if you really look at that shoe, it’s actually not that versatile really. Yet, people went crazy with it. There aren’t really that many components to it, but it was still really well adopted, and people loved messing around with it on iD. He saw that, and he said, “We gotta make sure that people can really have fun with this thing on iD.”
If you look at the blocking of the shoe, you’ve got the back collar area, the strap and then you have the forefoot and the tongue. You can really create some distinct blocks for it and work from there. There’s graphics and materials that you can then play up. I just saw one that someone posted, and it was this insane picture of the strap and the outsole both glowing. I was like, “Holy crap, that looks incredible.”
NDP: As you look back over all of the Kyrie 2 colorways that’ve come out and are planned, do you have a favorite one? You did some Hyperdunks on ID, have you done some of these too?
LC: Yeah, I did four already actually. [laughs] They’re mostly pretty reserved. There’s one that’s just black and white, and then I also did one that’s all white, just because we didn’t do an all white. I just thought there was something cool about that, because of some of the sculptural qualities of the shoe. On its own, just being an all white shoe, I thought was pretty interesting. I did something with grey too, and then I did another one that’s a little Mag inspired. It’s grey, with a glow in the dark outsole and a splatter and all of that.
NDP: With KD, LeBron and Kobe as the three signature guys, the price points for those guys has just been getting higher and higher by the year. Now, Kyrie comes in at a lower level. He was $110 last year, and now $120 for the 2. Was that also the idea, for him to offset the other guys and have a more affordable signature option from the brand?
LC: It’s a balance, definitely. Having the Kyrie 1, being his first shoe at $110, we wanted to make sure it was set up for success. We didn’t want to come out the gates with a $150 or $180 shoe. That’s not what he wanted either. He wanted to make sure that the young athletes and the kids of the world can move along with him throughout his career. We’re going to keep him there for awhile, and it’s a balance of the portfolio, really.
NDP: Definitely, and we’ve seen it with KD, how his line has evolved over the years and gotten more tech along the way.
NDP: Also on that note. What’s up with the Elite series? We didn’t see a Kyrie 1 Elite, and of course we’re all expecting – well, maybe not based on last night’s performance against the Warriors [laughs] – but most people are expecting the Cavs to go deep into the playoffs. We didn’t see an Elite 1 when they made it to the Finals, but will we be seeing an Elite Series edition for the 2?
LC: We’re not going to do an Elite Series for him, and it’s more of a timing thing. The shoe launches in the Spring, so for it to come out with a completely different edition in the Summer, it’d be a short window of time to have the original version out and be adopted. It didn’t really make sense for that, and I don’t think he’s asking for that yet either.
NDP: For the Elite Series over time, I think it’s fair to say some of the models have been up and down at times. In general, are you guys committed to that concept long term for the other signatures as we get to the playoffs each year?
LC: You’re going to see the Elite Series still come to life. This one that’s coming up, there’s going to be a model that’s really polarizing, so it’ll be interesting to see what people think. It’s been fun throughout the process too, because some things start out really polarizing and out there. We had some fun with this one, and then we had to bring some reality to it. [laughs] I think it’s one of our stronger Elite Series that we’ve done.