Every year we get excited about the next LeBron installment, and it looks like that enthusiasm is spreading. Usually we see the same process: Niketalk discussion turns from negativity to excitement in the space of a few months and several leaked jpegs. The Nike LeBron 9 seems to be splitting opinion at the moment, but the gradual slow creep of colourways is winning hearts and minds. We caught up with Mr. LeBron James and Mr. Jason Petrie on two separate occasions (Mubi caught up with LeBron during Sunday's surprise appearance at the London School of Basketball in Crystal Palace) and put them together to create one cohesive conversation about the importance of the jeans test, colourways and total performance.
We've not seen a shoe as technically advanced as the LeBron 9 before, with its mix of Pro Combat, Flywire and Fuse in a single shoe, it's the shoe that could write the future and — alongside Lunarlon — snap us out of a heritage fixation. With the Olympics on the horizon and basketball as a significant part of that story, we're looking forward to seeing how this shoe evolves throughout winter, spring and summer, even if there's currently no NBA season to really put it through its paces. Still, that didn't stop LeBron from wearing them for an impromptu dunk demonstration.
LeBron, does it feel strange that you're already on your ninth sneaker chapter?
LeBron: (laughs) Yeah. It's unreal to see where I am. I love those by the way (points at Mubi's Miami Nights Lows).
Best release of the year.
LeBron: It's very humbling that I'm at the ninth shoe. I don't know what to say!
The pictures of the 9 were pretty misleading. This is a shoe you need to handle.
Jason: I keep telling people…you really have to see the shoe to appreciate it. Pictures don’t tell the real story — they never do, but you need to hold it in your hand and look it over before it comes to life.
The upper is interesting. I love how the outer material spreads to the interior. Some of the earlier LeBrons were such a shock to the system – the 3 to 4 was a big one, it threw me at the time.
Jason: It was a huge difference!
Are you trying to maintain a lineage with a LeBron “look” from 7 to 8 and now to 9?
Jason: Well, that’s certainly part of it.. I grew up with the Jordan V and VI — they had similarities, and the III and IV had similarities. But between IV and V was a big jump. The LeBron 8 and the 9 are brothers. The 7 had the Air Max and Flywire. Now it’s a hybrid ride with the latest evolution of Flywire, Hyperfuse and this latest version of Pro Combat — we took you through that journey with 8, switching from leather to Hyperfuse through the season. The 9 finishes out that. Look at 7, 8 and 9 and you can see that evolution literally happen. There will be another shock-to-the-system at some point, but I can’t talk about that now! They’re related but the 9 is a radical departure if you look at where the 8 started last year — full-length air bags, leather and lots of plastic. Now we’ve whittled it down and the shoe’s much sleeker and a lot more wearable.
What's been your favourite project out of the 9 shoes?
LeBron: Out of the 9? It probably has to be the first one. It was a dream of mine to have my own signature shoe you know? I used to think about how great it would be to see someone in my shoes and to have my likeness and name on a shoe is out of control.
The sleekness is a big departure. I would never usually call the LeBron line sleek. I like to look down at a wide shoe. The 9 feels like a compromise between the two though.
Jason: Yeah, it’s not a Hyperdunk — it’s important with trends right now, like tighter jeans or whatever, that we need something that’s a little more svelte, but the toe down is svelte with a lot of technology and energy packed into it. Towards the back, where LeBron needs more support, you have more structure on the shoe — it starts to build on it in a lightweight way, but it becomes that LeBron bulletproof, straitjacket kind of feel.
The materials are wild. It looks pretty vicious — the LeBron line can be so menacing looking. The lion on the tongue of 8 was memorable. Part 9 brings the menace in a different way. It looks like a weapon.
Jason: That’s what I was going to say — it looks like a weapon. It looks tactical and nothing on there is there for a superfluous reason. It’s there to do work and we used the best of the best. It’s cool that you say that, because that’s exactly how I was looking at it — the ultimate weapon.
Did the three stages of part 8 offer you an insight into how far you could push the next LeBron release? Did you notice people were more open-minded towards synthetic fabrics?
Jason: Absolutely. A lot of people loved that and some didn’t like it, but LeBron loved where it ended up. We felt successful and watching it evolved, not knowing about what was coming with V2 and the PS. It’s kind of funny watching people go back and try to find the V1 now. I remember saying to them, “You might want to buy them now, because once they’re gone, they’re gone!” I couldn’t say that the V2 was coming but I just wanted to throw hints that they might not want to wait. So it’s cool to see people go out to try and find triple blacks because they like suede or leather rather than Hyperfuse, but it presented a template for us with the 9, because we took off where the PS left use rather than going back to full Max.
