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The Kobe 5: Behind the biggest sneaker tribute in basketball

NBA and WNBA players share their journeys wearing Kobe Bryant’s shoe this year


Ten years ago, on Oct. 26, 2010, the Los Angeles Lakers celebrated opening night of the 2010-11 NBA season by hoisting the franchise’s 16th championship banner — one they earned by defeating the Boston Celtics in the 2010 Finals.

During the pregame ceremony, each Lakers player received his championship ring. The last player to take the floor at Staples Center was the reigning Finals MVP. Or, as his teammate Derek Fisher introduced him: “The world’s best basketball player, Mr. Kobe Bryant.”

Bryant stepped onto the court in the “5 Rings” Nike Zoom Kobe 5, a special color-shifting edition of the signature sneaker he wore throughout the 2010 Finals, which Nike presented him and released to commemorate his fifth, and ultimately final, NBA championship.

A decade later, the “5 Rings” Kobe 5 returned, exclusively on the feet of Lakers star Anthony Davis in Games 3 and 4 of the 2020 Finals, inside the NBA bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. During the league’s restart amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, en route to another Lakers title, the 6-foot-10 Davis wore more pairs of low-top Kobe 5s than any other player, capping off what will forever be remembered as the season both the basketball and sneaker worlds lost Bryant.

“I always wore high-tops and mids, honestly. Then maybe two years ago, I was trying different shoes, put the Kobes on, and I just felt like I was faster,” Davis, a Nike-endorsed athlete, told The Undefeated in January, five days before the 41-year-old Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. “I jumped higher. I shot better. I just felt like Kobe. So I stuck with them.

“I love Kobes.”

Davis isn’t the only one. Throughout the four-month restarted NBA season, 102 players across the league (67% wears Nike) laced up 280 pairs of Bryant’s Nike sneakers. The Kobe 5, in particular, emerged as the most-worn sneaker inside the bubble, with 70 players lacing up different pairs of Kobe 5s in 55 colorways. (By comparison, 104 NBA players laced up different pairs of Kobe 4s in the fall of 2019, during the first few months of the 2019-20 NBA season before Bryant died.)

A select group of 21 players led by Davis, P.J. Tucker of the Houston Rockets, Andre Iguodala of the Miami Heat, DeMar DeRozan of the San Antonio Spurs and Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns broke out player exclusive (PE) editions of the Kobe 5. During the NBA Finals between the Lakers and Heat, 12 players wore Kobe 5s. Meanwhile, Seattle Storm shooting guard Jewell Loyd, the face of Bryant’s Nike signature line for women’s basketball, rotated between 12 pairs of Kobe 5s in the WNBA bubble this season, including a “Gold Mamba” PE she wore the night the Storm won the title.

When the Lakers clinched the franchise’s 17th championship, five Lakers players had on the same signature sneaker Bryant wore when he won his fifth title a decade ago. That night, Davis, a Chicago native, claimed his first career title in a “Black Toe” Air Jordan 1-inspired pair of Kobe 5 PEs, paying homage to both Michael Jordan and the late Bryant.

Following the season, in a roundtable discussion with The Undefeated, Davis, DeRozan, Loyd, Buddy Hield of the Sacramento Kings, Khris Middleton of the Milwaukee Bucks and Shake Milton of the Philadelphia 76ers shared their journeys of wearing the Nike Kobe 5 and continuing Bryant’s legacy this year through sneakers.

Take us back to the first time you saw the Kobe 5 – what do you remember about it originally?

Sneakers worn by DeMar DeRozan of the San Antonio Spurs on July 23 at the Visa Athletic Center at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida.

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

DeRozan: I was always a fan of the Kobes at a different level. He’s my all-time favorite player. Me, growing up being a Laker fan and seeing the transition of his shoes, I just remember when [the 5s] dropped. I wore the 5s [my rookie year]. When the 4 and 5 dropped, with those being low-tops, especially the 5s, they were such a light shoe. I remember a lot of people used to complain about them, ‘Oh, you’re going to hurt your ankle. They’re too light.’

To me, it was the shoe that stuck to your foot how you wanted as a basketball player. The comfort, the stability and how light they were, it just stood out. The 4s and 5s were low-tops that really transcended the game to a different level.

Middleton: They were comfortable. I remember wearing ’em as soon as I could. My cousin [Josh Powell] played with the Lakers actually when that shoe came out, so I hit him up ASAP to try and get me a pair before everyone else could. (Laughs.) I remember seeing that shoe and just going, ‘I need those! I need to hoop in those.’

