‘It’s not like wearing Kobes makes this feel any better.’
BY AARON DODSON
Washington – In their first home game after Kobe Bryant’s untuned you death, the Washington Wizards won the opening tip against the Charlotte Hornets, and the basketball found its way into the hands of Isaiah Thomas.
Instead of advancing past half court, Thomas dribbled in place for eight seconds before his team was sanctioned for an intentional eight-second violation. Following the turnover, the Hornets inbounded the ball and dribbled out their own intentional 24-second shot clock violation, as the crowd at Capital One Arena chanted — “KO-BE! KO-BE! KO-BE!” — all while Thomas stood by himself, staring down at his sneakers. On his feet were a pair of “Finals MVP” Nike Zoom Kobe 4s — the same pair Bryant wore the night he and the Los Angeles Lakers claimed an NBA title in 2009.
Thomas wore them four days after the 41-year-old NBA legend and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were killed, along with seven others, in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. The night of the Hornets game, Thomas arrived at the arena rocking a yellow throwback No. 8 Bryant Lakers jersey. And during pregame, he stumbled across the decade-plus-old pair of Kobe 4s, tucked in the bottom left cubby of his locker. He decided to lace them up in honor of his longtime hero and mentor.
“It was only right,” Thomas told The Undefeated. “I hadn’t seen anybody wear these this season, so I had to pull them out. But it’s not like wearing Kobes makes this feel any better.”
Bryant is the first player in NBA history with a signature sneaker to die. His legacy in basketball footwear is undeniable. He repped two major brands, Adidas and Nike, while receiving 22 different signatures and more than 20 team models bearing his name and logo. Since Bryant’s sudden death nearly a month ago, players across the NBA have mourned him through their sneakers. From breaking out exclusive shoes from Bryant’s storied signature line to scribbling personal messages on pairs and even abandoning brand loyalty, the tributes to one of the most important figures in sneaker history haven’t stopped.
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Perhaps most notably, for the first time since he entered the NBA in 2003, Lakers star LeBron James played a game in another player’s signature shoe — Kobes.
“It really speaks to how much our players admire him,” NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum said. “For many of the young players today, Kobe was the NBA. They all admire him. Sneaker culture is so prevalent now in the NBA and the world that it’s so appropriate for them to honor him in this way. I know Kobe loved sneakers, and the fact that our players are rallying around sneakers as one way to show their love and admiration for Kobe is amazing.”
On Jan. 26, in the hours after news of the helicopter crash surfaced, more than 40 players across eight NBA games took the court wearing pairs of Bryant’s sneakers.
The first game on the schedule, a matchup between the Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets, tipped off less than 40 minutes after ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski confirmedthe death of Bryant, the retired 20-year NBA veteran. Seven players on the rosters of the Rockets and Nuggets laced up Kobes for the game: Denver’s Torrey Craig wore the “Galaxy” Nike Zoom Kobe 7s, which Bryant donned in the 2012 NBA All-Star Game. P.J. Tucker wore a pair of player exclusive (PE) Nike Zoom Kobe 7s, made for the basketball team at Los Angeles’ Westchester High School. Tucker, the NBA’s unrivaled sneaker king who wears multiple pairs of sneakers in any given game, typically ends games playing in Kobes. That afternoon, he pulled the Westchester PEs out of the 16-pair duffel bag he takes with him on Houston’s road trips.
“RIP KB,” Tucker wrote with a Sharpie inside the swoosh of each shoe. He also wrote “THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER” and “LOVE YOU KB24” on each midsole. The permanent ink on Tucker’s rare Weschester PEs will forever remind him of the day he, and the world, lost Bryant.
That same afternoon, San Antonio Spurs shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, a native of Compton, California, who has idolized Bryant since high school, when they first met, received a message as he arrived at AT&T Center to face the Toronto Raptors in the second NBA game of the day.
“I probably took like five steps away from my car and my cousin texted me asking me, ‘Is this real?’ ” DeRozan recalled. “He was like, ‘This Kobe thing … ’ I paused for a minute. Just like everybody, I didn’t wanna believe it. I think I was the only one who knew at that moment. I sat on the floor and tried to process it from there. We played an hour and a half after that. Everybody was asking what was wrong, and if I was OK. Once it hit everywhere, you could just feel the whole energy sucked out of everybody.” DeRozan last spoke to Bryant in December. “My daughter is getting older now and she loves basketball,” he said. “We were talking about getting her into the Mamba Academy.”
In a 110-106 Spurs loss, DeRozan scored just 14 points while wearing the “Big Stage/Parade” Nike Zoom Kobe 5 Protros, which were scheduled to drop on Feb. 7. Following Bryant’s death, Nike postponed the release. “It was, by far,” DeRozan said, “the hardest game I ever had to play in my life.”
