Bryant's switch to low-top shoes raises eyebrows
By Ramona Shelburne, Staff Writer
Article Launched: 12/17/2008 12:00:00 AM PST
Mars Blackmon would be rolling over in whatever television grave Spike Lee has buried him in.
But for Lakers star Kobe Bryant, if it's gotta be the shoes ... from now on the shoes gotta be low-tops.
All across Los Angeles, Lakers fans reading that last sentence have probably experienced a moment of heart-stopping panic at the mere thought of the reigning league MVP taking the court in low-tops, which he will do for the first time Friday when he debuts his new Nike Zoom Kobe IV's in the Lakers' game against the Miami Heat.
But before anyone gets too worked up, Bryant would like to point out that this was all his idea, and he didn't make the decision lightly.
"I don't understand how people think I'm going to hurt my ankles in low-tops. I'm still going to tape my ankles," he said. "Low-tops are just one of those things that became taboo. I don't know why.
"Personally, I think high-tops restrict you, because your foot is not moving as naturally.
With a low-top, you'll be able to change directions more, your shoe is lighter, so you're quicker. The key is that your foot will actually be able to move the way it was intended to move. It won't be restricted."
Eighteen months ago, Bryant gathered in a room with a design team from Nike to help brainstorm ideas for the Kobe IV, his fourth signature shoe.
With most NBA stars, these meetings go pretty quickly. The player says what he likes
and doesn't like in a shoe, throws out a few ideas on color and design, then the engineering folks go to work.
But Kobe Bryant is not your average NBA star. He comes to these meetings prepared, having done his research and read the latest literature.
"I know my stuff," he said. "I take shoes seriously because when you play, the game starts with your feet.
"The most important thing we focused on was the calcaneus bone."
"The calcaneus bone," Bryant repeated, laughing a little at this reporter's attempt at pronouncing the word. "It's your heel bone. ... I always thought that other basketball shoes tend to slide around a lot, because when you change directions, your foot slides in the shoe."
Eric Avar, Nike's creative director of performance footwear who has worked with Bryant in designing his shoes in the past, immediately did a double-take.
He was intrigued by the idea, but wanted to make sure Bryant knew exactly what he was getting himself into.
A few other NBA stars had decided to play in a low-top in recent years, most notably Gilbert Arenas and Steve Nash. And many of the all-time greats like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played most of their careers in a low-top.
In his 1990 autobiography "Kareem," Abdul-Jabbar attributed his long, mostly healthy career to wearing low-tops, rather than the more popular high-tops.
"I seemed to know instinctively," he wrote in his book. "That the skeletal system is built to absorb shock and if you bind and immobilize the ankle, the stress just transfers up to the next available join, which is the knee, the great menesis of the basketball player. I was Galileo out there on this, alone in my approach for a long time."
Not anymore. In the post-Air Jordan world, Bryant is by far the most high-profile player to wear a low-top.
In the sneaker world, Bryant deciding to choose a low-top was tantamount to a paradigm shift.
To gather evidence on whether this was a good idea, Avar and his group immediately went into the lab.
"At the lab, we were able to review Kobe making high-speed cuts in slow-motion capture video," Avar said. "Every frame showed that the low profile shoe allowed him to make sharper cuts, while increasing responsiveness."
At 11.6 ounces, the Kobe IV is approximately 20 percent lighter than the average Nike basketball shoe. Avar and his team estimate Bryant runs between two and three miles in an average basketball game. With less weight in his shoes over that distance during an 82-game season, it theoretically will help him maintain his energy well into what he hopes will be another long playoff run.
But what about safety? Will the shoe give as much protection as a high-top for the ankle, by far the most injured part of an NBA player's body?
Bryant said he is confident it will. But so far the reaction has been mixed.
Dr. Brian Donley, an orthopaedic surgeon who specializes in foot and ankle injuries at the Cleveland Clinic and works closely with the NFL's Browns and NBA's Cavaliers, said he found Bryant's decision to go with a low-top shoe "surprising."
"I do agree that a low-top shoe would allow for more natural anatomic motion," said Donley, who is also a spokesperson for the American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society.
"But this is pushing the envelope, allowing more motion in the ankle, which theoretically puts the ankle at more risk for injury."
Donley said there's no specific research to support that statement, making Bryant something of a test case, but that "traditionally the thinking has been that a high-top shoe gives you better support of your ankle and is thought to lessen the chance of ankle sprains.
"What's clearly been shown in the literature," he said, "is that wearing an ankle brace is supportive and protective," while "taping has not been shown to be effective at reducing ankle sprains" despite the widespread "culture of taping" among high school, college and professional teams.
Dr. Larry Kosova works mainly with high-school and college athletes. He encourages his patients to strengthen their ankles and wear braces or tape them before competing.
"I think what you have to point out," Kosova said. "Is that Kobe is taped by professional athletic trainers before every game. Not everyone who buys his shoe is going to have that option."
Bryant remains undaunted and believes he'll prove the doubters wrong. He's been wearing the Zoom IV in practice this season, and a hybrid version of them since April, with no ill effects. In fact, he said he loves the way it feels.
He says he's just as likely to sprain his ankle in a high-top as a low-top because most ankle sprains occur when a player lands on another player's foot.
"If you come down on someone's foot, there's not a lot you can do about it," Bryant said. "I wanted to make sure my foot was locked in, so the shoe almost becomes one with your foot. It just feels like (my) foot has so much more freedom, and is moving the way it was intended to move."
Bryant's shoe will go on sale in China in January, and in the United States and Europe in February.