This is a new regular feature in which we'll take a look at recent sneaker releases.
Have you heard about the new
spaceship sneaker called the LeBron 9? It was made for the Chosen 1, but not by God: it was, according to Nike, made by a massive collision of dark matter in outer space. Some call it the Big Bang, and some think that it happened about 13 billion years ago, and that it has nothing to do with the major basketball shoe market in the 21st century, and those people may be right, but those people are ignoring the second Big Bang.
The Bigger Bang. As presented by Nike, Inc.
The Bigger Bang made a basketball shoe, and it happened just this year, amongst the asteroids and the planets and the exploding suns. But I don't really know my cosmology, so I'll let Nike's creepy voice-over guy explain it for you:
There are places unlike anything ever witnessed in this world. They exist. I've seen them with my own eyes. Up here, galaxies collide in cosmic fury. Suns explode. Asteroids rain down like midsummer monsoons, and planets are swallowed by the fury of this cosmic cocktail.
[EXPLOSION INVOLVING PLANETS, I THINK, A.K.A THE BIGGER BANG]
[HEAVY STRING MUSIC]
[PORNOGRAPHIC CLOSE-UPS OF SYNTHETIC RUBBER AND SHOELACES]
Up here, in this other-worldly land, elements are born and fused together. I have seen these things. They will revolutionize your game.
If I'm understanding this correctly, then this sneaker was made in space, after the second Big Bang, which one might also call a cosmic cocktail, and some disembodied voice (a sneaker-obsessed God who believes in science?) saw it all happen, first-hand—probably because Nike has special privileges with NASA now that their shoes contain some of the same materials as spaceships.
I asked my friend Claire, who knows things about the stars and outer space (she has been to the stratosphere and back), whether or not Nike had a convincing scientific angle. First of all, she told me, galaxies don't collide in a "cosmic fury" because objects in galaxies are very far apart. The "collision" would actually take place over the course of 300,000,000 years, and it would be "surprisingly peaceful." Still, there's some validity here, she wrote:
Every material on earth is the product of former stars—including the Lebron 9 shoe, in all its glory. After stars have converted all of their helium to hydrogen, they begin to die and vast temperature spikes result in a variety of elements. These elements—carbon, oxygen, neon, silicon, sulfur, and iron—were incorporated into every part of our earth. Every particle in our body is a gift from a dead star. So, sure, all of the elements in the Lebron 9 shoe are also a gift from a dead star. The stars would have been so proud.
Finally, she noted, "because space is a vacuum and there is no sound, there's no way this dramatic background music could be playing."
Cinematic liberties aside, let's break down the commercial's final claim: That this shoe will revolutionize your game. This might be considered a bold declaration were it not for the fact that every Nike product released in the last decade has been sold as something that will Revolutionize Your Game/Vertical Leap/Pores/Respiratory System/Pinky Toe. The promise to revolutionize takes all the charm out of "Money, it's gotta be the shoes!" And really, what would it mean to revolutionize your game—or better, LeBron's game? Will the Bigger Bang suddenly—cosmically, even—endow LeBron James with a go-to post move? Or will his game be revolutionized in such a way that when he steps on the floor in his Big Bang shoes, defenders will simply collapse in stunned defeat on the floor, knocked unconscious by the power of the force of the raining cosmic cocktail on his feet?
It sounds a little sensational. How does one make a shoe that radically changes outer space, all matter on earth, and LeBron's game? Here's Nike designer Jason Petrie in a recent promotional video:
The lockdown in the 9 really comes from a couple of different areas: the stability wing, here on the lateral side—that offers you three important parts of lockdown in LeBron's shoes. But then to supplement that, you actually have this independent fit harness made out of fly wire as well. It's very light and thinner. It's actually more breathable; it's actually more flexible. And what this allows you to do is lock in independently of the rest of the shoe.
I am not LeBron James, Stephen Hawking, an alien, or a shoe cosmologist, so I have no idea what he's talking about. But let's try and decipher it: the "lockdown" the designer refers to is basically just the need to keep LeBron's foot as secure and snug as possible in a $170 shoe (just like, say, an astronaut in a two million dollar space suit).
