Shortly after Kobe Bryant retired in 2016, he cemented a five-year deal with Nike that would extend the Mamba’s shoe line well into his retirement. While sneakers deals are typically reserved for active players, extending Kobe was a no-brainer. One of the greatest basketball players of all time, he helped revolutionize on-court sneakers by spreading the gospel of low-top shoes—and his just so happened to be the model worn most frequently by his peers. Michael Jordan is the only other NBA player to sell signature shoes in his post-playing career. Why wouldn’t Nike strike the same arrangement with Kobe? At the time, the five-year deal felt like the first in a series of formalities that would keep Kobe a member of the Nike family for perpetuity. But Bryant’s tragic death in 2020, along with the expiration of that five-year contract earlier this month, has changed the landscape, with ESPN reporting that the Swoosh and Bryant’s estate weren’t able to carve out a new deal. Here’s what that means.
There are apparently a host of reasons for the deal falling through. Vanessa Bryant, Kobe’s widow, told ESPN that t she “was hoping to forge a lifelong partnership with Nike that reflects my husband’s legacy.” Apparently, Nike wasn’t willing to make a deal in perpetuity. The company only hands out those deals on the rarest of occasions. Currently, only LeBron James, Michael Jordan, and soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo have lifetime Nike deals.
The Bryant camp was also allegedly frustrated with the way Nike handled the Lakers legend’s releases after his death, limiting new releases. Because of Kobe’s passing, demand for his shoes only grew—especially among resellers grimly hoping to capitalize on the situation.
This isn’t the first we’re hearing of frustration around availability, either. In December, Nike released pairs of the fan-favorite Kobe 6 “Grinch” colorway that sold out immediately. Vanessa responded on Instagram: “I heard that fans are having a hard time buying Kobe’s online. I reached out to Nike and I wanted to do something cool for fans fto have a better opportunity to get some Kobe’s.” She hinted that she and Nike were working together to allay these issues, but it doesn’t appear anything materialized.
What does this mean for future Nike x Kobe shoes?
For the time being, it looks like manufacturing of all Kobe-related shoes and apparel will be put to a stop, according to ESPN. The contract should allow for a short window during which Nike can release shoes that have already been planned for.
What does this mean for collectors?
The news hit NBA players the hardest Monday night. Lakers players Talen Horton-Tucker and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who both wear Kobes during games, immediately put out the bat signal for more pairs of their favorite shoes. “Whoever can get me any Kobes, I need them,” Horton-Tucker said in a recent postgame press conference.
But even those who don’t rely on the shoes to do their jobs were bummed out by the news. “It’s sad that it’s come to this point at all,” says writer and former SLAM magazine editor Russ Bengtson, who’s slowly been selling off his massive sneaker collection while holding onto his Kobes. Bengtson initially avoided selling his Kobe sneakers because he didn’t want to be part of “the opportunistic profiteering that happens when people die unexpectedly.” News of Kobes going out of production will only serve to fuel resale prices higher.
Bengston notes that Vanessa is clearly thinking about more than a single short-term sneaker deal and more about Kobe’s legacy as a whole. “We will always do everything we can to honor Kobe and Gigi’s legacies,” Vanessa said in her statement to ESPN. “That will never change.”
And Kobe’s legacy with Nike is massive: not only does his name sit atop a best-selling franchise but “the current direction of Nike Basketball in general [has] been driven by a lot of Kobe’s insights into how a basketball shoe should work and what it should look like,” Bengston says, he hallmark innovation obviously being the low-top performance shoe that’s now widely worn by NBA players.
Will there be non-Nike Kobe-branded shoes and apparel?
Before his death, Kobe was reportedly working on starting his own shoe brand. The entrepreneur Shervin Pishevar tweeted in December of last year, “I met with Kobe Bryant in late December 2019. Kobe wasn’t happy with Nike and was going to leave it in 2020. Kobe was going to start Mamba, a shoe company owned by players.” That’s one possible option. The estate can also choose to enter into a deal with a new brand; Kobe worked with Adidas in the past. Key to any new deal is the fact that the Kobe Bryant estate holds the right to his Mamba logo and signature, according to ESPN.
However, those hoping for a reunion between Nike and Kobe shouldn’t lose all hope. “At this point I don’t think the Kobe-Nike split is permanent,” Bengston speculated. He noted that Kobe’s collaborator at Nike, Eric Avar, would likely be best positioned to carry on the legacy of the late player’s sneaker line. More than that, he had a tough time imagining a Kobe Bryant sneaker line free of the obsessive attention to detail that was Bryant’s defining trait: “I can’t imagine Kobe’s estate endorsing another brand—or launching its own line—without Kobe being here to provide his direct input.”