words // Nick DePaula:
When Nike pitched a then-18 year-old LeBron James during the spring of 2003 with his own shoe and a massive 7 year, $90 Million contract offer, the brand also put together the most powerful design trio it had.
Tinker Hatfield, Eric Avar AND Aaron Cooper were teaming up to design his debut sneaker — a power move if there ever was one.
After meeting the already dubbed “King James,” Coop had a bold and simple declaration for LeBron: “We will design you the most comfortable basketball shoe you have ever worn. Period.”
The trio had a series of sketches and looks to work from early on, that loosely pulled some inspiration cues from LeBron’s controversial Hummer H2, his 18th birthday present. As you’ll see below, there’s a progression to the collar shape and logo placement, along with some shifts to the sleekness of the midsole.
Since Nike was plunking down $90 Million, it should come as no surprise that the Swoosh shifted from a subtle collar hit to a more overt midfoot logo about three times the size.
It’s also long been said that Nike execs wanted LeBron to wear #5 when he entered the league, so he could create his own legacy for the number as an expectedly transcendent player, rather than piggyback off of Michael’s #23. Five was thought to represent the fact that his all-around game was all about team, and that he could also potentially play all five positions.
You’ll notice that a “LJ” logo option with a five-pronged crown is featured on the heel counter of one sketch, while another option features five stitch lines through the midfoot. Those details all were scrapped once James decided on #23 for good.
While the look evolved during the process, the technology that Nike’s star trio incorporated into the shoe offered up proven performance for the rookie. Heel Max Air and forefoot Zoom Air provided guaranteed great cushioning, but it was the brand new “Sphere Liner” that would make the Air Zoom Generation such a comfortable and plush shoe the second you put them on. The thick zonal collar padding was used throughout the shoe’s full-length inner sleeve, making for a damn comfy sneaker that somehow still only ran for $110.
“LeBron put them on [for the first time], jumped up about four to five times, stopped and said, ‘These are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn,'” smiles Cooper.
Check out the Air Zoom Generation’s sketch progression below, in our latest Sneaker Sketch of the Week.