Among the many difficult questions raised by Kobe Bryant’s death in early 2020 was a seemingly prosaic one: What would happen to his shoes? Bryant had long been among Nike’s most successful endorsers, with a signature sneaker line popular not just with fans but his peers in the NBA. His passing seemed to throw all that into flux—and the series of events that followed, including the end of a contract and public acrimony between Nike and Bryant’s family, suggested that Kobe fans wouldn’t find an easy resolution. Last week, though, brought news that Bryant’s estate and Nike would be repartnering to continue production of his signature sneaker line. Effective immediately, Bryant’s sneakers will go back into production.
How did we get here? The friction between the two camps seems to have started well before Bryant’s passing. Allegedly, Bryant had long felt that Nike sidelined his shoes after his retirement, with new installments of the Kobe AD line coming and going with little internal fanfare. In December 2020, the entrepreneur Shervin Pishevar claimed that, prior to his death, Bryant had planned on splitting with Nike when his contract ran out.
Upon his death, Nike suspended all sales of Kobe sneakers until the following August, at which point several new Kobe kicks launched alongside a weeklong celebration of his legacy. A slew of hot retros dropped in the following months, including the iconic Kobe 6 “Grinch.” The whole thing had a strange feel to it, though. For fans, rumored low production numbers led to instant SNKRS sellouts and astronomical resale prices. Kobe’s shoes were in higher demand than ever, but the market seemed ill-equipped to accommodate fans looking to pick up a pair of their hero’s sneakers.
Less than a year later, the Bryant estate opted not to renew Bryant’s signature athlete contract with Nike. In an ESPN story, sources claimed that low production numbers, a lack of availability in youth sizing, and Nike declining to offer the Bryant estate a lifetime contract similar to those given to Michael Jordan and LeBron James fueled the split. For those reasons, the Kobe 6 Protro “Del Sol,” released in June of 2021, would be the last Kobe sneaker Nike made. Later that year, photos of an unreleased and seemingly real Kobe—which Vanessa Bryant herself had helped design, as tribute to her late daughter Gigi—were leaked online. In response, she issued a statement claiming she had not approved the shoe for production, and expressed dismay that they’d made their way toward unknown parties.
With Kobes ranking among the most popular shoes in the league, NBA players who wear them on-court soon found themselves in an arms race to load up. In a recent interview, Chicago Bulls star Demar DeRozan explained that he had to scale back on his habit of giving away his game shoes to fans in the arena, now that they were a finite resource.
In the near future, that shouldn’t be a problem: the revamped Bryant-Nike partnership seems to have some substantial changes, and is rooted in Kobe’s legacy moving forward. Via her Instagram, Vanessa Bryant announced that Nike’s Kobe line will focus on accessibility and youth basketball outreach.
In addition to plans for a youth basketball center in SoCal, Bryant also revealed that the first shoe released under the new partnership will be the “Mambacita” 6—the Gigi tribute she helped design, and the leaked photos of which seemed to herald the end of the Nike-Bryant partnership. All proceeds from the shoe will be donated to the Mamba & Mambacita Sports Foundation, the Bryant family’s nonprofit organization that aims to work with underserved youth athletes. Her post also suggested that annual releasing new colorways might become something of a tradition, with proceeds from sales benefiting the organization. Given Kobe’s dedication to mentoring the next generation of hoopers (and with an eye specifically turned towards encouraging young women in sport), it feels like a fitting conclusion.