DeRozan represents a small collective of NBA players that includes Thomas and Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker, who exclusively rock Bryant’s Nikes on the basketball court. He’s worn Kobes since day one — Oct. 28, 2009, when DeRozan played his first NBA regular-season game in a pair of black and white Kobe 4s. The four-time All-Star has laced up Kobes in all 805 games of his NBA career with one exception. On Feb. 12, 2012, Bryant traveled with the Lakers to Toronto for a matchup against his protege and the Raptors. That afternoon, DeRozan tried to get into his opponent’s head by ditching his usual Kobes for a pair of Air Jordan 10s. Undoubtedly, the Black Mamba noticed.
“It’s a thing early on in your career that you don’t ever wear the shoe of a player you’re going against,” DeRozan said. “I remember I wore some Jordans and as soon as Kobe walked on the court, he was mad as s— at me. He was like, ‘What the hell is going on!?!’ We laughed about it and I didn’t do it again. Ever since then, I’ve stuck with Kobes.” In 2017, a year after Bryant retired from the NBA, Nike released the Kobe A.D. DeRozan PE, inspired by one of the shooting guard’s earliest, and fondest, memories watching his idol play for the Lakers while growing up in Los Angeles. Two more of DeRozan’s Kobe PEs, a red limited edition Zoom Kobe 1 Protro, and a blue Olympic-themed Kobe A.D., dropped at retail in 2018.
“It’s always meant so much to me to be able to wear his shoes just because of our relationship and how he handpicked me to wear them,” DeRozan said. “I’ve always worn his shoe proudly, and continued to have his shoe live on. That was always my plan, even before his whole thing — to honor him and everything he stood for.”
Booker, along with Thomas and DeRozan, also played the night Bryant died — wearing Kobes, of course. The Suns shooting guard scored 36 points, fittingly on 24 shots, in a pair of all-purple Kobe 4 PEs, on which he penned in quotes a phrase Bryant once proclaimed to him: “Be Legendary.” After wearing a pair of Kobe 4 PEs in Wizards team colors against the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 26, Thomas turned to PEs from his brief stint with the Nuggets during the 2018-19 season. Coincidentally, the yellow, navy and red Kobe 4s are the same shoes Thomas took the court in after his close friend, West Coast rapper Nipsey Hussle, was shot and killed in March 2019. “RiP Nip RiP Kobe,” Thomas wrote on the side panel of the right shoe’s heel, while adding a line from Hussle’s 2018 track, “Victory Lap” — “I say it’s worth it, I won’t say it’s fair.”
When the Wizards returned to Washington to play the Hornets on Jan. 30, Thomas inked messages calling out the late Hussle and Bryant on his “Finals MVP” Kobe 4s, and added another line — “I Love You Chyna!!” — to honor his late sister.
On April 15, 2017, Chyna Thomas was killed in a one-car accident in the family’s home state of Washington at the age of 22. The following night, Thomas, then playing for the Boston Celtics, opened the 2017 NBA playoffs wearing a pair of green, gold and black Nike Kobe A.D. PEs.
“Kobe was one of the first people to reach out after my sister passed. He helped me through it for a while. It wasn’t just that day,” Thomas said. Two-and-a-half weeks later, Thomas broke out the green Kobe A.D. PEs again, and scored a career-high 53 points in a game that fell on the day Chyna would’ve turned 23. “I still have that pair, because that was my sister’s birthday,” Thomas said. “It was one of the biggest games that I ever played. One of the biggest games in playoff history … a special night for me in Kobes.”
Thomas is now an NBA free agent after being traded by the Wizards on Feb. 6 and waived by the Los Angeles Clippers. He played his final game in Washington on Feb. 3 wearing the “Prelude” Kobe 4.
“I’ve been Team Kobe my whole life … ,” Thomas said. “I will always wear Kobes and pay homage to, in my opinion, the greatest player to ever play.”
It wasn’t until five days after the tragedy that the Lakers took the court for the first time. On Jan. 31, during a game against the visiting Portland Trail Blazers, nearly every player and coach on the hardwood at Staples Center that night had on a pair of shoes that the late Lakers legend made timeless.
“I just wanted to find some special Kobes to wear,” Lakers shooting guard Troy Daniels told The Undefeated. “I had a pair that I made three or four years ago through Nike I.D. but had never actually worn them. I figured it would be a good time to wear them.”
That night marked James’ first time playing an NBA game in another player’s shoe. James, who’s received a signature sneaker every basketball season for 17 years, laced up a pair of Nike Zoom Kobe 1 Protros — a performance retro model of the shoe Bryant wore while dropping 81 points at Staples Center on Jan. 22, 2006.
