In April 2021, NBA sneakerheads were at a loss. Not only were they still mourning the deaths of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others a year earlier, but a new dynamic had come into play — the Lakers legend’s longtime Nike contract had expired.
No new Kobe signature shoes were being made. No more launches. And prices on sneaker resale platforms spiked in the aftermath of the news of the lapsed contract.
Even back in 2020, a few months after Bryant’s death, when the NBA restarted its season during the coronavirus pandemic, Bryant’s sneakers were among the most popular in the league. Of the 322 players competing in the “bubble,” 102 laced up 280 pairs of Kobe sneakers. Since then, the leaguewide love for the Black Mamba’s signature line has become even more pronounced.
Partly for performance reasons, partly for sentimental tributes, the Kobe sneaker line was ubiquitous. From the reporting of the expiration of Bryant’s initial five-year, post-retirement contract on April 19, 2021, through the end of the 2021-22 NBA regular season on April 10, Kobe sneakers dominated the hardwood.
“It means so much more now, man. I just had a conversation about this, it’s almost like personal now,” Miami Heat forward P.J. Tucker said. “After his passing, it got so much more personal. Because it wasn’t just knowing him. It was being a friend, a competitor and now it’s like, you kind of represent that. Putting his shoes on, every time I go out, I represent him.”
Nearly 70% of NBA players wear Nike sneakers during games. As team rosters expanded to include more short-term signings amid a wave of COVID-19 protocol issues, a record 605 players appeared in games during the 2021-22 season (in 2019-20 that number hovered around 530).
From April 19, 2021, to April 10, 274 players laced up a pair of Kobe sneakers for at least one game — a staggering 45% of all NBA players — which is a level of signature shoe support never seen in the league.
Players such as Tucker and Chicago Bulls All-Star DeMar DeRozan — who donned 67 and 92 pairs of Kobes during that time, respectively — had seemingly endless stashes of Sheath-logoed sneakers at their disposal. Phoenix Suns All-Star Devin Booker boasted at the beginning of the season that he would “never run out.” But the same couldn’t be said for younger players looking to extend the life span of their existing rotation.
With no new pairs of the sneakers being produced, many players were unwilling to fork over the $1,000-plus prices on the resale market as a result of the contract standoff.
Milwaukee Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton wore the Kobe 6 in 66 games, but also mixed in the Nike Air Zoom G.T. Cut for 27 games as his Kobes wore down. Golden State Warriors’ breakout scorer Jordan Poole relied on a vintage batch of shoes from the early 2010s, lacing up 10-year-old navy and white Kobe 6s on a few occasions that looked like they were one jab step away from exploding.
Minnesota Timberwolves wing Jarred Vanderbilt was possibly most in need of a refresh, as his red and black “All-Star” Kobe 6s and “Grinch” 6s were visibly deteriorating down the stretch of the season, with chunks of the rubber outsole missing and extensive creasing throughout the shoes.
For most of the season, as the negotiations continued to drag on, there wasn’t much hope among players that a new deal would be reached between Nike and the Bryant estate. That all changed in late March — fittingly on March 24, a nod to Bryant’s jersey number — when Bryant’s wife Vanessa unexpectedly announced a new deal.
“With this new partnership, fans will soon be able to have access to Kobe and Gigi Nike product for years to come,” she shared in an Instagram caption.
The response from players across social media was equal parts anticipation and relief.
“WE BAAAAAAACK,” Tucker excitedly texted to Andscape shortly after the announcement.
In celebration of what would have been Gianna Bryant’s 16th birthday, the first release from the newly-struck agreement between Nike and the Kobe Bryant estate will be a “Mambacita Sweet 16” edition of the Kobe 6 Protro. Releasing on Sunday, the launch will donate all proceeds to the Mamba & Mambacita Sports Foundation.
Since 2020, Nike has donated $1 million to the foundation, which plans to open a new basketball training facility in Southern California and launch youth development programming in the near future.
The snakeskin-paneled sneakers, styled in the black and white seen on Gianna’s Mamba Ballers youth basketball team jerseys, also feature Bryant’s Mamba logo along the heel, her jersey number (2), and both Kobe and Gianna’s names in gold.
The shoes come packaged in a special-edition box featuring a winged No. 2 logo and Gianna’s 5.1.2006 birthdate. Along with the added details on the shoes and box, a card from Vanessa Bryant also encapsulates her excitement around the occasion.
“I’m so happy with the way these Mambacita shoes came out in honor of my daughter, Gigi,” Vanessa Bryant shared on Instagram.
Due to stalled production timelines and shipping delays, players will still have to wait to get their hands on more Kobes, with future batches of player exclusive (PE) editions potentially not arriving until the middle of the 2023-24 season.
That may create a near-two-year hiatus on PEs, with the last batch produced in December 2020 and delivered to players in April 2021, ahead of the 2021 NBA playoffs. After having designed his own colorways atop the Kobe 4, 5 and 6s, Tucker can’t wait to get the process of creating new pairs going again, now that Bryant’s Nike contract is back in place.
“That was like one of those life goal type of situations,” he said. “To be able to make your own PEs, I could never explain that to somebody.”
Wearing their own Kobe 6 player exclusives is a feeling that fewer than two dozen players have experienced. Regardless, a significant part of the league — 274 players — has continued to stick with their Kobe sneakers throughout the NBA season, with three models rising above the rest.
“I am so proud that my husband’s shoes are still the most worn by players on NBA courts,” Vanessa Bryant said after the deal was announced. “And that the demand for his shoes remain so desired by his fans around the world.”
Data compiled with KixStats.com
Between April 19, 2001 and April 10, 2022, Kobe Bryant’s signature shoes reigned supreme in the NBA.
When Bryant debuted the Kobe 4 during the 2008-09 season, just a few point guards around the league could be spotted playing in low-top sneakers. By the following season, Bryant’s validation led to leaguewide adoption of lower-cut silhouettes. A decade later, the shoe remains the 10th most-worn sneaker in the NBA, with players at all positions and across all 30 teams lacing them up nightly.
“That’s my all-time favorite basketball shoe,” said Tucker, who wore the Kobe 4 in 10 games.
The third most-worn model across the league in the last calendar year, the Kobe 5 has lived on as a performance favorite of some of today’s biggest stars. Outside of Devin Booker, the previous allocations of PE pairs for most players noticeably dried up by the middle of the year, with the classic Protro colorways being the most consistently worn on court.
After the Kobe 4 and 5 picked up steam with new launches for the first time in a decade in 2019 and 2020, the Kobe 6 carried the torch and became the most-worn sneaker in the last calendar year.
In the past year, no players in the NBA showed off bigger bags of Kobes than DeRozan and Tucker, longtime wearers of Bryant’s Nike signature line who have proudly kept the series in the forefront.