QUIET Weeks before the start of the regular season, Wilson Taylor was in the back of the laundry room at the Paycom Center, which also serves as the deep storage facility of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s equipment manager. At a rack pushed against the wall, he ran his hands over a layer of dust on a cluster of black and gold Nike shoe boxes. Kobe 8 System TB, size 13.5.
He smiled, knowing the score he had just discovered. He pulled out his phone, took a picture, and texted it to rookie Thunder goalie Josh Giddey.
“Certainly not!” Giddey responded. “Can I come right now? “
Fifteen minutes later, Giddey was in the building, opening the five pairs of orange and white Thunder-colored Kobes that were originally sent for Derek Fisher, who ended his playing career with the Thunder in the 2013-14 season and had previously been a longtime Kobe Bryant teammate. Giddey, rocking the boxes like a kid on Christmas, looked at Taylor and said, “Can I have them all?”
For years, this may have seemed like an unusual request. In the world of excess and celebrity fashion that is the NBA, shoes are generally ubiquitous. They’re always fresh, always everywhere, and usually free.
Last spring, Nike and Vanessa Bryant announced they were parting ways after the shoe giant’s deal with the late Kobe Bryant ended. The parties are still discussing in hopes they can eventually come to an agreement, sources told ESPN, but currently the partnership is on hiatus. There had previously been production delays that prevented players from getting their normal supply during the 2020-21 season, and as of now, there are no more Kobes in production.
As a result, the most popular sneaker among NBA players is also the most difficult to obtain.
“If you don’t have them already,” says Larry Nance, the Portland Trail Blazers forward, “you don’t have them.”
SIGNATURE OF KOBE BRYANT The Nike sneaker had unquestionably become the most popular shoe for NBA players in recent years. During the 2019-2020 season, over 100 players wore the Kobe 4 Protro, a retro reissue of a sneaker Bryant originally wore in 2008. Gamers today love the design, feel and feel. the declaration of the Kobes.
“This generation looks at Kobe as our Jordan,” said Chicago Bulls goaltender DeMar DeRozan, known in the league as Kobe’s oldest shoe enthusiast. “It’s a great shoe to wear. The guys really fell in love with it.”
In the Orlando bubble in 2020, just months after Bryant’s tragic death, nearly a third of around 330 players wore some version of Kobe’s signature shoe, and that number was rising. Over the past two years, a number of players who were previously with Under Armor and Adidas have failed to renew their sneaker sponsorship contracts, a trend that has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Lots of new sneaker free agents went looking for Kobes. This all adds up to a large contingent of players who now have a source issue for their Kobe needs.
There are still supplies on sale at some retailers, but not in large numbers in the sizes NBA players typically need. The scarcity of large sizes has caused prices to skyrocket on secondary shoe resale websites such as StockX, GOAT, and eBay.
NBA players who wear size 14 or larger plan to spend at least $ 800 on the most basic Kobes styles, and that’s not what they typically wear. But gamers are paying, and several told ESPN they’ve spent more than five figures on aftermarket supplies from Kobes since last spring and summer.
“I don’t go to a store and find a [size] 17 in a Kobe. No way, ”said Anthony Davis, who moved to the Kobes when he joined the Los Angeles Lakers in 2019.“ I mean, these are guys’ favorite shoes. … A lot of people are inspired by him, and the shoe is amazing. They all feel amazing. “
Players previously accustomed to wearing any color they wanted – especially after the league relaxed its sneaker rules ahead of the 2018-19 season – are now scouring the web and trying to hunt forgotten stocks for some shoes to wear in matches. And they compete for the large sizes available in the market.
“If you didn’t know for the past few years,” says DeRozan, a long-time Kobe model enthusiast, “you’re going through a rough time.”
The Kobes are now considered “dead animals”, taking them to a vintage market that raises the bar. NBA players search for shoes that have been unused for years, often to add them to their collections to wear or display off the court. Miami Heat forward PJ Tucker is known to wear high-end vintage models in games, but he’s an outlier.
It is also not uncommon for players to purchase shoes for the game occasionally. Taylor says he has sometimes helped players such as former Thunder center Steven Adams, who wears a size 19 and really liked the shoe. way Derrick Rose’s old Adidas models fit him, spending a few hundred dollars chasing extra pairs. More generally in the league, players wear what they are paid for and there is hardly ever a thought for supply.
The current situation around Kobes is a whole new game, even for players paid to wear Nike. Giddey, who signed a multi-year deal with Nike ahead of the season, and players like him are spending over $ 1,500 on pairs of Kobes right now as they try to stock up for this season and beyond. Their agents sniff them, call for favors, and hunt the aftermarket for their clients, but with little success.
“Guys have asked me for help,” said Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker. “I will never run out of Kobes.”
Booker and DeRozan have a stock of PE, short for Player Exclusives, that Nike has put in place as brand ambassadors for years. But they are in an elite class. The shortage hits especially young players who adore Bryant and his line of shoes but haven’t had the edge of being in the league long enough to create a backlog.
“I work at it every day,” said New Orleans Pelicans rookie Trey Murphy, who wore a pair of Kobes donated by a teammate to start the season. “It’s tough out there right now. I’m not DeMar DeRozan.”
But even DeRozan cannot be DeRozan.
“I used to do a duet once or twice and then give my shoes to the fans,” DeRozan says. “I might not be able to do this as much.”
THE RUMORS OF the end of the Bryant family deal with Nike began circulating last season before going official in April. Nike reps have quietly asked those in charge of the team’s gear to get their Kobe guys ready for the finish.
“Some of us got the word, and we started to collect it,” said Suns forward Jae Crowder. “By the time the news came out, I had accumulated enough money for about two years.”
Stars with big shoe offerings like LeBron James, who gave Nike molds of his feet to make custom shoes feel broken from the first wear, are releasing a new pair every game. Some players will wear them for a few games. Crowder says his two-year supply was 100 pairs, as he typically consumes around 50 a year. Davis, on the other hand, uses less, as he says he will use around 20 to 25 pairs of his relatively shallow supply from Kobe this season.
Some players without such deep supply have already been forced to switch. Several equipment officials say players have switched to the abundant Nike Kyrie Irving Low this season, which has design similarities to the Kobe model. Others use Nike’s new, more generic lineup, the GT. But many custom shoes have been delayed as Nike and other shoe retailers face factory closures in Asia due to COVID-19.
In the meantime, players who still have Kobes are trying to get the most out of each box.
“The guys I have who wear Kobes wear them until they collapse,” said an equipment manager.
In discussing this situation with ESPN, players have repeatedly expressed hope that Nike and Bryant’s estate can come to a new deal, a talking point that has been ubiquitous among sneakerheads this fall. But even if that did happen, it would be a long time before Kobes was available again – to gamers or whoever. Product lines typically take Nike 12 to 16 months to produce, sources say, and that was before the pandemic disrupted global supply chains.
Either way, as this season progresses and stocks of the remaining Kobes begin to dwindle without replacement, the demand for the beloved shoe design of the late Hall of Famer will only increase. At a time when some players are embarking on cryptocurrency investments, a new exchange could develop as more players are desperate.
“I’ve always had so many pairs, but I look at them differently now. Guys ask me [for them], but I can’t go through them like I did, ”DeRozan says. “If it turns out badly, I might even have to go to my secret safe.” “
Dave McMenamin of ESPN contributed to this story.