It feels like it takes the baton. The change to the Air is the biggest thing to me here. 180 is something that reminds me of Barkley’s shoes. It’s kind of controversial, because I lot of people loved how the Max Air was the visual antithesis of Zoom’s discretion.
Jason: We all love Max Air. LeBron loves Max Air. There was nothing wrong with it, but LeBron asked to be pushed when it came to looking for solutions to go forward. You can’t stand still and we felt like we had a better solution for the Playoffs, because it was a short season, so it would drop the bulk and weight and become a little closer to the ground and provide a new ride. Through wear testing, LeBron loved it and the insight from him was, “I could play all season in this!” So we discussed it and decided to push it forward. The full-length Air Max is not something that won’t be around any more. That’s still an insight that we use at Nike Basketball and as part of LeBron, but the issue is to get to the ultimate performance level using Zoom Air plus 180, plus the shank transition that reflects where LeBron’s game is at now. He’s trimmed up a little bit. The same way that the 8 changed as his body changed throughout the season, with his new role at the team it allows him to be in the paint but it also allows him to be a facilitator and the whole inspiration behind the LeBron 9 was him wanting to be the ultimate triple threat. So how can this shoe provide for him in all those positions, whether it’s back to the basket, passing, leading a break, finishing a break and everything else that he needs to do as a floor general. We wanted that combination of a guard’s shoe and a big man shoe that’s come together. He really liked that idea and the ideas we built around that.
It’s nice how the two looks and feels are merged without it being some crappy hybrid.
Jason: (laughs) That we didn’t want it to be! We didn’t want it to be in the middle and be nothing. We want the benefits of them shoes the right way so they work for LeBron and I think they’ll work for a lot of other people the right way.
It’s not really the shoe for him a year and a half ago. It seems like the shoe for LeBron now.
Jason: I think so. You’ve hit the nail right on the head. You think of his role in Cleveland and the climate. The bigger, bulkier shoes fitted there, but his trainer will tell you that his foot’s changing, his body’s definitely changing and his game’s changing. All these things are changing so his shoe needs to change too or it’s not really reflecting LeBron, which is what the shoe’s all about.
Some other signature lines decline when they take their eye off the ball with regards to how a player changes.
Jason: And we can’t afford to do that. LeBron is very demanding. He’s on the top of his game and I refuse — on my watch — to give him something that isn’t bleeding edge and correct.
How is LeBron as a collaborator? Does he have any wild ideas?
Jason: He’s a pretty laid back guy. We have a great working relationship and the collaboration usually comes from sitting in a room for hours talking about stuff. That can lead to a wild idea but he doesn’t necessarily throw something out like, “Hey! I want a woven wing on my shoe!” But he certainly throws out insights like the triple threat thing. That was an inspiring nugget to build the shoe around. But as far as colourways, that’s something we talk about too. It’s like talking with your boy, except it’s the greatest athlete in the world, so it’s a really cool conversation to have. We’ll have some of his friends around and some of the Nike Basketball team around, so it’s a big collaborative effort and discussion that takes place several times over the course of a season. It’s a lot of fun.
LeBron, do you have a big say in colourways?
LeBron: Absolutely. Jason and myself have a great relationship on the design and colourways I want on a shoe and he has some ideas as well. We have a great friendship and partnership when it comes to that and we'll continue to make great product.
Does LeBron tell you if he doesn’t like something? Is he kind of blunt about it? He strikes me as a man who would say if something sucked.
Jason: (laughs) I’m fortunate in that I haven’t put something to him that he didn’t like but there were one or two applications that he was not too fond of. And he let us know, but I’d much rather know about it. He knows that it’s on him — his name is on it, so if it doesn’t represent him it’s something he wants taken off immediately.
He is a shoe guy.
Jason: He loves shoes. He grew up like us — he’s a sneakerhead. He loved Jordans, Foamposites and Pennys.
He wears a lot of Griffeys off the court too.
Jason: Yeah he does. Our goal is to wear his LeBron shoe out where he wears those Griffeys too. If he feels like it’s the ultimate on court and the hottest shoe off court it’s done — he just want to look fresh.
