words & images // Nick DePaula
Kevin Durant is not your typical signature athlete. As in, literally, he doesn’t even want his own signature on the shoe. That’s not because he doesn’t appreciate the thought, work and attention to detail from the Nike Basketball team that leads his sneakers, but he’d rather deflect than attract the attention. At all times. He’s also adament that his shoes represent more than just his name, as he and his Oklahoma City Thunder teammates have all taken to wearing them, whether it’s guards like Russell Westbrook and Eric Maynor, or even bigs like Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed.
Now just three years into the process of personalized and custom signature product, Durant and Nike Basketball Design Director Leo Chang are getting more and more familiar with eachother when bouncing off ideas and feedback, and when they set out to begin the process of designing the Zoom KD III nearly two years ago, it was a series of emails and exchanges that helped to shape the new silhouette, technology and direction.
I had a chance to catch up with Leo Chang, Footwear Developer Dolores Thompson and Pro Sports Marketing Field Representative Charles Terrell to hear not only every last point of inspiration and design detail that went into the Zoom KD III, but also to hear a bit about how the team works with KD, how his own approach to the process has evolved through the years and what he’s after in his own, more-we-and-less-me signature shoes.
Check out our in-depth conversation below, and be sure to check back soon for part 2 of our interview with Leo Chang and the Nike Basketball team behind Kevin Durant’s series.
Nick DePaula: Coming off of the KD2, what were some of the main things that you wanted to get after from the start and improve upon?
Leo Chang: We started the process by looking at the KD1 and 2, and we had a lot of story telling details that we created on the outsole, that talked about the hard work that he’s put into his game to get to where he is now, his family, and everything that’s important to him. On the 3, we knew we were going to create a new midsole and a new outsole, and everything head to toe would be new. What do we want this shoe to represent story-wise? How do we evolve his story? Really, that had to come from him. Chuck was great about reaching out to him and getting that information for us. So, what did he say Chuck? [laughs]
Charles Terrell: Well, we’ve had open communication with him from the start, and I think that’s what we’ve tried to keep focusing on with him. Being open and letting him know that he’s apart of the process. The first year he worked with Leo, the second year he and Leo got together more to work on the 2, and now we all feel like we have a rapport with our group, and that made it much more easier for him to elaborate this time around and really give us more details and inspiration. That’s what gave us a head start on things this time around, because he was more familiar with us and with Leo as a designer, and those things being in place is how the 3 began to evolve, and we’re still early on that path and still progressing. He had a big summer, probably a breakout summer for him, and especially also with Nike and the World Basketball Festival, so he’s growing and now the footwear is growing too. The 3 is better than the 2, and we’ll continue to get better.
NDP: What were some of the things that he was pin-pointing that he wanted to see design wise for the 3? Obviously, the strap is gone here.
Terrell: Right away, he said, “No strap. Kobe collar.”
Chang: Here’s actually the email that he sent Chuck. I’ll just read it. [laughs] “Ok, I’ve been thinking that on the KD3, I don’t want a strap!!! I think I want to try the Kobe collar on the shoe, and I want to display my true love and passion for the game, and how much I love the family aspect of the game, and how close me and my teammates are. I also want to incorporate the 62 point game I had down at Berry Farms, and also my love for Keri Hilson.”
Chang: But he also talked about his love for music. We were kind of building off his Velvet Hoop persona at the time [from the Hyperize campaign]. So I asked him what was the difference between him and Velvet Hoop. He said, “Velvet Hoop is different because he’s more the quiet but deadly type, but has a great sense of humor.”
Really, the team thing was huge for him too. As you know, coming off of the Sports Illustrated “Season Preview” cover, he really fought to have his teammates on that cover with him. And he didn’t want just Russ or Jeff Green.
Terrell: Sports Illustrated wanted to do the cover with him. He said, “No, I’ll only do a cover if I have my teammates.” So they said, “Ok, which ones? Westbrook?” He said, “Russell. Jeff. Thabo. Krstic. Me. They‘re all starters, but they don‘t get the credit.” That just kind of speaks to who he is as a person. Sports Illustrated said, “Well, we can’t sell that.” So he just said, “Well, if you want me, that’s how it’s going to happen.” So, they did it. I thought it was great on his teammate’s part to all be wearing the KD2 and KD3 on the cover. He’s supporting them, and they’re also all supporting him right back. It was really cool to see, and it was amazing on his part to do that. And he’s been like that throughout, even in college. He’s always been that way, and it’s the mentality of a different athlete in our stable. He has all of these accolades, but he’s still grounded and about team, and not about “me.” That speaks volumes about him.
Chang: Even when we were in China for the KD Tour over the summer, they went to three cities and he brought James Harden along with him. He brought Russ last time to Taiwan.