What Petrie won't say on tape is that he's just referring to a lot of Random Rubber Or Plastic Accoutrement (RROPA) in sentence structures he learned from reading Popular Science. The "stability wing," is, in fact, a remarkable example of RROPA, because we're treated to that special moment where the designer actually attempts to explain the RROPA via an Intentionally Vague Graphic (or IVG; seen at left). Nike has gone and done the important work of assigning numbers to the aforementioned "three important parts of lockdown" in the LeBron 9. Count them with me: One, Two, Three. Now let's count them backwards: Three, Two, One. Petrie is dead on: There are three parts of lockdown. We still don't know what lockdown is, but according to the talking man and the IVG, there are definitely three parts of it.
There is also Flywire. Flywire is a very specific Nike creation that Nike loves to talk about as much as possible. They've even written a children's story about it. It's called "The Nike Flywire Story," and it helps us understand what Nike thinks Nike means when it talks about "lockdown":
We'd been making shoes the same way—and that way was good. We started with a piece of material, and if we wanted to make it stronger, we added more material. And so and so on. The problem was, stronger meant heavier. The foot was supported, but at the price of freedom.
("The Nike Flywire Story" is much more Book of Genesis than it is A Brief History Of Time.)
Flywire, the story goes, makes for a light shoe without losing any mobility or "lockdown." "Think of a direction," the story urges, "This shoe will follow." Creepy! Or but isn't that generally the process by which we walk, in shoes? Outside the Nike labs, does anyone think of walking or running as a cooperative process between humans and shoes, with the shoes as potentially unwilling collaborators?
The 9 is, appropriately enough, LeBron James's ninth signature shoe with Nike. His first, the Nike Air Zoom Generation, debuted when he was 18 and newly rich. Now he is 26 and has stayed rich, and his shoes have evolved accordingly. The Generation did not have Flywire or Hyperfuse, and it was not born of a Big Bang, a Bigger Bang, or even a Modestly Sized Bang. It was just a shoe.
The LeBron 9 is all growed up. It even has multiple origin stories. There is the Bigger Bang origin, and then there is tale of the idea meeting in Beaverton, Ore. origin, when LeBron got all reverse-Don Draper on the Nike men and told them: "Lock me down so I can fly. Protect me from myself. Make me light." (I did not make that up. It's lifted directly from the Nike Store's product description.)
To more objectively consider the aesthetics of the 9, and to better understand just how complicated this shoe is, I used the Nike.com customization site to make it look as ugly as possible. But before we get into it, let's say a nice thing about the LeBron 9: it almost certainly has to be a very good shoe. It is a collaboration between two groups—company and player—that take shoes Very Seriously. So seriously, in fact, that they will compare it to cosmological phenomena. This shoe must be all right. (I mean, all the kids are wearing it: Kentucky, Miami, and OSU will all lace up in 9s this year.) But I haven't had a chance to try it out yet, since I am saving up for a spacesuit.
So all we can focus on are the basic absurdities of the marketing scheme, and the basic absurdities of the aesthetics. From a distance, and even in clown colors, it is kind of nice looking! But a closer look reveals that this is the most LeBron James shoe of all nine LeBron James shoes.
There are two subtle details to this sneaker that cry out for attention. First, there is the Gladiator quote. The same line from the movie that LeBron has tattooed on his biceps is now printed on the toes of the 9's outsole. The right shoe says, "What we do in life…" and the left shoe finishes "Echoes in eternity…" I would make an explicit joke about this, but I'm concerned about it echoing in eternity.
And finally, the area codes. Courtesy of John Brilliant over at Counter Kicks, who says no one's really picked up on this detail yet:
If you look at the sole of the shoe in between the "chain link" traction pattern which is made up of the number "6" and "9" for LeBron's jersey number and the ninth shoe, there's a bunch of numbers subtly embedded. They're the area codes for Miami and Akron.
Sure. That or Dan Brown was also in the ideas meeting. Cosmology meets symbology.
The LeBron 9s are now available for purchase here on earth. And at $170, it's the cheapest cosmological miracle ever.