That relationship must be pretty important.
LeBron: I think it is. It's very important because you know, the person who's going to wear the shoes should be confident and know what's going on behind the scenes with it. Me and Jason have that type of relationship where we can talk about certain things and get it done and come out with pieces like what's on your feet or what's on my feet.
Growing up, what was your choice of footwear?
LeBron: Growing up, it was anything I could lay my hands on. Anything that was durable and last the school year and do basketball in.
How important was the Foamposite to you growing up?
LeBron: It's one of my favourite pairs. The Penny Foamposite was one of my favourite kicks growing up. I saw it in the final four with Mike Bibby and Miles Simon wearing them. That was a huge day for Nike and basketball itself.
Apart from your own shoe, what's your favourite Nike?
LeBron: Well, the Foamposite is one and the Jordan III and Jordan XI...wow, a few of my own kicks of course. The Diamond Turf Dion Sanders joints - those joints was crazy. Shoes for days.
Nike must sort you out.
LeBron: Yeah, they look after me!
What’s with the material mix on the upper? It looks like Kevlar or a ballistic nylon.
Jason: It’s interesting that you should talk about Kevlar — there was a lot of talk around it. We looked at carbon fibre and we looked at Kevlar and whether we could mix two materials together by weaving them. Really what that material is based on is the idea of a monkey paw — something that flexes when you go back to back and when you go side to side, it offers some resistance, so you get some receptive feedback and prevent ankle rollover. Plus, for LeBron it gives him a solid feel around the ankle and midfoot, which is where he likes to feel the shoe and feel locked in. So what we ended up using was a woven extruded monofilament nylon that’s lightweight and flexes. The thing with carbon fibre was that it was either too stiff or too loose, like too soft. You don’t want an ankle cast. The foot still needs to move and it needs to be dynamic, and it needs to hold up – carbon fibre could crack and be brittle. It’s super durable, super light and there’s some cool finishes and effects — when you see it in person, it’s really rich…really deep. What you see on the inside — that Pro Combat foam — basically backs the pattern, and that came from conversations with LeBron about the Pro Combat he wears beneath his uniform.
So it mirrors the panel?
Jason: Yeah, it’s basically like a shin guard — it’s more stiff externally, and it’s softer inside to flex and protect you. You feel strapped in. He played football and he likes to feel protected. You feel like nobody can hurt you. It works as a system, so it’s not just the woven material. We used to put Sphere lining in LeBrons, but the thing that I think is cool is that it came from him and his insight about feeling like a superhero and feeling protected in the Pro Combat under his jersey and the confidence that gave him. We wanted hi to have that same sense of confidence. It provides a benefit and it’s hopefully something that we can expand on and explore to keep it coming in the future.
The technology is crazy on the 9.
LeBron: For sure. I's the first time that Flywire and Fuse has been put together on a shoe and I mean, it's a light shoe but very durable.
Performance must be paramount.
LeBron: The performance is great. I always like to tell Jason that I need it light but durable, but the style and colours are important too, and on this specific shoe it's amazing. I'm excited about it.
There’s a lot going on internally.
Jason: There’s a richness and functionality that shoe it’s not just a regular shoe. Inside and out, it’s a complete package.
Sometimes I pick up a shoe, it’s hard to convey value for money. The 9 doesn’t hold back. The Kevin Durant pieces work with his admirable budgetary self-limitations, but here, you’ve got the carbon glass shank — that can’t be cheap.
Jason: Well, nothing’s cheap any more. We look to create the best solution and let cost follow where it may at that level. We provide for LeBron and if it costs whatever, then it costs whatever. There is a value proposition that has to be met, but I’d rather over deliver. Ferraris aren’t cheap! You need to use exotic colours and materials to bring it to life. We’re proud to do that and we try to create something that you covet when you put down your honest money — something that you want to use and take care of.
Plus something that you want to wear. The worst trend for me is brands not giving you the shoe that’s on the court.
Absolutely. How cool is that? You can’t go buy an IndyCar, but we can give you the thing that LeBron or Kevin Durant or Kobe Bryant really plays basketball in — we take pride in that at Nike. Even when I was a kid that was important to me.
The car analogy is very relevant. Before you could drive, you coveted sneakers. Has the Flywire been amended?