Terrell: He just feels comfortable with his teammates always around him, and it’s a win-win for us because they’re other Nike athletes. But it speaks volumes about him and also gives us direction about who he is. In his emails, he doesn’t give us a lot of words, but he’s not standing on top of a table and screaming at us about what he wants either. We have a great communication.
NDP: How often do you guys go back and forth normally when working on a shoe?
Terrell: It could be every three to four months that we check in. We’ll try to check in with him and see what he likes and what he doesn’t like. He’s really good now about telling us what he wants. Just the other day, he hit me up and said, “I want some more color on the court.” Not a problem, we can do that for him. Now, it’s more so from him and what he needs, and we don’t have to always press the button and call him. He’s able to hit us up, and that comes from him being comfortable with us.
NDP: Design wise, the insights were, “No strap. Kobe collar.” Where did that take you Leo?
Chang: He’s still looking at what LeBron is wearing and sees what he has, but Kobe has constantly come up over the years and what he’s worn. He was seeing that Kobe had been going lower, and he was like, “Well, that dude is a champion.” [laughs] We started thinking about the height that he wanted, and lowering it, so he gets a nice range of motion around the ankle. And actually, when we went to LA last year around this time to show him the KD3 sketches and everything, and a super busted upper [laughs], we were in the lobby and Nick Collison actually stopped me and was just chatting with me, cause he loves wearing the 1 and the 2. He said, “What I love about the shoes is that they’re lightweight, but not ridiculously lightweight like the Hyperdunk. They’re light enough, but it’s super stable.”
He was talking about lightweight stability, and that was one of the things that I thought was a great catch for what KD’s shoes should really represent from a performance standpoint. Lightweight stability, because everyone from Russ, Jeff, James and Nick, to KD obviously, all of those guys on that team, all different positions, are going to wear this shoe. In some ways, how do we meet the needs of all of his teammates? If you strip down the shoe too much in weight, you’re gonna lose a lot of the bigger guys. That was one of the key things. We want it lightweight obviously, because we don’t want the guys restricted by bricks on their feet, but we don’t want to overdo that and lose the stability or the confidence that the players have in wearing it.
NDP: Did you carry over the same cushioning platform from the 2?
Chang: Slightly different, because it’s a regular Phylon midsole, versus a lightweight Phylon that we used last year. Last season, he wore two pairs of the KD2 throughout the whole season. A home and an away. [laughs] That was it. And the Creamsicle once, of course.
NDP: Wow. That’s pretty much unheard of.
Terrell: That’s just how he is. He feels comfortable with something and he’ll wear it til they fall off. [laughs] Literally.
Chang: Both technically and cosmetically, the regular Phylon seems to hold up a little bit longer and better.
Dolores Thompson: From a processing standpoint, there’s a little bit more that you can get out of it from a definition perspective in a traditional Phylon than a lightweight Phylon. It’s the same process, but just a different compound and you get more definition.
Chang: Zoom in the forefoot again too.
NDP: Full wide and 6mm?
Chang: Exactly. And he plays on his toes all the time, and we watch him all the time and he barely ever touches his heels on the ground, even when he’s running. We just wanted to be purposeful of where we put technologies in things, because it’s $88.
Terrell: I think that’s a big key. That’s the zone that he requested when he came in. To Leo and his team’s credit, that’s the challenge.
Chang: Gahhh. [laughs]
Terrell: [laughs] Just making a shoe that marketing can get behind, yet still staying true to KD, has been a great challenge that up until this point has been great. I don’t know how it’s gonna go next year. [laughs]
Chang: He pretty much wears his shoe stock. There’s not a lot of customization going on with his shoes, like some other athletes have, so it’s even more important that what we put into his shoes will actually work for him. We’re not sacrificing performance for a ridiculous amount of embellishments or anything. That’s something that DT and I have, since the 2, have been pretty efficient with. When we put the story telling details on there, it’s on the parts of the shoe that need to be there. Like an outsole. You need an outsole, so why not build those details onto that.
Thompson: We’re not putting a lot of extra decorations on the tongue top, or the quarter or the foxing. Everything that is there needs to be there. We just try and embellish it to a point that it’s meaningful for him.
NDP: Some of the details that he definitely wanted carried over from the 2 are his mom’s initials?
Chang: Yeah, he wanted both his mom and dad’s initials and logo to return, the “WP” icon is for Wayne and Wanda Pratt. On the 1 & 2, we had it as a stamp on the inside of the tongue. Here, we’re trying to build more performance into the shoe, so those little extra screenprints will cost money, so that’s now built right into the tool and it’s a permanent thing that you can’t take off of the shoe. That’s definitely important, and there’s even more commitment to having that on the shoe.
