If the shoe fits
Kobe Bryant finds inspiration off the court in soccer and martial arts
George Lopez enters the Ricardo Montalban Theatre in Hollywood as if he's preparing for a championship fight or an audition for the Rockettes. It isn't quite clear which one as he jumps up and down and throws a couple punches before kicking his right foot out and then his left. Lopez, wearing an all-black suit, is doing his best to show off his new kicks -- the Nike Zoom Kobe V.
Lopez is modeling his purple and gold low tops because he is taking a break from hosting "Lopez Tonight" to help his friend Kobe Bryant debut his new shoe.
"No questions about the late-night wars," his publicist warns the media assembled outside the theatre as Lopez continues to show off his shoes to the cameramen. "No questions about Jay Leno or Conan O'Brien."
Forget Leno or O'Brien, George. Kobe or LeBron, who you got?
"LeBron James is great but Kobe Bryant is the greatest basketball player," Lopez said. "Kobe is a four-time NBA champion, an MVP, 11-time All-Star. His credentials don't lie."
Lopez may be right, but he is admittedly biased. Bryant was one of the first guests on his talk show, and Lopez was Bryant's first choice to help him debut his shoe with an event called "Nike Live," which is basically an infomercial masquerading as a one-night talk show.
"We've been friends for about six years," Lopez said. "I go to the games and he always communicates with me during the game [Bryant pounds fists with Lopez and points his finger]. Our families know each other, I've been to his house and he's been to my house."
So how's Casa de Kobe in comparison to Casa de Lopez?
"His ceilings are much higher."
Inside, Lopez's opening monologue intertwined the best parts of Kobe's shoe with recent NBA headlines. "[The shoe] comes with a protective shield in case you get shot at by one of the Washington Wizards," Lopez said. "Even people at the post office don't bring guns to work. What's wrong with that fool?"
During the one-hour sit-down between Bryant and Lopez, they made fun of Ron Artest's short shorts ("I asked him if he would please join this decade," Bryant said. "He said he can't defensive slide with those shorts."), needled Phil Jackson ("Do you guys try to play so good that Phil Jackson never has to stand up?" Lopez asked. "Phil Jackson looks like Dracula getting out of a coffin when he stands up"), and took a question from Zac Efron, who was sitting in the front row with Paul Rodriguez Jr. ("You have no idea, my youngest daughter, Gianna, loves him," Bryant said of Efron. "You don't understand. She's Gabriella and I'm Troy. She's got me walking around the house dancing 'High School Musical' stuff"). But mostly they focused on what is being billed as the lightest basketball shoe ever.
The most striking aspect of the shoe is that it's a low top that looks more like a low-weight soccer cleat than a basketball sneaker. Bryant, a die-hard soccer fan, specifically asked that it be designed that way after looking at the shoes Nike had made for Ronaldinho and Thierry Henry while they played for Bryant's favorite soccer team, FC Barcelona.
"I keep hearing that basketball players can't play in low-cut shoes but soccer players play with twice as much torque on their ankles as we do and they manage just fine," Bryant said. "A lot of it is change of direction and change of pace and change of tempo. Those are similarities that we both share."
Bryant, who has played soccer since he was 6 in Europe and still plays with his daughters, contends that his understanding of soccer and ability to grasp the concept of "Total Football," the tactical spacing strategy made famous by legendary Dutch soccer player Johan Cruyff, who was Barcelona's manager from 1988 to 1996, has made him a better basketball player.
"Soccer has improved my footwork and my foot speed," Bryant said. "In soccer, foot speed is everything. You learn about angles and soccer plays a lot in triangles as well so you get a chance to see things in different perspectives. In basketball often times you just watch a two-man game, but soccer forces you to watch the whole pitch and view the game differently."
In addition to soccer, Bryant has also used martial arts to help him on the basketball court. He is an avid Bruce Lee fan and practices the hybrid fighting system and life philosophy that Lee founded in 1967 called Jeet Kune Do or, in English, "The way of the intercepting fist." It's an offensive system based on striking first and always visualizing where your opponent will go next. Much like in basketball, there are gestures and half gestures to make your opponents move in Jeet Kune Do, allowing you to hit your opponents on their preparation or intention to hit you.
"The art and the philosophy that [Lee] was in the process of teaching, Jeet Kune Do, is a philosophy that I try to play by," Bryant said. "It's an instinctual art. A lot of times in martial arts you have all these rules and regimens and basketball is the same way, everybody is taught these fundamentals, but to me you start from a base and work your way up and the defense has a hard time defending you because they don't know what you're doing because you don't know what you're doing."
Bryant is such a fan of Lee that he dedicated one of his shoes to him. The yellow and black color of the shoe are taken from Lee's jumpsuit in "The Game of Death," and it has the four blood-red claw marks from Lee's wounds in "Enter The Dragon" on each side.
"I draw so much inspiration from him and everything that he embodied," Bryant said of Lee. "The perfection of his craft to me was something that was extremely inspirational. To be able to get to a point where you are so good at your craft that you can actually perform it thoughtlessly is something that's still a mystery to me but something that I strive for and something that he inspired me to try and strive for."
No one was happier to hear that Bryant was carrying on the legacy of Lee more than Lee's daughter, Shannon Lee, the president of the Bruce Lee Foundation. She was Bryant's guest at the Lakers-Clippers game last week and was sitting in the front row as he dedicated a shoe in honor of her father.
"It means everything for an athlete of his caliber to say that," Lee said. "My father was such an amazing athlete and so concerned about all the things Kobe was talking about: footwork, having no mind when you're out there doing your craft and being in that ready mode. The fact that he sees that and can take that from my father is terrific. He would have been a big fan of his, too."
Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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