Milton: [The Kobe 5] brings back a lot of memories … Kobe was always my favorite player growing up. I remember 8 Kobe, Fro Kobe, just watching him. I would literally watch his game, and when the game went to timeout, I’d go out to the driveway and just practice whatever I just saw — try to emulate it to the T. It was just about everything that Kobe represented for me.

It was one of those shoes, as a kid, I really couldn’t get my hands on. As I got older and to high school, I got my hands on some 8s and some 7s. But it was hard to get the 5. Now, I got a nice little collection of 5s. But back then, it was tough.

Davis: It was a dope-looking shoe. I never played in low-tops before, so it was kind of scary for me a little playing in a low-top, but it was a perfect fit and lightweight. They felt great!

Loyd: The first time I saw the Kobe 5s, I just remember thinking that they were just so sleek. They were low-top. And all Kobe shoes have a story to them. … So I was pretty excited … knowing there was more to it when you got the shoe. [You had] to look at the details of it and figure out what story Kobe was trying to tell.

Hield: It’s so crazy. The first time I saw the Kobe 5 was when he was in the Finals. … I was just chilling watching the Finals, and it was the white and gold ‘Big Stages’ that he was wearing and I fell in love with them. Kobes have been my favorite shoes ever since then.

The reason why I wear 24 is because in the Bahamas, the area code is 242. But, it was also for Kobe Bryant and that’s my favorite player of all time.

The sneakers worn by Khris Middleton of the Milwaukee Bucks during Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Miami Heat on Sept. 2 at The Field House at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

What were you looking to express through your PEs, and what was it like debuting them in the bubble?

DeRozan: When it comes to me and my Kobes, I’m big on colorways and big on putting a story behind ’em. It’s a process around eight or nine months prior, always the previous season before, where I start putting ideas out there for the next Protro. A lot of times, I ask my kids their favorite cartoon or something we talk about, and I’ll lean towards that type of colorway. We did a [blue and pink] Bubble Guppies for my kids. …

I always had an emotional connection with Kobe, even before I had an actual real-life relationship with him. To be able to have that and be able to say my Kobe PE is releasing and see people go crazy for ’em, or getting a bunch sent to my house for my family and handing them out before they come out and see their reaction, it makes it that much better. Not too many people get the opportunity to have a PE of a Kobe that’s able to be released.

Davis: I’m more of ‘wow’ guy when it comes to shoes. I want them to stand out. I wanted bright colors. It felt great to represent Chicago in a Kobe 5 – two GOATs. It was a great moment.

Middleton: I just tried to get the coolest-looking colorway that would match my uniform. As soon as I got ’em, I called my boys back home and my cousin, and just said, ‘Hey, man, these s— right here, ain’t nobody got these!’ They’re all huge Kobe fans and love ’em. To get the call from my Nike rep to say I was going to be put on the Kobe PE line, I was on a high for a week or two.

Hield: I was talking to my guy from Nike, and he said, ‘Hey, we have these made for you.’ I said, ‘Bro! When are you going to let me make my own colors? Let me make my own.’ You see P.J. Tucker’s colorways and he be so lit. DeMar DeRozan too. Let me design my stuff! So he said, ‘Well, what do you want?’ I knew I wanted a Bahamas one. Something that’s fire, something that’s fresh and something that complements me. The reason why I like these is I get to represent my country and where I’m from. That’s what I’m big on.

Loyd: The PEs I was superexcited to debut were definitely the all-gold Kobe 5s that I wore in the championship game … Nike surprised me with those. We had conversations before about having my own PE and those are all gold. That’s the best way to do it … right in your face. But they represent a lot more. ‘The Gold Mamba’ is what Kobe named me. It’s about my story coming into the league. The gold reminds me of who I am. I’m unique. I’m special. I have a purpose. And I have a reason to be here. That was a constant reminder every time I saw the gold shoes.

I was waiting for a moment to wear them and that was the perfect moment to bring them out in the Finals. … I wasn’t gonna wear them unless it was time to finish people. It was the perfect time. Being in the bubble so long, we were ready to go home. We wanted to finish it. The best way for me to do that was to play hard in those shoes.

Sneakers worn by Buddy Hield of the Sacramento Kings during a game on Aug. 13 at The Field House in Orlando, Florida.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

What was your favorite PE that you saw somebody else wear and why?

DeRozan: [Iguodala’s] were dope. P.J.’s were dope. Paul Millsap, he had some dope ones. AD been killing it, especially in the Finals. He wore some purple PEs, that if they wasn’t in the Finals, I for sure would’ve asked him to send me those. Isaiah Thomas always had some dope Kobe PEs too.

