On a cool fall day, I approached the new LeBron James Innovation Center at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. Soon I would be sweating.
Four and a half years in the making, the 750,000 square foot center marks the first time Nike has combined apparel, footwear design and athlete analysis under one roof. This means that the designers work in the same building as the biomechanical researchers; Nike shoes and jerseys are developed in the same place where Nike tests athletes to understand the intricacies of human movement and performance. These tests take place on the fourth floor of the building, a wild and technological gymnasium known as the Nike Sport Research Lab. It’s a place built not just to test elite athletes like James: Nike expects 85% of those tested to be everyday people who can help the company better understand how every body moves. (You can actually apply to be a subject here.)
Nike first signed James back in 2003even before he was drafted, and renewed the contract in 2010. An extension in 2015 was a lifetime contract– considered the first Nike has ever signed – rated at a declared $1 billion. By 2015, revenue from James’ shoe line had surpassed $350 million.
As for the new building of the same name by James, it was designed by the famous architect Tom Kundig, known for his noble buildings in steel, glass and concrete, founded on robust materials, such as wood and metals, which are meant to age gracefully over time. . (In this case, Kundig repurposed over 21,000 pounds of Nike Floor Shoes, aka Nike Grind, to source the building’s carpet.)
I spent a day in secret LeBron James Innovation Center last month cleared before most of Nike’s own employees. Upstairs in the lab, I had my body scanned from head to toe, and I did everything from jogging to kicking soccer balls at digital targets to get a snapshot of my performance. And I can confirm that the scientists at Nike know what they’re talking about: in a two-minute test, they spotted the exact weaknesses I have in physiotherapy!
“We’re saying, here, the price of admission, that’s the data,” says Matt Nurse, vice president of the Nike Explore Team Sport Research Lab. What do you get in return? A better understanding of your own body and hopefully a range of better Nike products for everyone.
Here are the eight most amazing sights inside the center.
A lab that doesn’t look like a lab
Let’s start at the top. According to Nike, the Nike Sport Research Lab (NSRL) is the most advanced human performance laboratory in the world. It’s five times bigger than Nike’s old NSRL, which is particularly impressive because that lab is one giant room. When the COVID restrictions end, Nike plans to test thousands of athletes here each year.
This 85,000 square foot space is home to a full-size basketball court, a 100-meter sprint track (with a lane for concrete, to simulate running around town), a 200-meter running track, and a soccer field. . (The field features a large screen, which can move a target for you to hit, measuring accuracy.)
Every sport you practice is fully traceable. There are 400 motion capture cameras surrounding this room and 97 force plates are hidden in the court, track and field to accurately measure how hard you step or cut. But the idea is that you never feel like you’re in a lab. The top floor space is filled with windows and no one is wearing lab coats.
“We wanted the place to inspire you to move,” says Nurse. “If you walk in, and it’s lab coats, and you feel like you’re going to do some research, that’s a disappointment. It doesn’t feel welcoming; you feel like you’re going to be pricked and pushed. is still science, and we must always be objective, but we talk about the athletes, and we take the time to reach out and verify their experience. We quantify ourselves and judge ourselves on the experience of how the athletes get away with it because without them sharing their data with us, trusting us, and going on this journey with us, it’s really hard for us to do what we do.
The fanciest Waffle House in the world
Rumor has it that Nike employees started referring to the LeBron James Innovation Center as “Waffle House” before Nike discouraged it. But take a look at the building, and it’s easy to see why. As you approach, you can see that the massive concrete overhang is shaped like a waffle.
But there is an important function to this form. This is the basement of the aforementioned research lab. According to Nike, most of the world’s performance labs are on the ground floor or basement because sensitive pressure sensors can mislead when influenced by a building’s dynamic movements. The Kundig team solved this problem by building a subfloor with this specific waffle geometry (an air space and another floor sits on top of it).
Embossed concrete has another layer of symbolic meaning. Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman built the first pair of Nikes by pressing rubber into a waffle iron, and the company still sells Waffle shoes today. Nike calls the waffle pattern on the building an act of “serendipity.”