Jason: It’s a brand new Flywire. It’s thinner, lighter and more dynamic. The Flywire cables are sandwiched between two sheets. On the 8 there were plastic panels in some areas but on the V2 you saw us using the mesh and exposing Flywre under the plastic. With this, there’s actually no plastic at all. You’ve got mesh, and the Flywire is on a hot melt layer disappears when the package is put together. It’s more breathable, it’s flexible and it’s lighter and thinner. With the Hyperfuse process, it dials in where you need support and breathability, but you can do it in one shot and you can control it, as opposed to say, leather. It gives a sleeker look.
Initially I wasn’t necessarily a Hyperfuse believer beyond the original Zoom Hyperfuse, because I love leather on a shoe, but leather has limitations. It must have liberated you in a major way.
Jason: We’re learning every day as to what we can do with this process and believe me, there’s some stuff I can’t talk about, but it’s a game changer. I saw some stuff at the factory that I couldn’t believe. My mouth was agape. So what’s going to come through this process will change everything. It’s a different way to design a shoe. I appreciate there’s traditionalists, and leather has a value so it’s a value proposition. But there’s flaws and messiness with leather, in regards to the animal, the shipping of hides — and if you’ve been to a tannery, you can see the environmental concerns too.
And Miami weather isn’t conducive to moon boots.
Jason: Yeah! The benefits of technology are myriad. It’s lighter, it’s thinner, you can make it in much more convenient way. And the finishes are crazy too. As a designer you have to think about it in a very different way to if you’re working with leather or textiles. It forced us to work smarter and think about things from the inside out and build the shoes that way as opposed to just building a pattern on the upper. As a design team, everybody from Running to Sportswear to Basketball is using it and there’s a reason — it’s an amazing technology. Even a new shoe in leather looks retro now because it’s antiquated.
It feels quaint…that’s kind of strange. From a football standpoint leather stays relevant though. The outrigger is an interesting addition to the forefoot.
Jason: A lot of players like the outrigger — they feel they need that lateral stability. LeBron picked up on that. The 8 had a pronounced one, but for this it’s more flexible and it’s definitely something that’s important. I’m a big Eric Avar fan, and he’s done some incredible outriggers.
He’s the outrigger king in making them wearable rather than weird platforms.
Jason: We wear test all of our shoes and the outriggers started out looking for different. We used data to map that out. Hopefully it’s functional and the buying public will like that.
What weight differences are there?
Jason: Well, if you look at where LeBron’s game shoe was last year — that was up to 16 ½ oz depending on what the material package was — we’re coming out the at around an ounce lighter. 15 ½ doesn’t sound amazingly light, but the thing with LeBron is that he doesn’t want to wear a Kobe. It’s not enough shoe for him. We’re not going for the lightest shoe on the planet — we’re trying to go for something that’s strong first, but light done right. With his shoe, we want to make it as light as possible without sacrificing the strength and structure that he needs and looks for. He’s a big boy and he puts a lot of strength in, and you don’t want it blowing out in court or god knows what.
Is the final shoe a lot like the original sketches?
Jason: I hope it’s okay to say this, but the shoe was designed before the 8 V1 even came out. So, originally it was full Air Max with Foamposite, but the idea was the same, with the independent harness in the midfoot and the biomorphic protective element in the side and the Flywire, but the materials evolved. With ‘Posite it really seemed old to us.
It’s heavy. It looks amazing, but Foamposite weighs a lot more than some current materials.
Jason: Yeah, people are going Foamposite crazy at the moment. It hit me like a bolt that that was how we’d done strength before, but it wasn’t a full ‘Posite shoe — it was a little lighter. It wasn’t pushing it far enough so we started looking at more exotic composite materials and the full Max thing evolved as LeBron started playing with early test versions of the PS. We were like, “Shall we try this?” That’s how we could make him faster. The original version didn’t even have a traditional midsole on it – there was no foam like you see now. There was a TPU guard rail along the edge — it was crazy.
Will we see a low version? Will there be multiple versions again?
Jason: This year there won’t be a V2. There will be some evolution as we’ve done with the 7 and 8, evolving it to playoff form, and that, believe me, is a whole ‘nother level! There will be a lowtop — this year’s lowtop was really successful and a shoe that LeBron really loves, and we’ve taken a look at it for the next one — it’s an evolution of where the 9 is, but it’s also a counter punch to where the 9 is. It takes care of things that the 9 game shoe doesn’t . It provides LeBron with this whole 365 days of the year thing where he can just pop on the Low and take the kids to the park or got to a club. There’s some distinct differences that people will be really happy about, but there’s some stuff that we kept.
