How could the best player in the NBA not have a signature sneaker deal? In the modern era of endorsements for every player from All-Stars to bench-warmers, it’s almost unthinkable that one of the greatest players of all time—in his prime, no less—was out there for an entire season without a signature shoe or even a brand paying him to rep their logo. We’re referring to Kobe Bryant, who during the 2002-03 NBA season was a sneaker nomad, drifting from one brand to the next throughout the season. But this isn’t some strange story of a hero shunned by the powers that be. As it turns out, that drifting wasn’t aimless. It was all by design, as Kobe himself made the decision to leave his footwear sponsor and lucrative contract behind.
Not happy with the direction his adidas signature line was headed, Kobe opted to buy out his contract with the Three Stripes during the summer of 2002, just after winning his third NBA title in a row with the Lakers. You’d think as soon as Kobe left adidas at the height of his stardom he’d instantly sign with Nike, the biggest basketball shoe brand with the deepest pockets, right? Wrong. Part of Kobe’s buy-out agreement stipulated that he wasn’t permitted to sign with another brand for one full calendar year, meaning he’d have to be a sneaker “free agent” for an entire season. After the 2002-03 season, Kobe did indeed sign with Nike to nobody’s surprise, but in the meantime, other brands got to court him—including by supplying special PE colorways—making for the most legendary season of sneakers by any player ever.
NIKE AIR FORCE 1 MID PE
The first non-adidas sneaker Kobe was publicly spotted in after breaking his contract was the pair of white and orange Air Force 1 Mids that he wore during his visit to NYC’s Rucker Park during the summer of 2002. Likewise, the first PE he wore during the ’02-03 season was this Lakers-friendly version of the same shoe.
AIR JORDAN 11 RETRO “CONCORD”
Worn by pretty much every player without a sneaker deal at some point or another, Kobe also broke out the Air Jordan 11, opting for the iconic “Concord” colorway. Wasting no time to wear one of the greatest sneakers ever, Kobe rocked the 11’s during the pre-season, and then for quite a few more games early in the regular season.
NIKE AIR MAX ELITE AND ZOOM TURBINE
Two of the less memorable sneakers Kobe wore early in the season were the Air Max Elite and Zoom Turbine pictured here, each in white and silver general release colorways.
Perhaps more paying homage to Laker great before him Magic Johnson than actually considering Converse as the brand to sign with, Kobe broke out the classic Lakers colorway of the Weapon for a few games. He even wore them to the Teen Choice Awards with a matching Magic jersey (complete with stylish jean shorts).
AIR JORDAN XVII
Air Jordan PE’s are coming up, but before that Kobe wore a couple GR Air Jordans: the Air Jordan XVII in black and the “Copper” XVII+.
REEBOK QUESTION PE’S
The brand Kobe wore that season most heavily other than Nike and Air Jordan was Reebok, who laced him up with a number of awesome PE’s. The first of which we see here: all-black and white/silver colorways of the Question.
On the left is a simple white and black pair, and on the right we see Allen Iverson’s famous signature shoe in Kobe’s rare white and yellow colorway.
AND EVEN MORE QUESTIONS
The Question PE that Kobe wore most frequently during was this clean version in white and purple.
REEBOK ANSWER IV PE’S
AI’s second most famous signature shoe ever was also on Kobe’s feet, with these two awesome white and purple PE’s of the Answer IV.
Kobe also gave AND1 a chance during the ’02-03 sneaker free agency, which for all you younger readers out there, was a legitimate basketball shoe brand at the time. Here we see the AND1 model he wore most, the Game Time, in white and black colorways. He also wore the Desire Mid for just a few games.
AIR JORDAN 7 PE “ROAD”
By mid-season, things really started heating up for Kobe’s sneaker rotation when his Air Jordan PE’s started coming in. The first model he debuted in Lakers colors was the Air Jordan 7, seen here in the “road” black version (this AJ7 would be the only black-based Air Jordan PE for Kobe).
AIR JORDAN 7 PE “HOME”
Just like his black Air Jordan 7’s, but with a home-friendly white leather upper.
AIR JORDAN 3 PE
Jordan Brand took the iconic White/Cement Air Jordan 3 color block and customized it for Kobe with accents in purple and yellow. Drooled over by PE collectors around the world, these are easily one of the most sought-after versions of the always-popular Air Jordan 3.
AIR JORDAN 3 “TRUE BLUE”
For the mid-year festivities at All-Star Weekend, Kobe broke out another Air Jordan 3, but this time it was original “True Blue” colorway to appropriately match the red, white, and blue uniforms. Kobe once again got to duel it out with MJ for the game, but this time he was wearing his Airness’ sneakers.
AIR JORDAN 6 LOW “CHROME”
For one last GR Air Jordan, Kobe broke out the Air Jordan 6 Low “Chrome”, which had just recently dropped at the time. Perhaps some early inspiration for his love for low-tops?
AIR JORDAN 8 PE
Kobe’s third Lakers Air Jordan PE was this Air Jordan 8, which he wore sporadically throughout the regular season before switching to permanently for home games of the ’03 Playoffs.
AIR JORDAN 8 “CHROME”
For whatever reason, Jordan Brand didn’t hook Kobe up with a road Air Jordan 8 PE, but he was apparently set on wearing the shoe for the remainder of the season. So he opted for the “Chrome” 8’s for playoff road games until the Lakers were bounced by the San Antonio Spurs in the 2003 Western Conference Finals.
THE NIKE ERA BEGINS
With the WCF loss to the Spurs, Kobe’s legendary sneaker free agency year was over. But that just means the next era of Kobe’s historic sneaker career was ready to begin. As expected, Kobe signed a deal with Nike promptly after the year since parting with adidas had expired. Kobe soon thereafter partnered with Nike designer Eric Avar to help create the iconic Zoom Huarache 2K4, which would become his unofficial signature model for the 2003-04 season. The pairing of Bryant and Avar would prove to be a match made in sneaker heaven, as the two would go on to imagine and create one of the greatest and most innovative signature basketball shoe lines of all time. Stay tuned for Part 3 of Kobe Bryant’s 20 Year Sneaker Legacy, where we’ll detail the beginnings and early models of the Black Mamba’s Nike era.