A ramp to the roof
On the right side of the building, you’ll see what looks like a giant staircase to the top. But look closer and you’ll see that it’s not stairs. It’s a four-story ramp that you can walk up to the roof of the building.
Stretching over 500 feet, its 15.63% incline is designed to allow athletes to train in rolling terrain on a campus with no natural hills. I ran out of time to deal with it, but the vegetated summit is a nice place to have lunch, even when you’re not training.
LeBron’s first 30,000 points
The first site that greets you in the building’s atrium is a basketball hoop. But it’s not just a basketball hoop. It is a large scale data visualization.
Look at the ground and you will see black and gold foil circles. Many, many circles. They represent every hit (gold) and miss (black) by James on his way to reaching 30,000 career points in 2018. There is so much gold under the rim that it looks like a leprechaun has exploded.
This is just one of many large-scale data visualizations and art installations in the building. Other highlights include a mural of Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman rendered in shoelaces, and a wall of numbers that are actually some of Nike’s most important patents. My favorite Easter egg was when I looked into a random room and saw the word “Swoosh” suddenly come into focus. Pieces of each letter have been painted across the gap, but when lined up correctly you get an extra taste of Nike.
Race against Eliud Kipchoge
In 2019, Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge did something never done before in human history: he ran a marathon in less than two hours. As a Nike-sponsored athlete, he wore a Nike Vaporfly shoe specifically designed for the task.
Inside the lab, you’ll see a ring of two different “bunny” LED lights constantly spinning around the circumference of the 200-meter track. An LED is relatively slow. He runs a mile in 11 minutes, the speed of an average runner. The other LED passes at a speed of 4:35 miles. It’s the same pace Kipchoge ran for his entire 26-mile marathon.
After tempting myself for a good part of the day, I strapped on a pair of Vaporfly and launched into a sprint to chase Kipchoge’s time. I followed his pace for a whole lap of 200 meters.
There was a floor in the center that we weren’t allowed to photograph, it was the third floor. Half is dedicated to shoe design; the other half is devoted to clothing design. It’s filled with sewing machines, hobby tables, 3D printers, and industrial knitting machines. It’s Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but with strings, mousses and air bubbles.
Some of the most protected IPs on this floor come in the form of around 700 pairs of blue feet. These are Nike’s carefully guarded lasts (the foot lasts you build a shoe on). I have been told that the feet of several elite athletes are in these cases. The only ones I notice, however, are those of James. Her size 15 sits front and center, rendered in gold instead of blue.
As you walk through the lab, you’ll spot a series of heavy metal doors with tiny glass windows. It looks like a Hollywood prison for supervillains. In reality, these are the environmental chambers of the laboratory. They are air-conditioned rooms with steel-lined walls, capable of studying the physiological response to exercise under all environmental conditions, including temperature, humidity, radiant heat and airflow.
When I open a door I’m greeted by 93 degree heat, 80% humidity and oppressive fake sunlight from the lights above. It’s awful. Just standing up makes it hard to breathe. These are the exact conditions encountered by the athletes during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
The idea is that Nike can study how clothes of different designs and materials can perform in various conditions. But who wears these clothes? Although Nike tests with real athletes (some partners are even invited to use these rooms for training), most of the tests are carried out on moving models with gray skin, whose pores are sweating.
It’s the LeBron James Innovation Center, and it’s more than just a sign in front of the building. The architects infused LeBron’s personal brand and story into all sorts of touches throughout the space, big and small.
At the base of the aforementioned ramp lives a sign; look closely at the fins on the right and you will read the names of James’s immediate family. The front door handles are his LJ crown logo. And above all, the cafeteria on the ground floor is called Glo’s Cafe, named after his mother. A large mosaic inside the cafe captures a school-aged LeBron hugging her. This is the most heartfelt piece of interior design I’ve seen on a corporate campus – so cute it’ll make your teeth hurt.