The colours are important. Last time I spoke to you in Portland, the Miami colours hadn’t dropped yet. The success of that must have been a buzz for you, because everyone’s so retro orientated, but I saw Rick Ross wearing them…wear beyond the court, beyond performance on a brand new shoe is rare.
Jason: It’s amazing to see, but I love it — it’s so dope to see Ricky Rozay out there in LeBrons, people at the sidelines of games and people just talking about them, Wale and Drake’s people have been calling us asking for the shoes, wanting to be the first to wear them…for me as a hip-hop fan it’s so dope.
It became that shoe.
Jason: It’s time for that new thing. I want kids to experience what Mike was doing, when his shoe could blow our minds each year, you know? There’s always a place in my heart for retro and that’s a great part of the culture, but to see people in the new as opposed to retro in a technical performance shoe in a rap video is the whole picture. Eugene and Eric who work on the colours and materials with us on all our shoes took it to the next level. I come with mine and LeBron comes with his, and the colourways for the 9 are re-diculous.
LeBron, how do you feel about Rick Ross and the Maybach guys wearing your shoes?
LeBron: Rick Ross, Wale, J. Cole...I'm humbled. When I see them onstage, on videos or courtside at a game, it's very humbling.
Have you got some good colourways set for next year?
LeBron: Yeah! But we've got some unbelievable colourways right now as well. We got the black and reds, navy and white Kentucky colourway, we got the grey and red, scarlet and red Ohio State and the orange and green Miami Hurricanes, we've got the Cannon colourway, we've got the Miami Night colourway.
There's a lot to come though?
LeBron: Of course, of course. But you already know that there's plenty of colourways with my shoes!
Jason, as the designer, you must have an idea where you’d prefer colours to be…what to highlight.
Jason: Of course, but it’s also cool to hear insight from somebody who didn’t, as they have a whole different take on it and a lot of times as a designer you get stuck on an image of what it should look like, and those guys open it up. They’re so deep into basketball and telling stories that are just crazy. Like ‘Entourage’ — where did that come from?
I don’t know, but it was a lot better than the finale of the show.
Jason: I haven’t seen it yet.
Don’t — it’s terrible. The tongue on this shoe is big…is that a functional feature?
Jason: Well, actually, me and LeBron went back and forth on the tongue quite a bit and there was some heavy revision along the way. He actually didn’t like where the tongue was at on the original shoe. We reengineered it and my whole thing was protection for him — the performance side is protection because he laces really tight and we want to protect against lace pressure and make sure that it feels right. There’s also the flossing side — how you’re going to wear it with your jeans. So it needs to pop and have that swag when LeBron’s walking around. The 8 had that full tongue but we trimmed it out a little. I wear my jeans kind of loose, and LeBron wears his similar — I tried them on and some of the other guys like Leo (Chang – Hyperfuse pioneer) have the slimmer jeans and we all tried them. It looks good.
We heard about the infamous "jeans test"
when it comes to a shoe - how important is that?
LeBron: It's VERY important. I like that question by the way. When you wear jeans with your shoes it's got to be styling. (To everybody else in the room) You hear that question?
I’m glad that the lion has gone from this one — that belongs with part 8, but you need newness. It would be nice to see this retroed in 20 year’s time.
Jason: You hit the nail on the head. That’s what we have to do. It’s about pushing the boundaries and letting athletes reach beyond their goals instead of hindering them — allow them to achieve their dreams.
LeBron, with the Olympics in London, will we see Olympic colourways?
LeBron: We should. I think what we have in store for the Olympics will be great and fans will be excited about it.
We heard rumours about a Foamposite version?
LeBron: I don't know. Let the rumours continue!
I've got to ask about the Liverpool FC connection.
LeBron: I've started to be a football guy.
LeBron: Yeah, a good friend of mine got in contact about them and I was able to get in contact with the team and become a part of it. It's a great team, a great place, a great field and they've got great fans. 19 league championships and they're striving for more.
Who's your favourite player?
LeBron: Steven Gerrard, Suarez, Reina, Dirk Kuyt...I like a lot of the others, but I like how Steven's a hometown boy.
THANKS TO NIKE UK FOR THE ASSISTANCE. THE NIKE LEBRON 9 IS IN THE CROOKED TONGUES STORE NOW.