“To see that is beyond crazy,” DeRozan said. “It shows the relationship between Kobe and ’Bron, who looked up to Kobe even before he got in the league. It shows the amount of respect that Kobe had amongst his peers and amongst the greats. I don’t know the last time we saw ’Bron in some shoes other than his. So for ’Bron to throw on them shoes — that says a lot.”
On his pair of Kobe 1s, James wrote “Rest in Paradise KB + GG” and “#Mamba4Life.” During the game, he also wore a pair of the “Big Stage/Parade” Nike Zoom Kobe 5s.
“LeBron actually practiced in them a couple times,” Daniels said. “But I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. He never wears low-cut shoes. For him to put those on, it was powerful.”
Sneaker salutes continued across the NBA in the week following James’ unprecedented moment. At Staples Center on Feb. 6, Houston Rockets star James Harden, a native of Los Angeles, broke out a pair of white, yellow and purple Reebok Question PEs, which Bryant wore during his sneaker free agency during the 2002-03 NBA season before signing with Nike. Harden had the freedom to wear a pair of the Questions as a signature athlete for Adidas, which has owned Reebok since 2005.
On Feb. 8, Brooklyn Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie released a special edition pair of the K8IROS Mark II, his personally designed signature basketball sneaker. Dinwiddie — who changed his jersey number from Bryant’s famed No. 8 to No. 26 — pledged 100% of the proceeds from sales of the shoes in the first nine days following their release to the MambaOnThree fund in support of the loved ones of the seven other victims involved in the helicopter tragedy.
“While I continue to mourn this tremendous loss alongside the millions he impacted globally, I wanted to do my part to honor him in my own unique way,” Dinwiddie wrote in an insert included in the promotional packaging of the K8IROS Mark II. “As a native son of L.A. who grew up idolizing Kobe, I have learned many lessons from him, both on and off the court. One of those is his entrepreneurial drive, which inspired me to create my own shoe.”
“One of the top sneakers to ever be played in,” Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant said of Bryant’s signature line at media availability before the Rising Stars Challenge during 2020 NBA All-Star Weekend in Chicago. “I’m a big fan of them. I got a lot.”
In a 114-109 Grizzlies win over the Phoenix Suns on Jan. 26, Morant wore the “Chaos” Nike Zoom Kobe 5 Protros — the last pair of Kobes Nike released before Bryant’s death. Morant hasn’t worn Kobes since.
“I just don’t want to wear them no more now,” said Morant, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft who’s in the conversation to become Nike Basketball’s next signature athlete.
“Man, to be honest,” New Orleans Pelicans rookie, and Jordan Brand athlete, Zion Williamson told The Undefeated at All-Star Weekend. The question: What is Kobe Bryant’s legacy when it comes to basketball sneakers? “It’s up there with Jordan’s. Especially in this generation, because he was this generation’s Michael Jordan. If you look … a lot of players wear Kobes when they’re playing basketball. His impact on the shoe game was incredible.”
Throughout All-Star Weekend, Bryant’s sneakers surfaced on the feet of multiple players, dominated by pairs of the unreleased “Big Stage/Parade” Kobe 5s, worn by Bam Adebayo, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Joe Harris, Buddy Hield, Khris Middleton, Josh Okogie, Duncan Robinson and Domantas Sabonis. For the All-Star Game, Adebayo unveiled a custom-painted pair of Nike Kobe A.D.s, while Lakers big man Anthony Davis hit the free throw that gave Team LeBron a 157-155 win over Team Giannis while wearing a purple and yellow pair of Nike Zoom Kobe 5 Protros.
“I always wore high-tops and mids, honestly,” Davis told The Undefeated in an interview five days before Bryant died. “Then maybe two years ago, I was trying different shoes, put the Kobes on, and I just felt like I was faster. I jumped higher. I shot better. I just felt like Kobe. So I stuck with them … I love Kobes.”
At the All-Star Game, Lakers assistant coach Phil Handycollaborated with Brand Aces on a custom-designed pair of “Chaos” Kobe 5s. The sight of the pair, which feature “KOBE” on one shoe and “GIGI” on the other, brought tears to Handy’s eyes when he unboxed them for the first time.
“As someone who actually had a chance to get to know Kobe a little bit and understand what he was about,” Handy said, “it’s an honor to have a shoe like this to represent him, his family and everything he stood for. That’s what this means to me.”
Bryant meant everything to basketball — and, as a result, sneakers. The tributes will keep coming and extend far beyond the shock of his death because Bryant’s legacy in footwear is truly everlasting.
“I’ll never play in another player’s shoes as long as I’m in the league from now on,” DeRozan said. “That’s how much I love Kobe’s shoes.”