Inside Nike’s new LeBron James Innovation Center — The Undefeated

When the Los Angeles Lakers trekked north to Portland, Oregon, last weekend, LeBron James was able to take in more than the Saturday night showdown with the Trail Blazers, where he watched his Laker teammates from the sideline as he continues to battle an ongoing abdominal injury.

On Nov. 5, a car service took him 25 minutes west to One Bowerman Drive for a tour of the newest building on Nike’s nearly 400-acre campus: the LeBron James Innovation Center.

“It’s definitely one for the ages,” James proudly said in an email interview. 

The four-time MVP had been looking forward to the trip once the season’s calendar was revealed, and he was joined by his mother Gloria, wife Savannah and their three children, along with a group of friends and family from Akron, Ohio.

Eighteen years after they graduated from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, James’ Fighting Irish teammates, Romeo Travis, Sian Cotton, Willie McGee and Brandon Weems, along with childhood friend Frankie Walker, all made the trip west.

Group shot of LeBron James and his friends, from left to right: Willie McGee, Frankie Walker, James, Brandon Weems, Sian Cotton and Romeo Travis.

Brandon Weems

Spanning more than 85,000 square feet across four floors, the newest building at Nike World Headquarters brings the company’s ecosystem of office space, design studios, research centers and fitness facilities to nearly 80 structures.

That’s a far leap from the 70 acres and eight buildings at the start in 1990, which were named after, among others, Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson and Steve Prefontaine.

The “MJ” building now houses the Jordan Brand team, while the “Pre” is a welcoming showcase hall for visitors and athlete pitch meetings. The LeBron Center will be home to Nike’s innovation and research teams, which shape the company’s approach to technology, sport and design.

James becomes the first basketball player since Jordan to receive the namesake distinction.

“I’m definitely honored to be one of the Nike athletes to have a building represent their name,” said James. “The inside of it and the outside of it, the architecture of it, the story behind it, everything that goes on inside this building is unbelievable.”

After signing a seven-year, $90 million deal at 18 years old the day before the 2003 NBA draft lottery, James extended his contract again in 2010, and inked a “lifetime deal” with Nike in 2015. His overall signature business, including shoes, apparel and accessories, is estimated to generate around $600 million annually, according to sources — a basketball industry-best for an active athlete.

Part of a six-building expansion plan announced in 2016, with original plans calling for an ambitious completion in 2019, the newest building was officially announced as the LeBron James Innovation Center in September. James said he was “literally shedding tears” when he got the call about the planned building years ago.

Designed by Olson Kundig, the cantilevered look features an open-window design throughout. It includes a 500-foot-long, 15% incline hill just outside for athletes to train on. The eight-pane, layered logo at the base of the hill features the names of James’ closest friends and family inscribed along the inner edge of each pane.

“At first, the architecture stood out most,” recalled James. “I was looking up at the building, and it felt like it just kept getting higher, higher and higher.”

Upon entering through the doorway with its golden split “LJ” crown logo, guests take in an expansive entryway, with a basketball hoop-turned-art piece and adjacent cafe. The floor features a series of dots throughout that represent every NBA field goal made by James, who has scored more than 35,000 points over the course of his career.

Dubbed Glo’s Cafe, the first-floor coffee shop and juice bar honors his mother Gloria. A stained glass and painted mural of the Akron-born icon and his mother spans an entire wall, showing her embracing a teenage James clad in his St. Vincent-St. Mary uniform.

“My mom means everything to my journey, everything to my life,” said James. “Everything that she sacrificed for me throughout my life, especially when I was a kid, her dedication to just trying to be excellent, even through adversity, she set me up to be who I am today. Just being able to overcome shortcomings, overcome anything in my life, seeing the things that she had to go through. To see my mom represented in this building, it’s a special thing for me.”

While a team of brand executives is also based on the ground floor, it’s the upper floors where the space begins to highlight the technology and innovation that Nike hopes can continue to provide a competitive advantage.

“What makes this place incredibly unique, which I have yet to see anywhere else on the planet, is we have science and art beside each other,” said Matthew Nurse, vice president of the Nike Explore Team Sport Research Lab. “I would put the team here in the lab up against any other team on the planet.”

Longtime Nike designers Tinker Hatfield and Eric Avar often described their approach to creating footwear as “the blend of art and science,” a mission the brand is looking to continue as it houses employees from both backgrounds.

Digital innovation and smart system teams work on the second floor, and the third floor houses the footwear and apparel innovation teams and their concept creation center. More than 80 machines used for prototyping, lasting and heat-fusing equipment allow designers and developers to create fully functioning sneaker samples on the spot that athletes can then take to the fourth floor.

Now dubbed the new Nike Sport Research Lab, the top floor of the LeBron Center incorporates an expansive maze of regulation sports courts, running tracks and playing fields. The collective of 75 science, movement and physiology specialists based on the top floor boasts a combined 25 doctorates and 40 master’s degrees.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *