- Wayne Drehs, ESPN Senior Writer
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- They are the unwritten but widely accepted bylaws of sports footwear. Here, we hold these truths to be self-evident:
Golf is to be played in spikes.
Ice hockey is to be played on skates.
Baseball and football are to be played in cleats.
And basketball? Basketball is to be played in a pair of high-tops.
So Kobe Bryant understands the backlash. He knows there will be doctors, trainers, coaches, fans and even some fellow NBA stars who will look at his latest signature shoe from Nike, see that it's -- gasp -- a low-top and believe the Los Angeles Lakers guard has completely lost his mind.
But he asked for this. Eighteen months ago, when Bryant met with a Nike design team and began brainstorming ideas for the Kobe IV, his focus wasn't on following the precedent but rather on setting his own. An avid soccer buff, Bryant marveled at the stress soccer players put on their ankles while wearing a low-cut shoe and figured if they felt could they do that on the pitch, he could bring it on the hardwood. So that day in a Nike boardroom, he gave Eric Avar, Nike's performance footwear creative director, one specific instruction: Create the lowest, lightest basketball shoe ever.
Avar loved the idea, but at the same time, he knew the ramifications of the words coming out of the mouth of the reigning NBA MVP.
"I pressed him on it," Avar said. "I was like, 'A real low? Like a soccer shoe?' And Kobe said, 'Yes. A true, genuine low-top.'
"It was pretty remarkable. Here was the greatest basketball player in the world telling me that he didn't need all this stuff around his ankle. And he wanted to prove that to everyone from Nike to fellow NBA players to the consumer."
The end result is a shoe that weighs just 11.6 ounces, some 20 percent lighter than the average Nike basketball shoe. For a player such as Bryant, who Nike says runs an average of 2.5 miles per game, less weight on his feet means more energy on the court and the ability to move quicker, run faster and perhaps even jump higher. He is expected to debut the shoes Dec. 19 against Miami.
That night, Bryant won't be the first current NBA player to wear a low. Washington forward Gilbert Arenas is a longtime proponent of the low-top, and Nike made a lower-type cut for Phoenix guard Steve Nash last year. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wore low-top shoes for much of his career, too. But Bryant is by far the biggest current star to take the plunge into the low-cut world. And he's doing so with his signature shoe. It's a gamble for him, a gamble for Nike and a gamble for the industry as a whole.
"When you have the absolute best player in the world saying lows are safe, lows are actually helping me become a better player, that's a wrap," said Steve Mulholland, founder and publisher of Sole Collector, one of the leading consumer sneaker magazines.
"The rules as we used to know are about to change."
But not everyone believes this is a good thing. In choosing a low, Bryant will be swimming upstream against the long-held belief that a high-top protects the ankle and keeps it from rolling by providing extra support. Although a 1993 University of Oklahoma study that appeared in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found no relationship between shoe height and ankle injury, five years later a study in the Journal of Sport Sciences found that increased ankle support did reduce the likelihood of a sprained ankle.
Dr. Michael Lowe, who has worked as the team podiatrist for both the Utah Jazz and the University of Utah for more than two decades and is a past president of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine, opposes the trend toward lower, lighter and faster. Lowe cites the NBA's injury statistics, which reveal that ankle injuries accounted for 13 percent of the games players missed in 2007-08 -- that's double any other part of the body. Lowe also added that the average number of games missed for an ankle sprain is increasing, up to an average of eight games per sprain last season.
"Part of it comes from accident, but part of it is how we use our shoes," Lowe said. "The pendulum swings back and forth, and right now we want to be lighter and softer. But that often means less stability and thus more ankle injuries.
"If I see a player on one of my teams wearing a low, we'll talk about it. And I'll tell him that, in my opinion, this is putting you at a higher risk and there's really no reason for it. But most players don't want to have that talk."
Bryant, Avar and everyone else behind the Kobe IV are out to prove that light, low and fast don't necessarily come at the expense of stability. Avar says the Kobe IV is outfitted with Nike's Flywire, a performance architecture that uses Vectran, a thin and strong nylon fiber, to support the foot in the upper part of the shoe. The shoe also features LunarLite foam in the forefoot, a cushioning substance that was created in concert with NASA engineers and is used in the seats of space shuttles. Yes, this is rocket science.
There is also a Zoom unit in the heel, a molded area in the rear of the shoe to help keep the foot locked down to the shoe's platform, and a foam collar ring that grips the foot below the ankle to provide additional stability.
Bryant already has been wearing the Kobe IV in practice and is so impressed by the results that he asked Nike to create a hybrid between the IV and the Hyperdunk, the shoe he has been wearing since April, to bridge the gap until the premiere of the Kobe IV in next week's game against the Heat.
"I've been playing basketball all my life and I've worn high-tops for a lot of those games, and I've rolled my ankle plenty wearing high-tops," said Bryant, who has his ankles taped before every game. "If you come down on somebody's foot, you're going to roll your ankle and there's not a lot you can do about it. But to have a low, I feel like it gives your foot more freedom to change direction."
Whether a low-top shoe will be accepted by consumers will depend on breaking down myths. In testing for the Kobe IV, Nike found that its wear testers broke down into three categories: those who would never wear a low, those who were skeptical but curious, and those who were on board the instant they were handed a pair.
"We had plenty of people who instantly said, 'Absolutely. Give me that rocket ship,'" Avar said. "And many of the others were overwhelmingly surprised. They told us they would wear them but only go 80 percent. But then once they put them on, they were amazed and went all out. It tweaked a lot of perceptions."
The shoe's release comes at a critical time for Nike, which has seen a steady decline in sales of basketball shoes since the 1990s. Matt Powell, a senior analyst for Sports One Source, a market research firm, said basketball shoes, once a $5 billion-a-year industry, have shrunk to about $2.5 billion a year. In August, Powell said, skateboarding shoes outsold basketball shoes. Instead of falling in line, kids today are more interested in a shoe nobody else has, Powell said. When selecting a new shoe, Powell said, the average consumer's decision is based 80 percent on fashion and 20 percent on the player endorsing the shoe. In addition, 85 percent of performance footwear is never worn for its intended purpose.
Thus he is skeptical as to what effect Bryant will have on changing the perception of the low top, and selling shoes as a whole.
"With the exception of any product with a Jumpman on it, the idea of the basketball shoe as a fashion commodity is no more," Powell said. "In today's world, the blockbuster shoe of yesteryear doesn't exist. LeBron is the last one who will get that big shoe deal. The cachet of wearing a player's shoe doesn't mean what it used to."
Nike is betting that Powell is wrong. The Kobe IV that consumers will be able to purchase at the store will be the exact same shoe style Bryant wears on the court. And though Avar acknowledges that a low-top might not be everyone's first choice, he said it is designed to work for everyone from big men to guards, from teenagers to the senior circuit. Nike hopes that, as a low-top, the shoe also will have greater crossover appeal outside of basketball.
The marketing blitz will begin later Thursday when Nike and Bryant formally introduce the shoe with a worldwide webcast. The shoe is scheduled to go on sale in China on Jan. 1 and in Europe and the United States in February. Nike said it is expected to retail for $120.
"It's pretty simple," Powell said. "If Kobe can come out and play successfully and not turn his ankle, people will start to believe you don't need a high-top. If he turns his ankle in the first quarter of the first game, that will be a different story altogether."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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