Middleton: Of course, Book’s PEs, DeMar DeRozan and all the ones he had. But Buddy Hield, the Bahamas colorway, that was a really cool color and a really cool concept behind it too. Kyle Korver had some too. He was back and forth between them a little bit, and I tried to sneak into them. I think he wears a 14, and I wear a 15. I tried to practice in his once and they were too small. (Laughs.)

Hield: I love that orange one that Devin Booker wore. That was fire! P.J. Tucker wore some pink and green ones. DeMar DeRozan had some nice ones, and his PEs are always fresh. I need to get the Nike hookup like DeMar, cause he has the best PEs. P.J. and DeMar have the best ones. I saw a nice Philly color that Tobias Harris had too. Iguodala had some nice ones too – the Miami Vice was fire.

I took a pair from [De’Aaron] Fox actually, and they were too small for him, so he never played in them and no one has seen them. But they were one of the freshest ones.

Loyd: The P.J. Tucker ones — those are superfresh. Superunique. A lot of different colors in one shoe. He has a lot of great shoes but those are the ones that I was like, ‘Oh, if I have a chance to get those, lemme get them.’ For me, every PE tells someone’s story. And as much as I wanted to get them, I didn’t really want to rock them, because they’re not my story … they’re his. But those are definitely the ones I was zooming in on when I saw them online.

The sneakers worn by P.J. Tucker of the Houston Rockets during practice as part of the NBA restart on July 17 in Orlando, Florida.

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Do you have a crazy story of tracking down a Kobe shoe?

DeRozan: Nah, because to be honest, every Kobe that came out, I have. (Laughs.) It’s crazy. It’d have to be a WNBA player’s PEs. I saw [Jewell Loyd’s] and them was dope! Other than that, I don’t think I’ve ever had an issue trying to track down any. There’s also some that I got personally from him. He gave me some 1s in the summertime once, and I wore those when I played for Toronto and wore them in Brooklyn. They were all black 1s with the purple 24 on the side.

I also remember I had been to the Nike headquarters [years ago] and I was in the Kobe section and there were some Kobes sitting there that were his that he hadn’t gotten yet. I just took ’em. (Laughs.) I also got some Huaraches that were his, and even when I was in high school, he gave me a couple of the 2s. I remember I got in trouble, because I wore the black and yellow 2s in college and somebody said something and I got in trouble afterwards, saying it was an extra benefit. (Laughs.)

Loyd: Honestly, I never really have that much of a problem. Nike does a great job providing me the shoes that I need. I guess the craziest story was trying to steal [the Kobe 5s] from my brother when they first came out, when I was little. My brother is eight years older than me, so the size of his shoes are dramatically different. I used to try to take his shoes all the time.

Middleton: For those two or three years [Powell] was on the Lakers, I was able to call him and sometimes I’d be able to track ’em down. I’m sure he was getting those phone calls and texts from tons of other people. For some reason, I never got the Fade To Black 5s, and those are the ones I’m still trying to find and get.

Hield: I ordered the [original] Big Stages on freaking StockX. I ended up paying like $3,000 for them. But then, the seller probably recognized my last name, and [canceled my order]. He must’ve said, ‘Well, s—, if he can pay $3,000, I can probably raise it higher!’ So I was like, ‘F— this s— bro! He’s not going to get me.’ I was so mad. I was trying to wear them in the bubble. I thought I had one – they’re hard to find!

Milton: First, you’re going through your plug and you hit them up to see who knows who, who can get you what. Then you might have to go to StockX or the GOAT app. It’s tough to find them. The secret is eBay. You can find some off eBay. When you’re in the sneaker game, you gotta know how to get your hands dirty and start looking.

How is it different playing in Kobes now this year versus before January?

DeRozan: It’s the craziest feeling, even to this day. When I see certain stuff or see old interviews or highlights, every day is a different type of emotion that I deal with. I remember the day that it happened, I remember walking into the arena and getting ready for the game. I was halfway through the arena walking to the locker room, and I got the call. It just felt surreal. You just didn’t know how to process it and what was going on.

That day, we were playing Toronto, and I remember as soon as I sat down in the locker room, I had the Big Stage Kobe 5 Protros and I was going to be the first one to wear those that night. It was just crazy. I remember everything so vividly. From that moment, where I was about to debut the 5s for the first time, just to see how far everything has come to now, it still feels like a bad dream that you’re trying to wake up from.

Middleton: You think about it each time you put ’em on. You think about him, what he’s done for the game and how quickly his life ended. How he played with nothing but grit, heart and he gave it his all. Every time you lace those up, you want to put forth that same effort.