When I read the email about what he wanted, there was that whole team aspect and how important that is for him. But I just wondered, “How do I put that on a shoe without being corny and just writing ‘TEAM’ on the shoe?” That’s kind of weird, and has been done before. So I wanted to do something that was a little more clever and creative than that. I was thinking that maybe I could use thunder bolts. One, it speaks to the team, and two, it also talks about energy. The team is so young and they’re full of energy and they get along on and off the court and have great energy when they play. That symbol alone represents them. You have five thunder bolts in the forefoot, and that represents the starting five coming together, and the bigger lightning bolt represents KD as the leader. That’s the long, drawn-out explanation of that. [laughs]
NDP: There’s also the piano keys all throughout the outsole. How did that come about?
Chang: That actually came later, and we were stuck on how we were going to incorporate the music thing and his love of music. Right around that time, we had heard from Chuck that he makes beats on the side, and he just likes making music and listening to music. We didn’t know that he actually made beats, and it was kind of cool that he likes to be the producer in the background. When he said he loves music, we were like, “How do we figure that out and put it in there?” We didn’t want to do musical notes, because that’s been done before too. I was thinking beat machine buttons, but that could really be anything. So I asked him again on one of the trips how we should incorporate that, and he was like, “Well, what about piano keys.” I just said, “Yeah! I can definitely work with that.” So we have that perimeter inside of the outsole, and it’s the perfect place to hide some piano keys in there without being overly corny about it.
Thompson: Leo is masterful at finding real estate for things like that. You’d never think to do something like that, but yeah, it fit perfectly. We also had his signature on the medial side, and he was like, “Can you clean that up and get rid of it?” That just speaks to him wanting to be sleek and not wanting to draw any attention to himself.
Chang: There’s other details too, like the tip of the toe has three stars for DC, and he’s always gotta pay homage to that. On the medial side, on the rubber wrap, you’ll see “Seat Pleasant.” Every time we met with him, he kept saying he wanted more details on the shoes, and obviously, he grew up basically living in the Seat Pleasant Gym. They still have “Kevin’s Corner” there, where he used to nap at and where his grandma brought him lunch and dinner. [laughs] It was important for him, and he wanted to pay homage to that. The controller buttons on the back, that was something from the fact that we knew that he was obsessed with playing video games. He’s just obsessed with playing 2K.
Terrell: All of them. His ritual is he’ll play pre-game. He has to play his 2K before the game. [laughs]
NDP: Does he play as himself?
Terrell: No, not always. They’ll do the random mode where it just stops on a random team and you have to play with them. He has to play some sort of game before he plays. He doesn’t take a nap pre-game like some other guys, so that’s what he does. [laughs]
Chang: And apparently, Chuck was saying that in China, he was undefeated. It was like 200-something people that he had played and he never lost. So obviously, that connection is huge for him, and every controller has four circle buttons like that, so it could represent any of those game systems. It could be an old school Super Nintendo. [laughs]
NDP: What’s going on with this midfoot piece here?
Chang: That, you can tell that the strap is sort of floating and pulls from the upper, and behind it is a longer eyelet whole. That channel allows you to lace into the back row of the eyelet hole, and you could potentially get a little better arch pull if you wanted to have a more snug fit through the arch. That’s something that other categories and products at Nike have done to get more lockdown in the arch, and I thought that was something that could be good for him to have. If each player has a different arch shape, that could help them get a better fit. Everyone’s arches are a bit different, and that’s probably one of the areas of the foot that varies the most, so why not make it more adaptable.
NDP: At what point was it decided that Flywire was going to be incorporated into the 3?
Chang: We wanted to definitely include Flywire from the get go. In the 1 and the 2, we were in a leather zone, and we wanted to really step it up and give him something with technology and innovation.
Thompson: And the timing was right. Flywire and Skinwire had already been in products for a few seasons, and naturally when you’re dealing with innovations at the factory, there’s efficiencies that are realized and the costs and labor that are associated with those technologies tend to come down over time. It became an affordable technology that we could put into the shoe.
NDP: How did the alignments change throughout the process?
Chang: Originally, we started with lines that were a little more angled all in one direction, and with Skinwire, we were finding that it was actually stretching up. So, we had to go back in and add more in a different direction, so that the interlocking of the two could really help to shore that material up.
NDP: Was it something that he had mentioned wanting, or was it something that you guys offered up to him?
Chnag: We had offered it up to him because we just wanted to give him more of a statement to work with. We had been in a leather and synthetic leather zone before, and that just wasn’t good enough for us, and we felt like we could give him the best of our current technologies that we have, again, using it purposefully where you need it for him and players like him. That brought us to focusing on the forefoot area, where you need it for lateral cutting, versus using it all over, which would put us in more of a Hyperdunk price point.