Davis has worn only the Nike Kobe 4, a sneaker originally released in 2009. After being the face of several of Nike’s high top Air Max models in recent seasons, some of which featured a custom unibrow logo and “Fear the Brow” verbiage, Davis has opted to instead adopt Bryant’s sneaker for his first season in L.A.
And he’s far from the only one.
Players at all positions, 102 to be exact, are lacing up a retro edition of the Kobe 4, making it one of the most popular individual sneakers in the NBA. Nearly 67% of NBA players wear Nike sneakers, and more of them are wearing Kobe-badged kicks than even the current lines for stars LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Davis, who was a sophomore in high school when Nike originally released the low top Kobe model, has stuck to a rotation of player exclusive pairs in matching purple and yellow accents. Meanwhile, one of the players Davis was traded for has also traded his old kicks for the Kobe 4.
“I like them a lot,” said New Orleans Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball, who has worn the Kobe 4 exclusively this season after severing ties with Big Baller Brand. “They’re light, but they’re also sturdy. In my opinion, Kobe makes the best basketball shoe. … The 4s are at the top of the list. A bunch of other guys around the league probably think that as well.”
The decade-old design was rereleased this past February in Hornets colors during All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, a playful nod to the franchise that originally drafted Bryant. Nike has since released only five more colorways at retail, with the latest — based on Bryant’s “Wizenard” children’s book series — being released Friday.
“Some products are much more radical than others,” said designer Eric Avar, Nike’s VP of Innovation. “Some are much more traditional. The 4 was a little in the sweet spot. It was just enough classic, just enough modern, that it has stood the test of time.”
Following the blueprint laid by Michael Jordan and his $3 billion generating Jordan Brand, companies have looked to rerelease retro sneakers of their most beloved models on a monthly cadence, even well after a player’s retirement. The demand for the signature sneakers of Hall of Famers and former league icons like Allen Iverson, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen and Penny Hardaway is still ongoing.
As Bryant got set for retirement in 2016, he mapped out a five-year plan to continue his Nike sneaker line. The annual “Kobe AD” would feature all of the brand’s newest innovations and materials, serving as a concept car of sorts. When it came to rereleasing his earliest sneakers, Bryant and the company took a different approach from the industry standard.
Bryant coined the term “protro,” a hybrid aiming to represent a pro-level retro sneaker that could be worn not only by consumers off the court, but by today’s players during NBA games. The brand has added in a few under-the-hood enhancements with today’s manufacturing techniques, making it a more reasonable option for NBA players than traditional retro sneakers that continue to use 20-year-old technology.
“Protro is about evolution and improving on things that were,” Bryant said. “I wanted to build a business that wasn’t just based on things I have done in the past. It is important that the brand stands for performance and that everything we do is innovative. Even if we are releasing shoes from the past, they still must be built on performance.”
The Kobe 4 was a departure, designwise, from his first three Nike shoes, with Bryant taking inspiration from soccer cleats.
“In soccer, you can still wear low tops,” he said at the time. “So I think you need a confidence to be able to push the boundaries a little bit.”
Avar remembers the brief from Bryant being a little more straightforward.
“Kobe was adamant: ‘I need a low top. I don’t need all this other crap around my ankle,'” he said, with a laugh.
A few players — primarily point guards — had worn lows, namely Gilbert Arenas, Steve Nash and Tony Parker, but none carried the same cache in the sneaker community. When Bryant debuted the shoe in the 2008-09 season, he was a three-time NBA champion coming off his lone MVP and first Olympic gold medal.
“Beyond the athlete wearing it, I think kids know the depth and truth of just how involved Kobe was with product,” Avar said.
In the decade since the Kobe 4 first dropped, the stigma around low tops on the hardwood has all but disappeared. More than half the league now laces up lows. Ten of the 16 current signature basketball shoes on the market are also low tops. But none of them is as popular as the Kobe 4 Protro.
Even Houston Rockets forward PJ Tucker, the NBA’s reigning sneakerhead champion, can frequently be seen changing into the Kobe 4 at halftime, after starting the game in his latest exclusive or rare pickup.
“I almost always finish games in ’em,” Tucker said of the Kobe 4. “Best hoop shoe ever!”
The Rockets’ wing has worn the Kobe 4 in 15 of his first 20 games this season. Though he tested his sneaker free agency over the past month and discussed deals with a variety of brands, his love for the model helped make his decision to return to Nike even easier. He has a handful of exclusive colors featuring his No. 17 jersey number that he designed with the brand.
Another fellow sneaker free agent, Suns scorer Devin Booker, quietly resigned with Nike for another five years this fall. He has been wearing his own custom colors of the Kobe 4 in every game this season.
“Before they even retroed it, it was one of my favorite Kobes already,” Booker said. “To put my own player exclusive [colorway] on that, it’s the first time Kobe has done that for players with his retros. It’s dope — being a part of history and putting your own taste and your feel on it.”
The shoe might also play a role in where potential MVP candidate Luka Doncic lands his next sneaker deal. The current sneaker free agent has worn Under Armour and Jordan Brand in two games each this season, but keeps going back to his trusted Kobes.
“That’s the mark of good design,” Avar said. “Something that ultimately seems so simple.”
“That’s always what you strive for,” he added. “Doing something that actually makes a difference and has a deeper purpose — the Kobe 4 kind of falls into that category.”
ESPN’s Andrew Lopez contributed to this report.