You remember him going through that [sneaker] free agency and wearing a lot of different PEs, especially the Jordan ones. It was kind of cool to see him wear PEs of Jordan shoes, and now other guys are wearing PEs of his shoes. It felt like it was passing down to the next generation, to let people wear their own PE of his own signature shoe. … It speaks to how he was our MJ of today. You feel like you’re in a small little club, and no one can ever buy the pair you’re wearing and they’re basically 1 of 1s.

Loyd: Playing in Kobes after his passing was a constant reminder of what happened. Also a constant reminder of the focus that I needed to have to move forward. Every day was a constant check to see what my goals were, where my focus was and how I wanted to proceed. But also remembering everything that Kobe taught me. Every time I tie my shoes up, every time I put them on, I was reminded of all the conversations we had, the goals that we both set for each other and just trying to remember my why — why I play. It definitely was a shift, before and after, and I think overall [the shoes] kind of helped me refocus and gain another passion for the game.

Hield: You think, ‘That’s Kobe Bryant’s shoe. I’m going to go out there and rep him as best as I can.’ Not play in his name, but have that mindset in the way he tried to be a killer every day. Every athlete, every basketball player and every human is trying to have that mindset.

It means more now [to wear his shoes] because of his passing, but we all know what he meant to this game, what passion he brought and his mindset.

Milton: It was a good shoe back then. It’s still a good shoe now. It’s just now about everything it represents behind it — Kobe being who he was. He was greatness himself, but outside of that, he inspired others to be great within their own right. I think that’s the biggest thing he did and I think that’s the biggest thing the shoe represents — that Mamba Mentality.

I was at one of the Nike basketball camps in college. I remember meeting him. He just sat down and spoke with us. He gave us a few of his words. I always remember thinking to myself, ‘Man, I’m gonna see him again one day and he’s gonna know my name.’ Of course, that day didn’t come. But it was just really cool to be in that presence, see him there and think, ‘Man, I can do this, too.’

The sneakers worn by Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers before Game 6 of the 2020 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat as part of the NBA restart on Oct. 11 at AdventHealth Arena at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida.

Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images

How would you describe Kobe’s sneaker legacy?

DeRozan: It’s going to be up there with Jordan. When it comes to the Jordan line, the Kobe line is going to be the next line that you definitely gotta talk about. From his legacy to how he changed the game of footwear, just like Jordan did beforehand. From one generation, and Kobe doing it for the next, taking the shoe game to a whole different level and pushing the boundaries.

Even how he got to his Nike deal, a lot of people don’t even know how he got out of his Adidas deal and went a whole year [as a shoe free agent]. He was just testing out a bunch of shoes, then the Huarache comes, and then the whole Kobe line breaks out. To have athletes and players backing him from that point on, it’s been crazy.

Loyd: It’s about storytelling. He was very into that. Every shoe told a story of his journey, his success, his passion, his struggles. When he tore his Achilles, the Kobe 9 had the stitch marks on his Achilles. I don’t think that people understand that he was telling his life story through his shoes and hopefully motivating people to continue on, to fight on, to have a mindset, a mentality that he had. … You can literally look at every single shoe and figure out who Kobe was.

Middleton: I really think it changed the shoe game. As far as the shape of the shoes to the low-top, and then even with his high-tops, he did it all. The colorways, like the Grinch, he brought out different colorways, designs and textures on shoes that you really didn’t see before.

I got the text message last week that I was going to be able to get Kobe 6 PEs once they release that line, and I definitely can’t wait to get those.

Hield: He’s top three for sure. It’s not going to be close with Michael Jordan, and a lot of guys have had nice shoes, but he’s top three for sure. Everyone has some crazy different styles, and his styles are all low-tops, except for the 9 and some of the ADs. I think LeBron’s shoes are great, but they’re designed for him. Kobe Bryant’s shoes are designed for everybody.

Milton: For one, he changed the game. And he continued to inspire folks. That’s really what it’s all about, right there. He has an amazing shoe. A great shoe. If you were to design a hooper’s shoe, it would be a Kobe … Kobe did that.

Davis: It was phenomenal before his passing and now they mean so much more. The legacy will always remain.

Aaron Dodson is a sports and culture writer at Andscape. He primarily writes on sneakers/apparel and hosts the platform’s Sneaker Box video series. During Michael Jordan’s two seasons playing for the Washington Wizards in the early 2000s, the “Flint” Air Jordan 9s sparked his passion for kicks.

Nick DePaula is a footwear industry and lifestyle writer at Andscape. The Sacramento, California, native has been based in Portland, Oregon, for the last decade, a main hub of sneaker company headquarters. He’ll often argue that How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days is actually an underrated movie, largely because it’s the only time his Sacramento Kings have made the NBA Finals.